Kim Mulkey

2012 Wacoan of the Year

Kim Mulkey

By Megan Willome

Photography by Baylor Marketing & Communications and Baylor Athletics

One in a Million.

On February 11, 2012, when the Lady Bears played Texas A&M University at the Ferrell Center, country music artist Trace Adkins sang the national anthem. There’s another song he didn’t perform that night called “One in a Million,” which he dedicates to the girl he once had a secret crush on — Kim Mulkey.

On February 11, 2012, when the Lady Bears played Texas A&M University at the Ferrell Center, country music artist Trace Adkins sang the national anthem. There’s another song he didn’t perform that night called “One in a Million,” which he dedicates to the girl he once had a secret crush on — Kim Mulkey.

Back in college at Louisiana Tech University, Adkins was a freshman football player, and Mulkey was a senior point guard. When he saw the Lady Bears playing in the Elite Eight in 2011, he realized Mulkey was still involved in Division I women’s basketball. By then, he’d been singing “One in a Million” in his concerts and telling the story of his unrequited love. Word got back to Mulkey, and the two Louisiana Tech athletes finally met face-to-face. The Lady Bears even attended an Adkins concert in Kansas City, Missouri, during this year’s Big 12 Tournament, and Adkins got Mulkey up on stage and presented her with a pair of Baylor cowboy boots. In April, he saw the Lady Bears win their second national championship.

“One in a Million” is a love song, and I think that in an article about Mulkey, a love song is called for, and not just because of Adkins (who is happily married). There’s a love between Coach Mulkey and her players, between Coach Mulkey and Baylor, but also between Coach Mulkey and Waco.

C’mon, you know you love her. You love to watch her pace along the sidelines or squat beside the bench during games. You love her news conferences. You love to see her speak at events around town, including at this year’s Advocacy Center for Crime Victims gala and the Meals & Wheels Sunday Brunch. She’s even done Community Reading Day at South Bosque Elementary School.

The 2011-12 season will always be known as the Year of the Bear. Here at the Wacoan, we already saluted Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, but we didn’t give enough attention to the Lady Bears winning the NCAA national championship for a second time under Mulkey in a season in which they went an unprecedented 40-0.

So we’re doing it now.

Kim Mulkey is the 2012 Wacoan of the Year.

Local Celebrity

Coach Mulkey encourages her team from the sidelines.

Coach Mulkey encourages her team from the sidelines.

Just days after winning the national championship, a colleague saw Mulkey shopping in the H-E-B on Hewitt Drive. Suddenly, a voice came over the loudspeaker: “National championship head coach Kim Mulkey is in the house today.” Everyone started clapping. That’s what it’s like to be a local celebrity — random announcements at the grocery store.

A friend of mine who lives in Woodway often sees Mulkey at that same H-E-B.

“She can’t get through the store. It’s 33 questions in the produce section,” my friend said. “Or the poor woman can’t buy cotton balls without people asking, ‘How’re the Lady Bears doing, Coach?’”

I asked my friend if she’d ever stood next to Mulkey in the checkout line, and she said it had just happened.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I just smiled, and she smiled back,” she said, “because I’m nothing, and she’s who she is.”

She — Mulkey — is many things. She’s the Local Celebrity, she’s the Little Girl with the Pigtails, she’s the CEO, she’s the Sparkplug, she’s the Mother and she’s the Coach.

That Little Girl with the Pigtails

Born in 1962 in Santa Ana, California, Mulkey considers herself from Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, which includes the three communities where she grew up: Tickfaw, where her house was located; Natalbany, where her family attended church; and Hammond, where she went to high school. This Louisiana country girl hopes to lead her Lady Bears to this year’s Final Four in New Orleans.

Mulkey grew up when a lot of things were changing. Integration came to her school when she was in second grade, and a lot of white families left in protest. In the meantime, busing sent Mulkey to different schools. Eventually, she attended Hammond High School.

Although racial integration had come to the classroom, gender equality hadn’t come to the field, not until the passage of Title IX in 1972. Title IX mandated that women have equal access to sports with men. It’s hard to remember a time when women couldn’t play sports at the highest level, but it was during Mulkey’s lifetime.

Softball wasn’t offered in Tickfaw, so she played Dixie Youth League baseball and later, Pony League. She was the only girl in both leagues and the first player picked in the draft. Although her All-Star team made the postseason tournament, she was banned from participating because she was a girl. Her father hired a lawyer, and it came down to either her team forfeiting or her sitting out. She chose to sit out so her team could play. Barred from even sitting on the bench, she watched them win from behind the dugout fence. They dedicated the win to her.

Basketball came into Mulkey’s life in seventh grade. By the time she was playing at Hammond High, the Lady Tornadoes went 136-5 and won four state championships. When she graduated in 1980, her total of 4,075 points was a national high school record.

From her earliest Louisiana days, Mulkey was a student-athlete, with an emphasis on the word “student.” She never missed a day of school — not once — from kindergarten through her senior year, and she graduated the valedictorian of her class. Going to college was a big deal for Mulkey because she was the first person in her family to do so. Her parents only finished high school, and she doesn’t think her grandparents went past the eighth grade. That’s one reason why graduating her players is a priority.

Country music artist and fellow Louisiana Tech University alum, Trace Adkins, sang the national anthem at a Lady Bears basketball game last February.

Country music artist and fellow Louisiana Tech University alum, Trace Adkins, sang the national anthem at a Lady Bears basketball game last February.

The coach who started the Louisiana Tech women’s basketball program is a name that should be familiar to Lady Bears fans — Sonja Hogg, who coached at Baylor right before Mulkey. Hogg recruited Mulkey, who chose LA Tech partly because of the atmosphere at basketball games, which she compared to a Baptist revival. Sounds a little like a Lady Bears game, doesn’t it?

Mulkey started wearing “pigtails” her second season playing at Louisiana Tech. They were actually two French braids, but Louisiana sportswriters dubbed her “that little girl with the pigtails.” Her team went 130-6 in four seasons and won two national championships with the Lady Techsters in 1981 and 1982. (In 1981, the league was still run by the AIAW, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. The NCAA took it over in 1982.) The year of the AIAW championship, the team went 34-0. So when Mulkey’s Lady Bears went 40-0 last year, it wasn’t her first undefeated season.

