Kim Mulkey’s legacy at Baylor couldn’t be simpler: she made women’s college basketball matter in Texas. As she departs from Waco after 21 seasons to become the head coach at LSU, what could be more satisfying than that?
She elevated the women’s game into the daily conversation by winning three national championships and a dozen Big 12 titles while compiling a breathtaking 632–104 record at Baylor. She brought fans into arenas, got her teams on the front pages, and showed every other athletics director in Texas that women’s hoops could be an important part of the fabric of every campus. For coaches in the state, Mulkey’s success was the rising tide that lifted other boats—if not for her accomplishments at Baylor, Texas and Texas A&M probably wouldn’t have thrown big money at Vic Schaefer and Gary Blair, respectively.
Mulkey, 58, would be the first to say that Title IX regulations helped women make strides with facilities. But what women’s college basketball is today—every bit as exciting as the men’s game, and with a fervent following—can’t just be attributed to changes in the law. It also took coaches like Kim Mulkey, who’d played and coached through an era when women’s athletics programs were treated like afterthoughts, to fight relentlessly for fairness.
She arrived at Baylor as a first-time head coach in 2000, during a period when the school had nothing going in sports. It didn’t take long for Mulkey’s teams to ignite the campus with their furious playing style and their coach’s indomitable personality. She won her first national championship in her fifth season (2005), another in 2012, and a third in 2019. In a sport dominated by a handful of traditional powerhouses—Tennessee, Connecticut—she lifted Baylor onto the national stage and women’s basketball into the hearts and minds of plenty of Texans who hadn’t given it a second thought.
Mulkey’s relentless style—“brutal honesty” is her description—garnered the respect of coaches in every sport and business leaders in an assortment of industries. All of them admired her single-mindedness, attention to detail, and raging competitive fire. As former Baylor football coach Grant Teaff said: “That woman could coach my sport.”
She rubbed plenty of people the wrong way over the years, and some at Baylor may not be sorry to see her go. That surely factored into her decision to return to Louisiana, where she grew up and where she won back-to-back national championships as a player at Louisiana Tech. Mulkey never denied that she could have sharp elbows. “I’m giving everything I have,” she explained to the Portland Tribune in 2016. “I want everybody around me to give everything they have.”
Here’s the statistic that brings Mulkey the most pride: she has never been part of a losing team. Not during a playing career in high school and college. Not as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech. Not as a head coach at Baylor. That’s 45 years of basketball in small gyms and huge arenas. At Hammond High near her hometown of Tickfaw, Louisiana, where Mulkey started in 1976 as a freshman point guard, her teams went 136–5 and won four straight state championships. Her Louisiana Tech teams were 130–6 and won national titles in 1981 and ’82. She won gold medals as a member of Team USA at the 1983 Pan American Games and 1984 Olympics.
Once, when a reporter attempted to calculate her overall win–loss record, she added: “We had an undefeated season in eighth grade.”
Mulkey’s players knew few things in her life were more important to her than winning basketball games. She communicated that by holding them accountable to make every practice, every weight-lifting session, and every play on the court matter. Only the great ones have this gift—obsession?—that makes them approach every day like another competition to be won.
“What really makes our team so great, [is] her passion rubs off on us,” former Big 12 player of the year Nina Davis once said. “She teaches us that losing is unacceptable. We pretty much have that same mindset.”
Waco Tribune-Herald columnist Brice Cherry recounted a conversation in which he told Mulkey: “Kim, you wake up in the morning and say, ‘Who can I beat today?’” She took that as the highest form of flattery and shot back: “How do you think I won all those national championships?”
This is what Cherry wrote next: “LSU, that’s what you’re getting. A coach who refuses to lose. A coach who will sweat, scream, cry, holler, throw a jacket, challenge, recruit, teach, push, prod, and fight for every victory, no matter how small. Because no win is small to Kim.”
ESPN’s Trey Wingo, a Baylor alum, tweeted: “Kim Mulkey is the single greatest coach in the history of Baylor University. This is not a debate nor an opinion.. it is a statement of fact. If she chooses to leave and head home to Louisiana.. Baylor fans should thank her and wish her well. What she accomplished was remarkable.”
As demanding as she could be, her players also knew she cared about them in the most essential way—as people. That was clear when she wept upon seeing dozens of former players show up to mark her five-hundredth career-coaching victory in 2017. In the end, though, she prided herself on not asking her players to pay a price she was unwilling to pay herself. When she first started coaching, she would occasionally jump into practice and show her players how to take a charge.
“And then I realized quickly, ‘You’re going to get hurt. Stop,’” she said.
Her language was salty and she never gave an inch. Mulkey understood her aggressive sideline demeanor could be open to all kinds of interpretations, and she was rarely shy about explaining her actions. “I have pride about me,” she said in 2016. “I want everything associated with my program to be the best. I want the administration to be the best. I want the fans to be the best. I want the cheerleaders to be the best. I don’t want to be embarrassed by anything. That’s just something you’re born with. It’s sometimes misinterpreted, but it’s not personal.”
That singular focus sometimes got her into trouble. Her emotional defense of Baylor University while the school’s football team was embroiled in a horrible sexual assault scandal was misplaced. Likewise, when Baylor was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament last month, she urged an end to COVID-19 testing so as not to jeopardize the Final Four games.
Those incidents make Mulkey come off as someone who’s tone deaf to larger issues. But she’ll also say: “The one thing I don’t tolerate is missing class, abusing your scholarship. And that does go back to how I was raised. You can stay in my doghouse a lot longer if you don’t take care of your business in the classroom.”
In recent years, the victories and championships and milestones have piled up, culminating in Mulkey’s entry in 2020 to the Basketball Hall of Fame. (Last year’s ceremony was canceled due to the pandemic, so Mulkey and the rest of the hall’s class of 2020 will be formally inducted next month. Michael Jordan will be her presenter.)
And with those honors, Mulkey has occasionally allowed herself to slow down and reflect on her career. “I think about . . . how fortunate I was to be around the best in the business that impacted my life, both as a player at Louisiana Tech and as an assistant coach there,” she said last year. “And, I think about my players a lot. I think about the ones that took a chance when we didn’t have a product to sell. . . . They opened doors for us as a staff to get into recruits’ homes.
“And then winning the championship so quickly like we did. And then the community embracing women’s basketball. It’s been a remarkable, consistent run.”