Biker coaches on the road again

Holly Warlick had second thoughts about the route she picked for the 2010 edition of the "TaTa Tour" – a trip to New York and back – after a regular rider recommended she buy heated gloves, but she has never had a doubt about getting on a motorcycle and traveling thousands of miles with Nikki Caldwell to raise awareness about breast cancer.

Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell, who are college basketball coaches when not assuming alter egos as biker chicks on Harleys, departed Knoxville on Saturday afternoon for the first leg of the trip to Virginia.

The target is Niagara Falls, and they will return to Knoxville next Saturday after stops up and back in Roanoke, Va., Washington, D.C., New York City, Syracuse, N.Y., Erie, Pa., and Cincinnati, Ohio.

The "TaTa Tour" is part of Warlick and Caldwell's foundation, Champions for a Cause, which raises money for breast cancer research and to help those currently fighting the disease.

The two coaches and best friends – Warlick is the associate head coach at Tennessee and Caldwell, a native of Oak Ridge, is a former Lady Vol and the head coach at UCLA – are making their fourth motorcycle ride after previous trips from Berkeley, Calif., to Knoxville; Key West, Fla., and back, and New Orleans and back.

During the rides they have endured temperatures of nearly 120 degrees in the Mojave Desert and then relentless rain last year, but both coaches said it pales in comparison to the ordeal of breast cancer patients.

Warlick did raise her eyebrows at the suggestion of heated gloves for this year's trip – the Atlantic Coast corridor should bring much cooler temperatures than those in East Tennessee, though the Knoxville area dipped into the 40s this weekend – and she heeded the advice and bought a pair for herself and Caldwell.

"I don't know how cold it's going to be. Warlick, she's so soft sometimes," Caldwell joked. "She was like, ‘Caldwell, I've got us these heated gloves.' "

Warlick laughed at the remark but noted that her motorcycle counterpart readily accepted the gloves.

"We're ready for any type of weather," Caldwell said. "We've got places to go and people to see, no matter if it's cold or rainy, we're still going to be on our Harleys and making this ride the best ride we possibly can."

The two coaches were decked out Saturday in blue jeans and matching "Cruisin" T-shirts and studded black belts with skull and crossbones. With black and pink bandannas on their heads, they may not be biker chicks but they were doing their best to look the part for the trip.

They even had wallets on a chain for their back pockets – Caldwell had been stashing her wallet in a purse in a satchel on the bike – and Caldwell laughed when asked if it really was a mini-makeup kit for the road.

An entourage of nine other riders plus a support staff inside an RV will make the weeklong trip before returning to Knoxville for a welcome back party at 3 p.m. next Saturday at the Wild Wing Café off Campbell Station Road at Interstate 40/75. The group includes some hardcore Harley riders who double as guardians on the road.

"We've got a great group of guys," Warlick said. "They make it easy for us and safe. It's as safe as you can get on a motorcycle."

Both coaches met with local media before departing Knoxville with an escort from the Knox County Sheriff's Department's motorcycle division and laughed about traveling north in the spring after two previous excursions to warm locales in Florida and Louisiana.

"We did not think it through before we did it," Warlick said. "We wanted to go somewhere we hadn't been. I didn't realize it was still going to be cold. We thought it would be like this weather (in Tennessee). It's going to be cold. When I found out we had to have heated gloves, I said, ‘You have got to be kidding me.' We've got a lot of warm stuff. We're prepared."

The trip features tours of the National Institutes of Health in Washington and West Point in New York and a Cincinnati Red baseball game on the final leg home through Ohio. On Tuesday morning, the group will be outside the studio for "Good Morning America."

"That is huge," Caldwell said. "We'll be on Tuesday at 8:30."

"Don't blink," Warlick said. "We're going to say, ‘Hi,' and then they pan out."

"They said, ‘Bring your bikes out,' so we'll have all 11 bikes out," Caldwell said. "Holly and I will both be miked. It's great they gave us that opportunity."

"I don't care if it's five seconds; it's national exposure," Warlick said. "(GMA co-host) Robin Roberts has been very kind to us to put us on. We're thrilled, and we're very thankful. She's a breast cancer survivor, so she understands what we are trying to do."

Tennessee is out of school for the summer break, and the Lady Vols concluded their final basketball workouts two weeks ago. But UCLA is on a quarter, not semester, system, and the Bruins are still in school. When Caldwell was hired by UCLA two years ago, she stipulated in her contract that she would be able to leave for a week in May for the "TaTa Tour" ride.

"UCLA knew when I took the job that I was an advocate of finding a cure for breast cancer and furthering research for it so they have been very supportive," Caldwell said. "We're in individual workouts so my staff is back there working out the team. They, too, are passionate about breast cancer. Every year we are going to do this ride. We both love being on our motorcycles and it gave us a great way to see the country. It's gotten bigger and better every year."