All through college, Mulkey kept up the academic side of the equation, graduating summa cum laude. She remains a member of The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi.

But her days as a player weren’t over. During summers in college, Mulkey played USA Basketball, traveling to Europe, the Far East and South America. She won a gold medal at the 1983 Pan American Games. Mulkey also played on two USA teams coached by Pat Summitt, who recently stepped down after 38 years as the head coach of the Lady Vols at the University of Tennessee after disclosing that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. At the 1984 Olympics, Summitt’s USA team, featuring Mulkey, won a gold medal. Mulkey has compared Summit to legendary men’s UCLA coach John Wooden. After all, he is the only NCAA coach with more national championships — 10 to Summit’s eight.

One of Mulkey’s proudest moments was when the Lady Vols played at the Ferrell Center for the first time (the second will be this month). Without having to be told, Lady Bears fans knew a superstar was in the house, and they gave Summitt a standing ovation when she walked onto the court. Mulkey didn’t find out until after the game, which Baylor won 65-54.

In 2000, Mulkey was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Three years later, she was inducted into the Academic All-America Hall of Fame, administered by CoSIDA, the College Sports Information Directors of America. The number on her player jersey, 20, has been retired twice — both at Hammond High and at Louisiana Tech.


Despite her basketball success, Mulkey did not plan to go into coaching. Following her graduation, she stayed at Louisiana Tech and started an MBA. She received a $2,000 scholarship, one of only five given to women athletes by the NCAA for postgraduate study. Why didn’t Mulkey consider coaching? She just didn’t. She had no unfinished business.

But the president of the university, Dr. F. Jay Taylor, had other ideas. Sonja Hogg was moving on, and Leon Barmore was stepping up as head coach. Mulkey was a recently graduated star player with a shiny, new Olympic gold medal. Taylor summoned Mulkey from class and offered her an assistant coaching job. She accepted, somewhat reluctantly.

Mulkey coached at Louisiana Tech for 15 years, during which the Lady Techsters went 430-68 and earned a spot in seven Final Fours. She does not remember ever signing a contract. Her primary jobs as an assistant coach were to recruit players and sustain their eligibility. Not one was declared academically ineligible during her tenure.

Gradually, she took on more coaching responsibilities, and in 1988, the Lady Techsters won their third national championship (including the AIAW one). By 1996, Mulkey was associate head coach. Other schools recruited her, including the University of South Carolina, the University of Missouri and Texas A&M. She stayed, declining to leave her home state. Until 2000.

Then-Baylor athletic director Tom Stanton was already pursuing Mulkey, but after Louisiana Tech lost in the playoffs, he invited her to visit Waco. Stanton asked if LA Tech was going to offer Mulkey the head coaching position, which would open when Barmore retired. If the university’s new president had given her the five-year contract — standard in the college coaching business — that she wanted, she would have stayed in Louisiana. He didn’t; Baylor did, and she’s been here ever since.

In Mulkey’s book, “Won’t Back Down: Teams, Dreams, and Families,” written with Peter May, the meeting with Stanton is described in this way:

“He mentioned all the upgrades and improvements he had in mind for the program. He envisioned hiring not just coaches, but also leaders and he saw that leadership quality in me. He saw me as more than a coach down the road; he saw me as a real long-term asset to the university. He was sick of Baylor being a training ground for coaches who would move on to bigger and better jobs; he wanted the school to be a place where coaches stayed for the long haul.”

Once she arrived in Waco, Mulkey had her own ideas about how to run a program. In her book, she said, “I decided to run the team like a CEO,” meaning she would lead and surround herself with a qualified team of loyal professionals. She credits her quick success at Baylor with hiring the right people. Two of those hires remain with her: Bill Brock, associate head coach, and Johnny Derrick, director of basketball operations.

Now in her 13th season as head coach of the Lady Bears, Mulkey’s contract runs through 2017. She’s one of the highest paid coaches in women’s basketball. When Stanton left Baylor in 2003, the women’s athletic budget was $5.6 million. Last year, under Ian McCaw, it was $13.5 million. Not all of that money goes to basketball — there are nine other women’s sports programs at Baylor. But Mulkey’s team draws the biggest crowds.

Brittney Griner, Mulkey and another player hug at the end of last year’s undefeated season.

Brittney Griner, Mulkey and another player hug at the end of last year’s undefeated season.

“Baylor and the Waco community have been extremely supportive of Coach Mulkey and Lady Bear basketball as she has built one of the top programs in the nation,” McCaw said. “Our staff works hard to provide the facility, operational, marketing and media relations support to create an exciting and energetic game-day environment for the team and Lady Bears fans. In turn, the success of the team and atmosphere at games has played a large role in Coach Mulkey recruiting some of the top student-athletes in the nation to play at Baylor.”

The very first game at the Ferrell Center was a Lady Bears game against Southwest Texas State University. In 2006, the addition of the $8 million Lt. Jack Whetsel Jr. Practice Facility included an all-around upgrade, from the new Hawkins practice courts (the women practice in the one named for Nell Hawkins) to the new Gray’s Gym & Strength Center. Mulkey works in the Dudgeon Office Suite with a private viewing balcony overlooking her team’s practice court. It’s the perfect corporate office.

The Sparkplug

Mulkey got the nickname “The Sparkplug” in college because of what happened when she got on the court. She brought excitement to her teammates and to fans. Not much has changed. I’ve often wished there were a “Kim Cam” that would only broadcast Coach Mulkey during games because this 5-foot-4-inch woman brings her spark to more than just the court — she brings it to Baylor.

Before there was Ambassador Griffin, there was Ambassador Mulkey. The success of her Lady Bears undergirds what we now call Baylor Nation.

