After a week of speculation about whether coach Kim Mulkey would stay at the Baylor Lady Bears program she built into a powerhouse or go to one that needs its luster restored, the women’s basketball world got the answer Sunday: Mulkey is headed to her home state of Louisiana, replacing Nikki Fargas as the LSU Tigers‘ head coach.
But like a pebble tossed into the water, Mulkey’s move brings a ripple effect. Except it’s more like a boulder hitting the water. Her decision to leave Baylor after 21 seasons and three national championships has a major impact on two Power 5 conferences and provides a second act as a head coach for Mulkey, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame next month.
Mulkey is one of the biggest personalities in college sports. She’s known for speaking her mind, which at times has created controversy, whether it was suggesting a Final Four without COVID-19 testing last month or defending Baylor following a sexual assault scandal involving the school and its football program in 2017.
But whatever she did or said, Baylor fans always seemed to have her back. They loved her, and for good reason. She lifted their program from irrelevancy, having never made the NCAA tournament, to being a consistent national championship contender. Mulkey became iconic to her program at Baylor, just as UConn‘s Geno Auriemma (11 NCAA titles), the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee (eight) and Stanford‘s Tara VanDerveer did. Mulkey and VanDerveer are the only other Division I women’s coaches with three or more national championships. Auriemma is 67 and VanDerveer, whose Cardinal won the 2021 NCAA title earlier this month, will be 68 in June. It seems inconceivable that either would leave for another job.
Some likely thought the same about Mulkey, who turns 59 in May. But Mulkey grew up about 50 miles from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home of LSU. Mulkey’s son, Kramer Robertson, played baseball for the Tigers. Her daughter, Makenzie Fuller, has been on Mulkey’s staff at Baylor. Both Makenzie and Kramer were born in Ruston, Louisiana, when Mulkey was on Louisiana Tech‘s staff.
This has been called a homecoming for Mulkey, but there also has been speculation that she might have been frustrated with the Baylor administration over issues such as whether the new basketball arena will be built on campus.
Mulkey is scheduled to speak with the media Monday and is expected to address why she decided to make such a monumental change at this stage of her life and career. But for now, we look at the impact her departure has on Baylor and the Big 12, what her move means for LSU and the SEC, and which coaches might be in line to take over the Lady Bears.
What’s next for Mulkey and LSU?
The short answer: success. We don’t know how long it will take, but it will happen. It always has with her. As a player at Louisiana Tech, Mulkey won an AIAW title and NCAA championship, and her teams were 130-6. In 1984, she won Olympic gold with the United States. Louisiana Tech remained a national power while she was an assistant to Leon Barmore, winning the 1988 NCAA title. When he announced he was retiring in 2000, everyone assumed Mulkey — a 15-year assistant at her alma mater — was the heir apparent.
Mulkey has always said (and wrote in her autobiography) that she wanted a five-year contract, but Louisiana Tech only offered four. It might not seem like that would be a deal-breaker, but it was to Mulkey. Instead of taking over at Louisiana Tech, she left for Baylor, replacing her former Lady Techsters coach Sonja Hogg in Waco.
There was no tradition at Baylor to lure recruits, so Mulkey had to sell her own success. It worked spectacularly. She was 632-104 at Baylor, with a dozen Big 12 regular-season titles and 11 league tournament championships. Everything that Baylor women’s hoops has become started with Mulkey’s arrival.
LSU reached its pinnacle with five consecutive trips to the Final Four from 2004 to ’08, but the Lady Tigers lost in the semifinals every year. Longtime LSU assistant Pokey Chatman was key in recruiting the players on those teams, including superstars Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles. Chatman took over as LSU’s interim coach in 2004, when head coach Sue Gunter was ill. Chatman then stayed on as head coach through March 2007, when she suddenly resigned amid allegations of an affair with a former player.
Van Chancellor led the Lady Tigers to the last of those Final Four trips in 2008. But in his last three seasons and Fargas’ 10, LSU has not gotten past the Sweet 16 and has finished better than fourth in the SEC just three times. This past season, LSU went 9-13 overall and 6-8 in the SEC.
This isn’t a moribund program, but it has become a mediocre one, at least in SEC terms. That sounds harsh, but it has been painful for LSU fans to compare the past several years to the glory days. That’s why they are so excited about Mulkey.
Three of LSU’s top six scorers, led by Khayla Pointer, are scheduled to return for 2021-22, and we’ll see what happens with the ever-active transfer portal. In short, Mulkey could have LSU back on its feet pretty quickly.
