Nicki Collen had pretty much zero interest in coaching the Baylor women’s basketball team when she agreed to sit down with the school’s search committee. It was the spring of 2021, and she was about to begin her fourth season as head coach of the Atlanta Dream. Her family loved living in Georgia, and she loved working in the WNBA.

Collen says she’s still not certain why she agreed to the interview. The Dream ownership had changed, but her new bosses had already mentioned extending her contract.“I had a job I liked, I had a staff I liked, I had a team I liked,” she told me in a recent interview. “But I just felt like it was time to listen, see what they were looking for.”

She went into the meeting without stressing over the outcome and even told one of her daughters she’d be done in time to keep their brunch date. Eight hours later, there had been no brunch and Collen was at the beginning of what has turned into a love affair with Baylor University.

She texted her husband, Tom: “You should Google Waco.”

Sitting in a meeting room next to her office on the Baylor campus, with her dog, Scout, roaming the halls and players and coaches coming and going, Collen took a stab at identifying what impressed Baylor’s search committee and athletic director Mack Rhoades during that first encounter. “I’m sure a lot of people came in with really fancy, glossy presentations,” she said. “I showed up with some film broken down and a week’s worth of practice plans printed out.

“I think the best way to show who you are is to just talk to them, answer their questions, talk about your philosophies,” she added. “I’m not going to try to be anybody I’m not at this point in my life anyway, so it was an easy conversation. I mean, I’m a talker, but I’m also a listener.”

Rhoades told me that Collen came across as smart, confident, and opinionated. Her basketball IQ, he said, was “off the charts.” The search committee knew from Collen’s coaching track record that her teams competed hard, featured an emphasis on three-point shooting, and played an entertaining brand of hoops. They knew, too, that her demeanor at practices and in huddles was that of a problem solver more than a fire-breathing motivator.

Beyond those basic qualities, though, something else struck the Baylor representatives. “It was obvious she was invested in her players as people,” Rhoades said.

At some point in the interview, Rhoades and other members of the search committee began making eye contact. They were convinced that this coach would be the best choice for the unenviable task of replacing Kim Mulkey, one of the greatest coaches ever in women’s basketball. Mulkey had won three national championships in 21 seasons at Baylor and elevated the program into the sport’s elite cadre of perennial contenders. She was more than a coach at Baylor. She was, at times, the face of the university’s entire athletic department, if not the school itself. She had an outsized presence, was never afraid to step on toes, and owned a game-day wardrobe as loud as her personality.

Mulkey’s departure for LSU in 2021 meant her presence would hover over her successor’s every move. The shadow Mulkey cast over Waco grew even larger last year, after the coach led LSU to the national championship in her second season. Rhoades called Mulkey’s legacy “the gorilla in the room” and asked her potential replacements about the issue, “to see how they reacted.” Nicki Collen? Bring it on.

“I guess I’m fearless,” she said. “I think that’s a gorilla looking over your shoulder. It’s like there’s a ghost, but the ghost is also real. I can’t live in a space where I’m competing against the ghost of Kim here at Baylor. I can’t do that. I also am competing against Kim at LSU because we’re recruiting in the same region.

“She’s had so much success and has this reputation,” Collen went on. “I do think it’s the unique challenge here. I mean, people can’t wait for the NCAA to put us in the same bracket [in March Madness]. I know there’s that. But I took this job at a time in my life where no one’s expectations were gonna be bigger than my own. I was confident enough in who I am as a human but also as a coach.”

Baylor has a combined record of 70–26 in Collen’s three seasons in Waco, and the 22–6 Bears appear headed toward a third straight appearance in the NCAA tournament this year. Collen has built her own version of the program through high school recruiting and transfers while earning the trust of her players and the admiration of her bosses.

Rhoades recently took a telephone call from a prominent Baylor alum saying that he was writing Collen a note to let her know he appreciated how she handled the job. “That cloud of Kim,” Rhoades said, “I think that’s been really hard, especially with all the outside voices. She’s been really strong and confident in the way she’s navigated all of that. [She] continued to be respectful, but [she also made it clear that], Hey, this is the way we’re going to do it.”

The Bears currently sit at number 21 in the AP Top 25 poll, and the team leads the Big 12 in victories over ranked teams, with six. Only five other teams in the country have that many. Baylor’s 75.7 points per game is fourth in the Big 12, despite none of the team’s players being among the league’s top twenty individual scorers. But six Bears, led by forward Dre’Una Edwards (11.9 points) are averaging at least 8 points per contest.

To watch Collen on the sidelines during games—a bundle of energy, alternately pleading, encouraging, and correcting her players—and then to hear her athletes describe playing for her, is to understand why Baylor has been so pleased with the decision to hire her.