Women’s basketball had enjoyed a couple of good years in 1997-98 and 1998-99 under Sonja Hogg, when the Lady Bears went to the WNIT Finals and the WNIT Tournament, respectively. Hogg is still a part of Baylor, working in the development office as senior director of planned giving. At the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce’s Tip Off Luncheon in October, she received The Frank Fallon Sportsmanship Award, along with a standing ovation.

In Mulkey’s inaugural year with Baylor, the team received its first-ever invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Every season since has included postseason play, for a total of 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and one trip to the WNIT Finals. Under Mulkey, the Lady Bears have also won Big 12 conference titles seven times. Plus, two national championships.

Baylor’s first national title was in men’s tennis in 2004. When the Lady Bears won their first title the following year in Indianapolis, spectators chanted, “Mul-key! Mul-key!” In 2005, this was a school and a town desperate for a big win. Seeing Mulkey’s team do it made Baylor fans believe that if women’s basketball could win big, then other sports could, too.

Last year, 2011-12, will forever be known as the Year of the Bear. All 19 of Baylor’s teams advanced to postseason play. Equestrian won a national championship in Hunter Seat. Football ended a 10-3 season with a win at the Alamo Bowl, and Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy. Men’s basketball made it to the Elite Eight, its second appearance in three seasons. Baseball won the Big 12 title and advanced to the super regionals. Baylor was the only school in the nation whose four major sports — football, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball — all finished the season nationally ranked. Football and the two basketball programs racked up 80 wins. Forty of those belonged to the Lady Bears.

The Year of the Bear came with other honors. Griffin and Lady Bears star Brittney Griner were honored at the annual ESPY Awards presented by the ESPN television network. Griner won Female Athlete of the Year and Female College Athlete of the Year, and Griffin was named Male College Athlete of the Year, making Baylor the winner of more ESPYs in a single year than any other school. The Lady Bears were also nominated for Best Team, but they lost to the 2012 NBA champions, the Miami Heat. I guess the ESPYs overlooked the fact that the Heat lost a few games.

In addition, Mulkey won several coaching awards, including the AP National Coach of the Year for women’s basketball, Women’s Coach of the Year from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Big 12 Coach of the Year, as well as the Naismith Award for women’s college coach of the year and the Winged Foot Award, given to the winning coaches of the NCAA Division I Basketball Championships. Last month, she received another honor, a Baylor 2012-13 Meritorious Achievement Award as Baylor Legendary Mentor.

Winning puts people in the seats. Last season, the Lady Bears sold out four home games, and three were pregame sellouts. More than 1.2 million fans have watched Mulkey’s teams play at the Ferrell Center. As of October 30, Baylor had already sold 6,651 season tickets, a school record for women’s basketball.

A lot of athletes have their eyes on Baylor. They know it’s a place where most student-athletes graduate, a place with excellent facilities and — here’s where Mulkey’s spark took hold — a place where the school supports the team. Attendees at the 2012 championship game included men’s head basketball coach Scott Drew, head football coach Art Briles, Baylor president Judge Ken Starr and his wife, Alice, and that Griffin fellow.

Another fan of Mulkey and what she’s done for Waco and Central Texas is Grant Teaff. Does Grant Teaff even need an introduction? The former Baylor head football coach is now the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.

“She has brought so much to the table,” he said. “Those of us that have seen her progress are extremely grateful that she not only has made a difference at Baylor, but that she cares about Baylor. She loves the way Baylor does business and that her student-athletes become total individuals, not just student-athletes with a degree.”

Teaff has the utmost respect for Mulkey as a coach, and he paid her a high compliment:

“The other thing about Kim that I’ve said publically — I told her this years ago, and I think she likes it when I say it — I said, ‘Kim, you could coach my sport,’ and nothing I’ve seen in the years that have intervened has changed my mind. The reason she can is that she has those basic characteristics of a coach, which is 1) she’s a teacher, and 2) she’s an individual who truly cares about her student-athletes, her players. And you can see that in the way that they respond to her, and you can see that she looks after them above and beyond their ability to play the game.”

As an example of Coach Mulkey at her best, Teaff recalled an incident during the 2010-11 season, when guard Melissa Jones temporarily lost her vision in her right eye following an injury to her optic nerve during a game.

“Kim protected her like she was her mom,” Teaff said. “That really comes across to not only the players that she has on any present team but on recruits across America that look for that relationship. She’s a hard-nosed coach that’s demanding, but she loves them like a mother.”

The Mother

In a postgame news conference in Denver, after beating Stanford University on April 2, 2012, Mulkey said that being a mother and being a coach go hand in hand.

“The advantage I do have, seriously, is that I’m a mother. And I do think that’s an advantage,” she said. “Now, does that mean you can’t be a good coach if you don’t have children? No. But I get a little bit of advantage because I have to deal with my own children and their problems and what motivates them, and they give me some insight and some feedback because they’re the same age as the athletes I get to coach.”

If being a mother makes Mulkey a better coach, then, looking at her children, maybe being a coach also makes her a better mother.

Her book “Won’t Back Down” is dedicated to her children: “To Makenzie and Kramer — the loves of my life. It is my hope that I have taught you, by example, the meaning of dedication, commitment, and loyalty. Allow those qualities to permeate your lives and to forever be a measurement of who you are. Above all, stand your ground — and don’t back down.”

That quote could just as easily be addressed to the Lady Bears. But it’s a statement from a mother to her children, both of whom are top-ranked athletes.

Her daughter, Makenzie Robertson, plays on the Lady Bears team as a guard. She knew she might play more at other schools, but she also knew that Baylor was more likely to win a national championship. She wanted to cut down the nets not just as the coach’s daughter, as she did in 2005, but as the coach’s player, as she did this year.

When asked what she gained by attending Baylor, Makenzie said, “I think just the whole Baylor atmosphere. It gives such a great vibe, Christian environment, everyone’s so inviting. On the court, I would’ve missed the national championship and playing and creating friendships with my teammates and playing under my mom. That’s something I’ve always dreamed of. I always thought it would be a good experience to play for my mom, and I didn’t know if it was a realistic goal or not, but I’m just happy that it got to happen.”

Mulkey with her children, Makenzie and Kramer Robertson.

