Kim Mulkey is a force majeure in women’s college basketball. She will be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in a couple of months; she has won national championships as a player and as an assistant coach and three times as a head coach; she was also part of an Olympic Gold Medal team as a player. Her record as the head coach at Baylor over the last two decades is 632-104 with 3 National Championships and 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances – – not counting 2020 when there was no NCAA Tournament. Her Baylor teams have finished first – or tied for first – in the Big 12 Conference standings for the last 11 consecutive seasons. Kim Mulkey is still looking up at Pat Summit’s achievements in women’s college basketball and at Geno Auriemma’s accomplishments there, but there is no way to deny that she is among the elite coaches in that sport.
It is precisely because one cannot deny her prominence that it is unusual to report that she is leaving Baylor to take the head coaching job at LSU. One might create a story where this is a homecoming of sorts because Ms. Mulkey was born and raised in Tickfaw, LA. [Aside: Tickfaw is about 50 miles east of Baton Rouge and across the breadth of Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans. I present that datum because I had no idea where Tickfaw was; according to Google Maps the nearest town would be Natalbany, LA, which for many of us is three miles from the end of the Earth.] That “homecoming narrative” is enticing and comfortable; it may also be overly simplistic.
Let me make two things clear before I launch into a possible analysis of this situation:
- I do not read minds. I have no idea what the internal motivations of Ms. Mulkey may have been in making this decision.
- I do not know Kim Mulkey from a toaster oven. We have never met; everything I say here is speculation based on “analysis” from afar.
Kim Mulkey took the head coaching job at Baylor in 2000 and her Lady Bears won her first national championship there in 2005. Around that time, Baylor’s athletic department and structure was not exemplary, and her teams were the major source of athletic pride on the campus. In 2007, Baylor hired Art Briles as the head football coach and the Baylor football fortunes improved dramatically. Briles took a football team that was a perennial also-ran in the Big 12 and won the conference title twice in his eight years at the helm. Then came the outrageous scandal involving Briles and the Baylor football program in 2016.
When Baylor dealt with Art Briles as it did, Kim Mulkey took exception to those decisions and that began a situation where she and the folks running the university would not see eye-to-eye on several future issues. But with the football program in disarray and with the men’s basketball team still rebuilding from the disastrous days of Dave Bliss, Kim Mulkey was a force majeure on campus in Waco, TX just as she is in women’s college basketball. Her Lady Bears already had 2 national championships by that time and consistently made deep runs in the NCAA Tournament; she had major influence in the school even though her sport was a women’s sport in a conference where football – clearly a men’s sport – is king.
With all that as a backdrop, Kim Mulkey decided to leave Baylor and her established program there to take the job at LSU where – to be honest – the women’s basketball program has not been particularly successful or important in the past several years.
- LSU’s last conference championship was in 2008.
- Since 2014, LSU has not advanced beyond the first round in the NCAA Tournament and has not been in that tournament at all in four of those six seasons.
So, is the “homecoming narrative” reflective of reality or is it a wonderful feelgood story applied to a highly regarded coach in a less-than-clear situation? I will buy the “homecoming narrative” to some degree but not as an exclusive explanation. Kim Mulkey – in addition to her obvious capabilities as a basketball coach – is not a shrinking violet. She is a person who has definite views on things and has no compunctions about letting the world in on those views. For years, she was the loudest voice in the choir that was Baylor athletics; the university was set to build a new arena for basketball, and she opposed the administration’s plans because she said the arena was too far from the main campus.
Just this year, she “suggested” that the NCAA hold its women’s Final Four without any imposition of COVID-19 testing:
“They need to dump the COVID testing. Wouldn’t it be a shame to keep COVID testing and then you got kids that test positive or something and they don’t get to play in the Final Four? So you just need to forget the COVID tests and get the four teams playing in each Final Four and go battle it out.”
Of course, the NCAA ignored that “suggestion” recognizing that it should not be in a position to loosen health and safety protocols at the 11th hour with the potential for some athletes to contract COVID-19 in those final weekend games. I mention this only to demonstrate that Kim Mulkey is not afraid to take controversial stances on issues.
However, I do think there are three other ripples in the pond here that may have had influence on her decision to move from Waco ,TX to Baton Rouge, LA:
- Baylor football made a dramatic comeback under Matt Ruhle going 11-3 (with a loss in the Sugar Bowl) in 2019. At Baylor, football will always be a bigger deal than women’s basketball.
- Depending on the report you read, Mulkey will get a nice raise based on the move from $1.5 – 1.8M per year at Baylor to $2.7M per year at LSU.
- Baylor men’s basketball just won the NCAA Tournament championship. Yes, Mulkey’s Lady Bears won 3 NCAA titles – as recently as 2019 – but this year’s title for Scott Drew and the men portends a recession in the pecking order for Mulkey and the Lady Bears on campus.
Only Kim Mulkey will ever know the full story of why she has chosen to make this move; I certainly do not claim to have insight here. However, the convenient “homecoming narrative” has a few potential tears in the fabric and they are sufficiently obvious to me that I look at the decision and simply say:
- I hope all of this works out for Kim Mulkey and for LSU and for Baylor University.
Finally, apropos of nothing, here is an item from Dwight Parry of the Seattle Times from a few weeks ago:
“A stray dog who stole a player’s cleat and ran onto the field, interrupting a soccer match in Bolivia, has been adopted by Tigre player Raúl Castro — the one who caught the dog and carried him off the field.
“In a related story, they’re still waiting for someone to step forward and claim the Super Bowl streaker.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………