“I think what people might forget is this is a different environment,” Rhoades said. “Not only is Nicki coming in and trying to replace a legend, but now this space has been flipped upside down with name, image, and likeness, transfers, and all that. What I appreciate most is that Nicki has never, ever used that as any type of excuse.”

“She knows the moments when she has to get into us and when to pull back,” senior guard Sarah Andrews said. “She knows when we need that extra push, and she knows when we need that ‘Hey, we’re fine, we’ve been here before.’ Not all coaches can say they have that. Some coaches are just—boom, boom, boom—[they] just keep coming at you.”

Coaching was not on Collen’s radar when she finished playing college ball in 1997. She’d started her career at Purdue University, then transferred after two seasons to Marquette. After basketball, she accepted a job with Motorola and planned to live in the Chicago suburbs. That’s when her future husband, Tom Collen, then the head coach of women’s hoops at Colorado State, called and urged her to interview for an opening on his coaching staff.

“I’d turned him down once,” she remembered, “and he said, ‘You need to come out here and interview.’ I went out there, and just being back out on the court, being back in the weight room with the girls, it was like ‘Whoa, this just isn’t out of my system yet.’

“I fell in love with basketball in the fifth grade, and it was kind of my only love for a really, really long time,” Collen continued. “I’ve always said there are very few things I’m super confident about. I’ve got three kids, and every day of their life I’m like, ‘I hope I don’t screw this up too badly.’ Basketball is the one thing that I feel like I confidently know. I love teaching the game. I can teach it. I can make it simpler.”

She married Tom Collen that first season in Colorado, and the couple has three children, two of whom are now students at Baylor. She would also be part of his coaching staff at Louisville and Arkansas before joining the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun as an assistant coach in 2015. Three years later, Atlanta offered her its head coaching job.

“Toward the end of our interview, it turned into convincing her that Baylor’s a great place,” Rhoades said. “She had a blend of confidence, but great humility. Extremely smart. Very thoughtful questions. . . . I think she wanted to know, Is there still going to be that same commitment to women’s basketball now that Kim’s left?

“We made sure she understood that women’s basketball is really important to this institution, and we’re gonna continue to resource it at a high level,” Rhoades said. “Academics, support staff, all of it. Honestly, I think she wanted to know that we care about our student athletes.”      

Shortly after leaving the meeting, Rhoades called Collen. “I’d like to formally offer you the job,” he told her. “Is there a place we can meet face-to-face?” Collen flew back to Waco with the Baylor search committee, and in her introductory news conference, she made it clear that she would not attempt to be Kim Mulkey.

“I won’t be Kim,” she said. “I don’t know exactly how Kim does it, but I probably won’t do it like Kim. I’ll do it in a way I’m used to. We’ll probably even do things differently on the basketball floor.”

In the years since, Collen has come to embrace Baylor in ways large and small. “I think our Christian mission is unique,” she said. “I think it’s being unapologetic about talking about a Christlike approach. You know, to me, if Jesus is washing his disciples’ feet, then my job is to understand when to lead and when I need to serve. It’s something we get to openly talk about here. We pray multiple times a day with our group. In a time where there’s never been more turmoil in college athletics and where we’re headed, what’s our perspective? I think it’s what keeps us grounded.”

One of the first congratulatory text messages Collen received after accepting the Baylor job came from Brittney Griner, the school’s greatest ever player. After turning pro, Griner had become estranged from Baylor and had a tense relationship with Mulkey, who had asked her to keep her sexual orientation private during her time in Waco.

Griner obliged, publicly coming out as gay only after finishing her Baylor career. Mulkey declined to offer words of support when Griner was detained in Russia in February 2022 on drug-related charges. This season, at Collen’s urging, Baylor invited Griner back to campus and retired her number, 42.

“I look out my office window at the retired jerseys, and the greatest player in Baylor women’s history is not on there,” Collen explained. “It just didn’t add up. I knew there was a rift. Anyone who pays attention to women’s basketball, truly pays attention, knew was a BG–Kim Mulkey issue, and that there was a reason her jersey wasn’t retired here.”

Griner never asked that her number be retired, never even asked to be invited back. “She told me that from the beginning, it was more about being able to be on campus, walk the hallways,” Collen said. “She was so emotional about it. She’s like, ‘All I’ve wanted is to feel like I’m still a part of this program.’ ”

As for current players, Andrews began her Baylor career under Mulkey and chose to remain at the school after the coaching change because Collen’s WNBA experience could help her play at the next level. “That’s where I want to be at the end of the day,” Andrews said. “I knew she cares about us and about our life after basketball. It’s about creating and making us into women overall, on and off the court. That’s who Nicki is.”