Mulkey with her children, Makenzie and Kramer Robertson.

Makenzie played basketball for Midway High School and is the winningest player in the history of Pantherettes basketball. But one sport wasn’t enough for her. She also played volleyball and softball, and she has three state championship rings, one for each sport. In 2009-10, she was chosen as the Girls’ Super Centex Athlete of the Year. Like her mother, she made academics a priority, graduating No. 8 in her class.

In 2011, Makenzie was one of only two Baylor women athletes to play on two NCAA tournament teams in different sports — basketball (which went to the Elite Eight) and softball (which went to the Women’s College World Series). She is a few hours away from earning a business degree with an emphasis in marketing. Every semester at Baylor, she has been named to the dean’s list and the Big 12 commissioner’s honor roll.

Mulkey’s son, Kramer Robertson, is a senior at Midway High School, currently holding down a 3.6 GPA. Like Makenzie, he plays three sports: football, basketball and baseball. He’s one of the quarterbacks for the Panthers, now in the playoffs. The basketball team, on which he plays guard, was a bi-district finalist last year. In 2011-12, Midway’s baseball team was a regional finalist, and Kramer was the district’s MVP. Last month, he signed a letter of intent to play baseball for LSU. Why LSU?

“I can start my own life, really,” Kramer said. “It’s a good thing that I’ve been under the shadow of my mom because she casts a big shadow. My whole life, I’ve been known as Coach Kim’s son, but going to Louisiana, I can build my own name and my own reputation.”

Until Kramer graduates, you’ll probably find Mulkey at his games. She often takes notes, like any good coach. She’s also known to yell, like any good parent. I asked Kramer if he can hear his mom above the noise of the crowd.

“I can hear her. Her voice is distinct,” he said. “Sometimes I’m on the sideline, and hers is the only voice I recognize in the stands, but I try not to listen to anybody in the stands. But I can still hear her.”

Mulkey doesn’t have a lot of free time outside of attending her children’s games and practices and coaching the Lady Bears. She enjoys yard work, but after she and her kids moved to a bigger home with a bigger yard, it’s sometimes a little more work than she wants. Their front lawn includes a bear statue — “nothing ridiculous,” Makenzie said.

Mulkey’s kids have to balance their mother, the coach, with their mother, the mom. Over the years, they’ve gotten pretty good at it.

“She knows that we are so proud of her,” Makenzie said. “We’ve grown up with people knowing who we were, but there’ll still be times, especially with a different last name now” — since her parents’ divorce — “that people don’t make the connection. It’s funny, if people start talking about basketball, and we’ll just kind of play dumb, like she’s not our mom.”

But no one can deny that Mulkey is the coach.

The Coach

Last season, each Baylor game started with an amazingly awesome (words fail me) team introduction video, featuring a pep talk given by Mulkey. It’s available on YouTube. Usually, the YouTube comment section is a dark, sad place, but I found these two positive nuggets: “Coach Mulkey makes me want to be a better cameraman!” and “coach mulkey makes me want to be a better defense attorney!!!” Coach Mulkey makes me want to be a better writer. She makes all of us want to be better, even 6-foot-8-inch post, Brittney Griner.

Following last season, Griner was named the 2012 consensus national player of the year, winning more basketball awards than any player in Baylor’s history. Oh, and she can dunk. But there’s still room for improvement.

On October 17, Griner visited the ESPN campus and appeared on the “Mike and Mike In the Morning” show, where she was asked by Mike Greenberg what she will be thinking as she goes into the first game of the season. Griner said, “Get better.” Then Greenberg asked how she could get better. She answered, “Offensive rebounding.” When you play for Coach Mulkey, you can always get better.

That’s because Mulkey always pushes herself. Even though she is the only — only — person, man or woman, to win an NCAA basketball championship as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach, she still wants to win it all again.

And let’s talk about last year’s 40-0 season. No team has ever done it. In the women’s game, the University of Connecticut had four undefeated seasons, three of 39-0 and one of 35-0, and Tennessee had one undefeated season of 39-0. When the University of Texas won its championship in 1986, it went 34-0. The Lady Bears extended their unbeaten record into the first two games of this season until November 16, when they lost to Stanford at the Rainbow Wahine tournament in Hawaii. Thus, a 42-game winning streak came to an end. But Mulkey has often said that her goal is to win championships, not to go undefeated.

NCAA Championship

The Lady Bears basketball team, Mulkey, Robert Griffin III, President Ken Starr and others celebrate after the NCAA championship game last April.

In the AP preseason poll, Baylor was ranked No. 1., a position they held in every poll taken last season. This year might be another good one, since the team returns all five of its starters, including Griner, Kimetria “Nae-Nae” Hayden, Jordan Madden, Destiny Williams and Odyssey Sims, who was co-MVP along with Griner in the championship game. The team welcomes five freshmen, including two McDonald’s All-Americans. One of them, Alexis Prince, was named Big 12 Preseason Freshman of the Year.

Even with such deep talent, the season won’t be easy. To win back-to-back championships is rare. Only four women’s teams have done it: Connecticut, Tennessee, University of Southern California and Louisiana Tech (while Mulkey was a player). But it is Mulkey’s goal.

October 9 was the Welcome Back Supper, presented by the Lady Bears Tip Off Club in the Ferrell Center. Not all of the 1,000 attendees got a plate, but it wasn’t about the free food. It was about meeting the team and hearing Mulkey speak.

Then, Moonlight Madness was on October 12. Baylor was the only school whose men’s and women’s preseason events were live broadcast on ESPNU’s first-ever “Midnight Madness Special.” The synergy of having two winning basketball teams got the attention of ESPN.

“It’s great for Baylor University, for the community and for the Big 12 Conference,” said men’s head coach Scott Drew. “Most of all, it’s great for the fans who get a chance to see two quality teams play against the nation’s best competition and, hopefully, more nights than not, come out on top.”

This year’s women’s Final Four will be held in Mulkey’s home state of Louisiana. The front of each player’s notebook reads, “Geaux Lady Bears,” and the theme for the year is “Back 2 Business.” Last year’s season is in the record books. Now, Mulkey wears a new custom wristband with these words: “Nuttin But Nawlins.”