The school is apparently willing to pay handsomely to make that happen. Mulkey was making a reported $2.27 million per season at Baylor, a private university. That is believed to be second to Auriemma’s $2.4 million per season among Division I women’s basketball coaches, and more than three times Fargas’ salary.
What does it mean for the SEC?
The SEC has traditionally been one of the best leagues in women’s hoops. South Carolina is the conference’s marquee program. The Gamecocks won the 2017 NCAA title and are coming off their third Final Four appearance under coach Dawn Staley. Texas A&M‘s Gary Blair also has a national championship as a head coach. Mulkey battled Blair’s Aggies for many years before Texas A&M moved from the Big 12 to the SEC, so that’s a rivalry renewed.
But much of the SEC has been in a coaching transition in recent times. Along with Mulkey joining the league this spring, two longtime assistants are new SEC head coaches: Johnnie Harris at Auburn and Shea Ralph at Vanderbilt. Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Tennessee are other SEC programs whose coaches have taken over in the last four years. And Georgia‘s Joni Taylor, the SEC’s coach of the year this past season, took over in 2015.
Ten of the league’s 14 programs have been to the Final Four, although for some that is distant. Still, the SEC always has been in the women’s hoops spotlight. Adding a coach with Mulkey’s résumé makes that even brighter.
What — and which coach — is next for Baylor?
Mulkey’s departure feels crushing for the program, at least initially. She brought so much confidence, fearlessness and swagger to Baylor. She won with different types of teams, getting the best out of her star players like Brittney Griner but also out of her role players. Mulkey was, shall we say, an entertaining presence on the sideline. She was outspoken and unapologetic, two qualities that tend to be popular in Texas.
No one can follow Mulkey by trying to be like her. Mulkey’s replacement will need to cut his or her own path. And fair or not, the pressure will be on to keep up Baylor’s extreme success; the Lady Bears are No. 4 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early rankings for 2021-22.
As mentioned, Mulkey was near the top of women’s basketball coaching salaries, but it’s highly unlikely her successor will be paid near that much — unless Baylor goes for a home run hire and tries to lure a very established Power 5 head coach along the lines of Louisville’s Jeff Walz, whose salary this season was $1.475 million (although he and other Cardinals coaches took a 10 percent pay cut to help offset COVID-19).
If Baylor doesn’t get one of the current top head coaches, who might be the main candidates for the job?
The first look might be to Sytia Messer, Baylor’s recruiting coordinator and assistant coach to Mulkey the last eight years. She also has previous head coaching experience, having spent three seasons at Tennessee Tech. Considering the churn of the transfer portal, Messer’s deep connections with current and potential Lady Bears might be paramount. And at age 44, she is entering her career prime.
Also, if Baylor opts to stay in-house, Bill Brock has been with the program for 17 years, including 15 as associate head coach. He was a longtime junior college head coach. If Messer or Brock aren’t going with Mulkey to LSU, one or both might stay on in Waco.
If Baylor looks outside the Power 5, possible candidates include:
Mark Kellogg: The Texas native has gone 140-43 in six years at Stephen F. Austin, including 24-3 and 14-0 in the Southland Conference this season.
Jarrod Olson: He is 211-71 in nine years at California Baptist, including 26-1 and 14-0 in the Western Athletic Conference this season. The Lancers weren’t able to compete in the NCAA tournament because they are still in the transition phase for Division I. Baylor has had a lot of success with another former Cal Baptist coach, Ryan McGuyre, who took the school’s volleyball program to the 2019 final four.
What does Mulkey’s exit mean for the Big 12?
Kim Mulkey looked back at her career after finding out she was inducted as part of the 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame class.
Baylor has brought the league its greatest success, yet at the same time been a shadow over the conference’s other teams for the past decade. Since 2010-11, Baylor is 187-9 in regular-season league play. Any time Baylor has lost to a Big 12 opponent in that stretch, it has been huge news. West Virginia (2017) is the only other program to win the Big 12 tournament since 2011.
Can the Lady Bears keep up that winning pace without Mulkey? If they don’t, who is poised to most benefit?
Vic Schaefer just finished his first season at Texas and reached the Elite Eight last month. Iowa State‘s Bill Fennelly is the dean of the league’s coaches, and his Cyclones were the only Big 12 team to beat Baylor this past season. West Virginia and Oklahoma State, which finished tied for second in the Big 12, hope they can continue their success, despite losing key players to the WNBA draft, as Texas did. Oklahoma finished sixth and has a new coach in Jennie Baranczyk, who replaced Sherri Coale.
The Big 12’s other four teams — Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas State and Kansas — all finished with losing records in 2020-21. So this is a turning point for the Big 12. Baylor has brought the league most of its national headlines for a long time.