Natalie Caldwell remembers coming home from middle school to find out her father had been fired.

It wasn't pretty for Jim Caldwell at Wake Forest. He tried real hard and worked long hours in Winston-Salem, N.C., but took over as head coach of the Deacons just as Florida State was entering the Atlantic Coast Conference as a national power. The thoroughly likeable Caldwell compiled a record of 26-63 over eight seasons from 1993-2000. He won only 12 ACC games.

"To most people, that would be the end of their career," said Natalie Caldwell, a 2008 Charleston Southern University graduate and former basketball player. "But he came home and said, 'Hey, we're going to be OK.' He let us know God would take care of us."

The vivid layer of hope spread over struggle stuck.

"I had injuries at Charleston Southern," Natalie said. "I thought that might be the end of my life, that I couldn't play basketball. But I remembered back to my dad's circumstance and knew God would take care of me. I saw my dad hold his head high. I had seen how to handle adversity."

Now look.

The same Jim Caldwell is a rookie NFL head coach, and his Indianapolis Colts are in the Super Bowl. Natalie Caldwell plans to be there on the sidelines in Miami on Feb. 7 when Peyton Manning and pals face the New Orleans Saints, just as she was last week in Indianapolis when the Colts defeated the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game.

"It's amazing," she said. "I had to stop and take it all in after the game last week. This is something we've been praying for, first for my dad to get an opportunity to be a head coach. We never imagined he would be so successful and go this far this first year. It's truly been a blessing for my whole family, and him especially."

In the on-field madness of joy and confetti, father and daughter had to postpone a big hug.

"I just said 'Congratulations,' " Natalie said. "He knew from the smile on my face how proud I was of him. He had to hurry up to the podium for the interviews, but that quick gesture said a lot."

Leadership qualities

Caldwell completed her CSU basketball career as the second-leading scorer on the 2007-2008 team. After a brief pro basketball stint in France, she lives in Winston-Salem and works for Nike, helping with basketball training and camps. She keeps in close touch with the Buccaneers' basketball program and planned to use the Internet to track the progress of today's game at Presbyterian College.

At CSU, Caldwell earned a reputation as a tenacious competitor with steady leadership skills.

Much like her father.

"His coaching style is not too much different than he is as a person," Natalie said. "A lot of people ask me, 'Is he really that serious at home?' To me, he's the same way at home as he is when I see him in interviews. He's not so much quiet, but he mostly keeps to himself and he's a very faithful guy."

Former CSU head coach Stephanie Yelton, now an assistant coach at Boston College, signed Caldwell out of Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem. Yelton had worked at Wake Forest when Jim Caldwell was the football coach.

Back to Miami

Caldwell managed to lead Wake Forest to a pair of victories over Clemson at Death Valley. Partly because those 1993 and 1998 losses were so unacceptable to Clemson administrators and fans, the school replaced its head coach after both seasons (from Ken Hatfield to Tommy West, and from West to Tommy Bowden).

But Tony Dungy believed.

After being dismissed at Wake Forest, Caldwell joined Dungy's Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 2001 season and followed Dungy to Indianapolis in 2002. Natalie attended her first Super Bowl in January of 2007, the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Bears, also in Miami.

She is ready for a triumphant return, autographed blue Peyton Manning jersey and all.

"I was pretty pumped up about being on an NFL sideline," Caldwell said. "To look just over to the left and see my dad coaching his team was just one of the best experiences I've ever had."

At least until Super Bowl Sunday in Miami.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5593.