That friend of mine who wouldn’t speak to Mulkey at H-E-B did speak to her at a Kim Mulkey Basketball Camp, which my friend’s daughter attended this past summer. While the Lady Bears signed basketballs, my friend found herself standing next to Mulkey. Unlike that time in the checkout line, she worked up the courage to say something.

“I really admire you,” she said.

“Well, thank you,” Mulkey said.

That’s Kim Mulkey, right in those three words. She is gracious. She carries her fame lightly. I think she might know, just a little, how much she means to Waco.

When Mulkey tells the story of how she ended up as the head coach at Baylor instead of at Louisiana Tech, she’s said again and again, in interviews and in her book, “Thank God for unanswered prayers.”

We’re pretty thankful, too. We love you, Coach.

And now, the interview with Wacoan of the Year Kim Mulkey

One-on-One with Coach Mulkey

There’s something about winning two national championships, not just one. It means that in the Baylor University women’s basketball offices, housed in the Lt. Jack Whetsel Practice Facility, there are two commemorative championship basketballs in glass cases, two commemorative brackets detailing each win of the 2005 and 2012 NCAA playoffs and two team photos, each with a different president of the United States.

The night before Wacoan writer Megan Willome sat down with head coach Kim Mulkey in her office, the Lady Bears won their first game of the season, an exhibition against Oklahoma City University. Everything they discussed — from player injuries to the record of the Midway High School football team — was accurate as of October 31, 2012.

When Mulkey isn’t on the court, she’s dressed casually. The day of the interview, she wore a Baylor long-sleeve T-shirt, warm-up pants and athletic shoes. If you want to see her in three-inch heels, snazzy outfits and full makeup and hair, go to a Lady Bears game.

Mulkey’s office is packed. There are framed photos filling most of the wall space, and every inch of her desk is covered with mementos that have personal significance. After more than 30 years in basketball, as a championship-winning player, assistant coach and head coach, she’s got a lot of memories. The only problem is that she’s running out of space.

At the end of our interview, Mulkey picked up an adorable, unframed childhood photo of Brittney Griner, back when she was short. Mulkey was as proud to show off that picture as she would have been if she’d been showing off a photo of one of her own kids, Makenzie and Kramer Robertson. Maybe that’s because, for Mulkey, being a mother and being a coach are the two roles she values most.

WACOAN: How do you feel the team chemistry is coming along?

Mulkey: It’s a little early to tell because you have so many freshmen, and with the returning players, you know what you’re gonna get with those guys. But to mix in a freshman group, I have to have them for a longer period of time. Every day is a new day for them, and they learn something new. They’re good kids; they’re coachable. And I really, really think they’re very talented.

WACOAN: I know you have a couple of players who were McDonald’s All-Americans.

Mulkey: Yes. Niya Johnson and Alexis Prince. And Alexis is out right now, injured from a stress reaction, so she didn’t get to play last night.

WACOAN: Looking back at this year’s national championship, there was a quote in the postgame news conference from Odyssey Sims, and she said, ‘To win this national championship, we’re probably more happier for her’ — meaning you — ‘than we are for ourselves right now.’ What do you think about that?

Mulkey: I would turn that around and say, had I not ever won one, I would buy what she said. But Odyssey and Brittney and Jordan Madden, those guys had never even won a state championship.

I just want everybody involved in the program, whether they be fans, trainers, managers, to feel the excitement that comes with winning a national championship. And I was so happy for the team and the fans because I’ve been blessed to have participated in Final Fours and win national championships, and it’s just so much fun.

WACOAN: You said that those three players didn’t win state championships with their high schools — does that say something about the quality of the women’s game? That it’s continuing to get better and more challenging?

Mulkey: I think what it tells you is no matter how good you are, you can’t win it by yourself. It’s a team sport. You must have players around you that complement each other and are all on the same page and have the same goals. Sometimes that’s hard to do, especially in high school. In college, you get to recruit players, but in high school, you pretty much inherit whoever lives in your district.

WACOAN: While I was waiting in the lobby, I looked at the photographs of your teams with two different presidents of the United States. How many presidents have you met? It’s at least three.

Mulkey: Well, let’s see. I’ve [met President Reagan].

WACOAN: Was that with the Lady Techsters?

Mulkey: Yeah. And I [met] him during the Olympics [in 1984]; Reagan was still in office. And then [President George W. Bush], and then [President Obama]. Is that three? Yeah.

WACOAN: Not a lot of people can say they’ve met three presidents.

Mulkey: I just have so much respect for the office of the president. I don’t care what political affiliation you are. When you have the opportunity to meet the leader of our country in a very informal and casual setting, it’s special.

WACOAN: When you moved here in 2000, why did you choose to live in Midway ISD?

Mulkey: Couldn’t find a house in the [Waco ISD] area. I’m a public school kid. I wanted my children brought up in public schools. The house that I could get in the quickest was out in Midway.

WACOAN: What is important to you about public school?

Mulkey: Boy, I have a vivid memory of walking into the public schools at Midway and looking around and, having grown up in Louisiana public schools myself — many of them. Because of integration, I went to so many schools. From one grade, they’d bus you to another school for another grade.

The vivid memory I have is just how nice the schools were and what I saw in the classrooms — and not even in the classrooms — what I saw in storage and closets, and that was computers and brand new things. And then I realized the difference is there’s state taxes in Louisiana, and there are property taxes in Texas. And you [taxpayers] were basically paying for all those computers through your property taxes in the state of Texas, which we didn’t have in Louisiana. [There,] you paid your state income tax.

I was just amazed at the facilities in the public schools in Texas, how big and how nice they were. I just kept asking the administrator, ‘Is this a public school?’ He says, ‘Why do you keep asking that?’ And I said, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’

WACOAN: I’d like to talk about your kids. Obviously, you have an extremely busy job, and two kids who were both three-sport athletes in high school. Now, Makenzie’s at Baylor, playing for you, but Kramer is still at home. How do you handle balancing your schedule and his?