The coaches were assistants and close friends at Tennessee when they first conceived the idea of the ride by noting they had always wanted to take motorcycles cross-country. They decided the inaugural ride would be from Berkeley, Calif., to Knoxville in September 2007 to coincide with the Vols playing football at Cal. But, by then, fall basketball workouts would be underway so they needed to convince Head Coach Pat Summitt that two assistant coaches could be away for a week.

"Do you think Pat will let us take off?" Warlick said of their first question. "We got her at a good moment. I think it was after a win (the previous spring when Tennessee won the national title). We were thinking about going on a bike ride, can we go, OK, bye."

When the group returned for a welcome-back party in Knoxville after the inaugural ride, Summitt joked that she and Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood had hired two new coaches to replace the wayward ones. Now, Caldwell has to slip away from her UCLA team to make the tour.

"I told Nikki if she didn't do this anymore I would understand, but she's going to do it," Warlick said. "We're both going to do it. We love doing it, and it's a week for us to spend together. We sit and talk about things outside of basketball."

"We've become very, very good friends," said Warlick, who added tour organizers set up separate hotel rooms for riders on the various stops on the trip, but the pair would spend the entire time together anyway so they wanted to share a room.

The friendship also extends to the basketball court, even though Tennessee and UCLA now play each other. The Lady Vols will travel to Los Angeles in the 2011-12 season to coincide with a West Coast trip to play Stanford.

"If something happens here, I'll call her, and I've talked to her about her team," Warlick said.

Caldwell was the Pac-10 Coach of the Year this past season and guided the Bruins into the NCAA Tournament, where they reached the second round before falling to No. 1 seed Nebraska. UCLA finished the season with a 25-9 record and No. 23 ranking in the final coaches' poll in April. Caldwell was the first coach in Bruin women's basketball program history to win conference honors.

"You never set out and say, ‘I want to be coach of the year.' You want to be team of the year," Caldwell said. "But that's just a tribute to my staff and how great they've been in preparing this team. It's a tribute to my players for really working hard in the off-season last year, and it paid off for them. I am very humbled by the award. We are trying to be the team of the year nationally and in our conference as well."

The 15-3 slate in conference play marked the most Pac-10 wins in school history in a single season, and the team held opponents to a school-record low scoring average of just 57.5 points per game.

"I think the next step for us is to be better than we were last year, and we do that through daily improvement," Caldwell said. "I've got most of my nucleus coming back so I am very excited about that. I've got three great incoming first years who should contribute immediately.

"We're a team that is not necessarily rebuilding. We're building. We're trying to establish ourselves on that national level, and they did it last year and we're going to continue to keep that momentum going."

Caldwell's mother, grandmother and aunts were at Saturday's send-off event, so the timing of the trip on Mother's Day weekend was perfect for the West Coast resident.

"It's always good to come back home," Caldwell said. "I miss the trees. You get a lot of greenery here that you don't necessarily get to see in LA, and plus, you don't have all the traffic. I do live close to the beach, but it's always good to be back here to see family and friends."

Warlick joked that for the right money she could be lured to the West Coast for a spot on Caldwell's staff.

"I am very proud of Nikki," Warlick said. "I knew she was going to be a great head coach."

Caldwell noted that she already has the inside track to the recruitment of Lailaa Williams, the nearly 1-year-old daughter of Shelden Williams and former Lady Vol Candace Parker, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA.

"I've already told Candace and Shelden that I baby-sit her, change her diaper, she spit up on me," Caldwell said. "She and I already have a very, very close bond, and I've already offered her a national letter of intent."

The coaches were in a lighthearted mood on Saturday – they sang "Kiss," "Mustang Sally," and "Rocky Top" for the fans and diners on the outside deck at Wild Wing Café. But they also know how serious their cause is and how much needs to be done.

"I've been on the Big Orange Caravan and I've asked, ‘How many people have been touched by breast cancer?' " Warlick said. "Afterwards at every stop I had two or three people come up and say, ‘I'm a survivor.' We want to make sure we continue that research.

"I think it gets better every year. It's all about raising money for a great cause. Nikki and I both started this, and we're going to continue to do it. You always want to give back to the community, and Nikki and I chose to do it with breast cancer (awareness). My grandmother passed away from breast cancer, and Nikki has had family (battle the disease) and (former) Lady Vols have had breast cancer. It's something we're passionate about."

Caldwell noted, "It also puts everything in perspective. As coaches we're always competing and going after national championships and what you realize is that there are people fighting to see another day.

"Whatever we're able to do as far as raising money and awareness to extend the longevity of someone's life then it's our duty when you look at how fortunate and blessed we have been. We use basketball and we use all our relationships to help further this cause."

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