Mulkey: My job as a mother comes first. I don’t even view it as a job. It is a blessing to be a mother. Kramer and Makenzie both make my job easy as a mother because they’re low maintenance. They enjoy the same things that I enjoy. They don’t get in trouble. They’re just good kids. All parents think their children are the best thing since sliced bread, but I really, really am blessed that both of them will have an opportunity to play collegiate sports. Of course, Makenzie’s playing for me now, and Kramer will go play baseball at [Louisiana State University]. I know that that’s something each of them wanted to do growing up was have an opportunity to play college sports. I’m going to do the best I can when he goes to LSU to watch him play.

WACOAN: LSU isn’t far from where you grew up, right?

Mulkey: Yes, actually, it’s about 30 minutes away. My mother still lives down there.

Louisiana will always be my home, regardless of where my career has taken me. Lots of family and friends down there. But that’s a long haul, that’s an eight-hour drive. But, like all parents, we’ll figure out how to make it work.

WACOAN: Does Kramer play shortstop?

Mulkey: Uh huh.

WACOAN: When does he officially sign with LSU? Is that in the spring?

Mulkey: We do it in November, actually. On November the 14, he will sign to play baseball at LSU that morning, and about 30 minutes later I will head to Hawaii [for the Rainbow Wahine Tournament].

WACOAN: What has it been like to coach Makenzie?

Mulkey: I’ve never coached either of my children as they were growing up. I really couldn’t answer what I thought it was going to be like to coach her, and it has been so easy. I think it’s been easy because Makenzie makes it easy. She understands her role. She understands her strengths and weaknesses. She doesn’t take it personal when I get on her. She understands that we’re gonna be mother and daughter long after basketball is done with. I don’t get on her any harder than the other players, nor do I have emotion involved in it, in trying to get her more playing time because she’s my daughter. It’s a business. When there’s opportunities for her and what she does well, she will play. She has been just a jewel to coach. It’s been easy.

WACOAN: How does it work with her transitioning to softball? Don’t the seasons overlap?

Mulkey: She did that her first year. It does overlap, and it puts her behind. But last year, she didn’t do softball because she was so worn out. And we haven’t even discussed softball. But she loves both sports and played ‘em both throughout her high school career. [Baylor softball head coach] Glenn Moore has been so gracious in allowing her in her first year to go out there and do it. And we haven’t even talked about it for the future.

WACOAN: I think it’s neat that both of your kids have been involved in baseball and softball because that was your first sport, right?

Mulkey: My first sport, actually, was Dixie Youth baseball at 12 years old. I played through one year of that and then two years of Pony League and then started high school. Played a lot of summer softball as well with a team outside of my hometown. I was probably more exposed to those sports at an early age than I was to basketball because I never played ‘bitty basketball’ or youth basketball. It wasn’t offered.

WACOAN: I wondered about that, since you grew up in such a small town.

Mulkey: No, it wasn’t offered back in the day.

WACOAN: I wanted to talk to you about academics in athletics because you were valedictorian of your high school class, and you graduated from college summa cum laude. Talk about the importance of academics at the college level and at Baylor, specifically.

Mulkey: Academics — basketball is something you’re blessed with, you’re born with. Academics is just so important because that basketball can be taken away from you at any moment. But once you’re done playing, your degree can open up windows and doors for you in the real world. Yes, some players will be able to play professional basketball. But for me, I knew that in 1984, the only way I was going to be able to play pro basketball was to go overseas, and I didn’t want to do that. I had enough of international travel with USA Basketball. I pretty much had in my mind that after the ’84 Olympics, I was headed to the real world. My degree is in business administration, and I really visualized myself flying in corporate jets and that would be my life. And little did I know that the president of Louisiana Tech University would get me out of my class, working on my master’s degree, and encourage me to get into coaching. And he is deceased now, but thank goodness that he did because this is very comfortable for me. It’s what I’m meant to do. And I didn’t really realize that.

WACOAN: It’s scary to think you might not have gone down this road.

Mulkey: Correct. Life is interesting. I always tell people, ‘God works in mysterious ways.’

WACOAN: Have you seen that your bachelor’s degree in business and what you started with an MBA has been helpful to you as a Division I coach?

Mulkey: Maybe to the extent of being able to do the administrative part of it. I don’t have to do a lot of those things because you delegate that to your assistant coaches. But I guess in a way you are like the CEO of a company. The head coach is the CEO, and then you have your people around you, and everybody has a job to do. Maybe to that extent my business degree is helpful. But the Xs and Os and the actual coaching and the leadership and all that stuff is probably just from experience of having played so many years and the different coaches that I’ve played for. It was just a natural part of what I learned from them, I incorporate into my personality and go try to lead a program.

WACOAN: What do you think that playing college sports gives to women athletes?

Mulkey: To all athletes, I think when you have an opportunity to play sports, it teaches you everything that you would face in a job in the real world. It teaches you disappointment. It teaches you rejection. It teaches you how to deal with different personalities, different coworkers. It teaches you the team concept. It teaches you dedication. It teaches you discipline. I mean, there’s so many things sports teaches that really prepares you for whatever you want to do in the real world. I think that you couldn’t take classes that could teach all those things. But being in the realm of athletic competition and practices every day, I tell the players that when they graduate and go out in the real world, they will never face anything they haven’t faced in our program.

WACOAN: You’ve said that the game is simple, that coaches make it harder than it needs to be.

Mulkey: It is simple. What is complex nowadays are all the rules and all the recruiting and all the things you have to do away from just that court. That court is pretty simple — Xs and Os. If coaches, if that’s all they had to do is draw up plays and go out there and be on the floor, they would coach a lifetime. But what drives most coaches out is recruiting, is all the things that you have to do away from the court. It’s now as big a part of your job as the Xs and Os are.

It’s just a pretty simple game. You’d better have better players than your opponent to win. Occasionally, make sure you make the right offensive or defensive calls. You might beat somebody you’re not supposed to beat. But it’s really a simple game that sometimes becomes complex because of everything around it.

WACOAN: And the rules keep changing, don’t they?

Mulkey: Just today, you’re seeing more rule changes within the NCAA. NCAA rules are just like laws in our country. You have to have them, but it really is mind-boggling when you think of every rule in that NCAA manual.

WACOAN: You’ve been here for a while now. You’ve won two national championships. What has winning meant to Baylor and to Waco?

Mulkey: That’s hard for me to answer. That may be better for somebody that can look at it from an outside view.

When I came here 13 years ago, I wanted to put a product on the floor that Baylor would be proud of. Certainly, coming from the background I did, I knew what it was like to win championships. I wanted Baylor and my team and the fans and everybody to experience it and embrace it. I think we have done our part. I think the hard part now is to maintain it. That is as hard if not harder to do than building a program.

WACOAN: You spoke about that last year, that you couldn’t hide your talent, that all the other teams were coming for you. And that’s only going to be more true this year.

Mulkey: Well, the first thing that I tell people is our goal is not to go undefeated. Our goal has never been to go undefeated. Our goal is to win the national championship.

Certainly, when you have that many returning players, it’s pretty much expected that you should have a good year. What you don’t know is how injuries will affect your team. You can’t control that, and injury can change the whole complexion of a season. We will embrace the expectations and, hopefully, do our best to win another national championship. It’s not that easy to do.

I tell people all the time, ‘The most talented teams don’t always win championships.’ Which, is really remarkable what we did last year. Not only were we, in my opinion, the most talented team, we did it 40 straight times without a loss, and that’s hard to do. And we basically stayed away from injury. Injuries can totally change a season.

WACOAN: This year’s Final Four is in your home state. What is it about Louisiana? People from your state feel as passionately about Louisiana as Texans feel about Texas.

Mulkey: Louisiana, geographically, is a very small state, but within the state of Louisiana, you really have two little worlds. You have north Louisiana, where the culture is so different up there, and then you have south Louisiana, which is so different from any other place in our United States. Culturally, you would never think that we’re in the same state when you go from north to south Louisiana. I’ve been blessed to have lived in both parts of the state. New Orleans, where the Final Four is, it’s just a cultural experience if you’ve never been there.

The first thing that I will tell you is the food. The food is absolutely fabulous. People know how to cook, people know how to eat, and people know how to have a good time.

When I came to Texas, that was a big part of the adjustment was I was used to, when I was in south Louisiana, getting fresh seafood any time I wanted. When I moved to Texas, you just can’t get fresh seafood very easily. And you didn’t season your food growing up in Louisiana, really. It was put in the cooking. Salt and pepper has now become my primary ingredient because, people, for health reasons, I don’t know, maybe it’s just different. They don’t season their food the way we do in Louisiana.

WACOAN: Is the food hotter?

Mulkey: It’s spicier, but it’s also just flavorful. It’s just real, real appealing to the palate. You just can’t quit eating when you’re in Louisiana.

WACOAN: You host a crawfish boil at the end of the season, don’t you?

Mulkey: Yes, we have a crawfish boil after the season every year in April. My family and friends transport, gosh, 300 pounds of crawfish and shrimp and crab, and we just have a crawfish boil in the backyard of my house.

WACOAN: Maybe you’ll get to eat it in Louisiana this year.

Mulkey: It would be really, really great if we could play in New Orleans because that’s home. It would just be good to see a lot of people that I don’t get to see regularly, but at the same time, it will be a business trip.

WACOAN: With your demanding job and your commitment to attend your kids’ games and practices, do you ever have any free time? Do you ever get a chance to do fun things in Waco?

Mulkey: I’m pretty much a homebody. Because I have to do so much year-round, whether it’s speaking or attending functions. I have to do a lot with my job in a public forum. My free time is basically spent at home. I’m either watching my children’s ball games, or I’m watching ball games on television, or I’m out in the yard working, pulling weeds, or I’m laying out by the swimming pool.

I do like my summers. I love to go to the beach in Destin, Florida, with family and friends and have done that from the time my children were born, and I did it before I even got married. Summers are my most enjoyable months because, obviously, I’m not in basketball season, and I can take a deep breath and take some time for me. And I’m learning how to do that better. I’m learning how to just take time for me and not think that I have to be at the office every day. Get away from it. I think as we age, we realize that we do have to take care of ourselves. And then, the health issues, the little, small health issues that I’ve dealt with, I think, put it in perspective and say, ‘My body’s sending me a message.’

WACOAN: I know you had Bell’s palsy during the playoffs. I’ve had a couple of family members who’ve also had it, and it takes a little while, but it does clear up.

Mulkey: It does, it does. The facial paralysis was obvious, but that didn’t bother me. I wasn’t looking at myself in a mirror. People had to look at me. It didn’t bother me. The ear, the hearing, and the eye bothered me more — the watering and the dryness of the eye, and then the hearing sounded like a blown speaker.

WACOAN: That would be very frustrating, especially on a basketball court, where it’s loud.

Mulkey: It’s loud. And when you raise your voice, it’s blaring out your ear, and it hurts. And then when you hear the band start playing, you kind of have to hold it right here [puts her hand over her ear].

You do what you have to do. It was a great time and a lot of fun in Denver. You just have to keep working.

WACOAN: A friend from high school was at this year’s Final Four. She was not even a women’s basketball fan at the beginning of the tournament, but by the end, she was a fan.

Mulkey: That’s pretty cool.

WACOAN: I’m wondering if it only takes seeing a few games in person for people to get excited about women’s basketball. Have you found that people get converted pretty quickly?

Mulkey: When I first got here, I spoke at so many civic organizations. And I just asked them, ‘If you come once and don’t like it, don’t come again.’ But I’m pretty certain that if we put a product on that floor that you can relate to, whether it be hard work or connections to a particular player and the atmosphere itself, I think you’ll come back. That’s kind of how we built it. Certainly, winning put people in the stands. But I think it was that I was out in the community. I was visible. I was seen. My children were small. They were playing on teams that had other children. We befriended their parents. It just kind of starts like that.

Now, we’ve continued to make sure our team is accessible and that they’re seen in the community. We still put a product on the floor that’s good. And just keep talking about Lady Bear basketball. It just kind of has snowballed into the sixth highest attendance in the country last year. We sold this year more season tickets already than ever before.

WACOAN: How long will they continue to be on sale?

Mulkey: I would imagine they’ll probably sell as long as people want to buy them. The hard part now is people want to buy them on the lower level, and those are sold out by big donors.

I laugh because I told people to buy their season tickets 13 years ago, that there’s gonna come a day that you’re gonna want to buy one and that seat’s not gonna be available. And I think we’re now seeing that has turned out to true, and that’s a great thing.

WACOAN: You spoke a minute ago about being accessible in the community. I hear you’re often stopped at H-E-B by fans.

Mulkey: First of all, I don’t like to grocery shop. I love to eat. I don’t like to grocery shop.

But, listen, I have a job that is very visible, and with that visibility comes responsibility. And I am a real person. I’m not pretentious in any way. If anybody wants an autograph, a picture, talk Lady Bear basketball, it is not only an obligation I have, but it’s also a blessing because I am the one that was chosen to lead this program, and I want those people to have an interest in Lady Bear basketball.

You’ll never catch me being rude to anybody when it comes to things like that. I may not have a long time to speak to you while we’re in the grocery store. I may be focused on my thoughts of what I need to buy in the grocery store. But we live in a community that loves Lady Bear basketball, and being a part of that is a blessing. And I’m always somebody that people can approach and feel very comfortable in a grocery store because I’m usually in there in my warm-ups, no makeup and right after practice or on my way to practice.

WACOAN: I think people like that about you.

Mulkey: Well, I think there’s kind of a perception from afar that people think, ‘Gosh, I’m scared of that lady. I see her on the sidelines. She looks mean.’ And the truth is, that’s my job. My job is to be intense and passionate on that floor, and I’m very comfortable on that floor in coaching. But away from the floor, I do the same things that any other single mother does. I grocery shop. Certainly, I have help. I have a lady that’s a part of our family that’s like a live-in nanny. But I’m at my children’s practices. I’m at their games. I will always take great pride in that my children and my family come first before my job.

WACOAN: How hard is that to do? It’s not just one choice — it’s choice after choice after choice.

Mulkey: But it’s not hard. It’s priorities.

I told the Baylor administration the first time I met with them that if I have to choose between my family and my job, that decision was made a long time ago. My family comes first. Fortunately, I am able to be in a profession that allows me to work practices to a certain degree when I need to, to be able to be at my children’s functions when they were in high school. Of course, now, with Makenzie on the team, she’s not in that equation, but with Kramer, I’m able to do it all.

WACOAN: And senior year is especially busy.

Mulkey: It is, it is. But that’s OK. It’s all we’ve ever known.

WACOAN: Will Kramer play basketball this year? Or will he go straight into baseball after football?

Mulkey: I don’t know that he’s made that decision yet. A lot of it will depend on how far they go in football. A lot of it will depend on how he feels after football, I would think. He’s been able to do it all up until this point, so we’ll see.

WACOAN: Is Midway still undefeated?

Mulkey: Yes. They’re gonna certainly be in the playoffs. We hope to win the district championship. We have a tough one tomorrow night [November 1].

WACOAN: Do you still have your dog CoCo?

Mulkey: CoCo died. She got lymphoma.

WACOAN: I’m so sorry.

Mulkey: She went fast. She had a knot show up in her neck. Gosh, she’s probably been dead a little over a year, a year and a half ago. My years run together. Yeah, she died a while back. Loved her. Chocolate Lab. What chocolate Labs are — they’re just very aggressive, full of life, full of energy. They’re not mean, they’re loveable dogs. They just have a lot of energy.

WACOAN: Do you think you’ll get another dog?

Mulkey: Not any time soon. Because Makenzie’s not there, and Kramer will be gone, and I’m too busy. It ends up that the lady that helps us at the house ends up being the one that takes care of her. She’s wonderful, and she got too attached to CoCo. You never know in the future, when the kids are gone, what will happen.

WACOAN: Do you still do a Thought for the Day with the team?

Mulkey: Yes!

WACOAN: Do you happen to know what it is today?

Mulkey: Well, today, we’re gonna watch film from the scrimmage, the exhibition, last night. So, I’m not sure how much we will do on the floor today. But we have them every day. I can give you some in the past few days that we had [grabs a manila folder]. Let’s see, last week, some of the ones we had. Actually, one day it was the Ten Commandments. Another day it was, ‘Wherever you are, be all here.’ Another one was, ‘Give me five players who hate to lose, and I’ll give you a winner.’ Another one was, ‘Seven days without prayer makes one weak,’ w-e-a-k.

WACOAN: You’ve said the locker room is a sacred place. What do you mean by that?

Mulkey: While we want to show our locker room to as many people as we can because, really, it’s beautiful. It’s really nice — it’s unbelievable what we have in our locker room. At the same time, what is said in that locker room should stay in that locker room because that’s how you build team chemistry. That’s a place where you can be a team, and you don’t have outside distractions. You can’t just open your locker room to people to come listen to you challenge your team or to teach in there because those people don’t have the investment that a team has to each other. They’re in and they’re out, and those are not people that you want to know the inner workings of how you build a team in there.

I just think that you show your locker room to people in passing, but then they need to move on out of there. You don’t open your locker room to people, necessarily, because it’s sacred. It’s sacred for coaches and those players and those managers that are in there for a long period of time. We start in September, and we’re usually not done until April. We basically learn a lot about each other in the locker room.

WACOAN: Do you have any final thoughts? Anything you’d like to add?

Mulkey: No, no. I’ve done so many interviews. There’s no secrets with me. What you see is what you get.

All I want to do is represent Baylor in a way that makes them proud. That doesn’t mean I’m perfect, and that doesn’t mean that I won’t make mistakes. But if, ultimately, I graduate my players, and I put a product on the floor that represents Baylor in the way they want to be represented, then I consider that my job.

WACOAN: Well, we think you’re doing a great job.

Mulkey: Oh, you’re kind. Thank you!