Higgins: If anybody wanted to ever care again about the LSU women’s basketball program, hiring Kim Mulkey is the only remedy

If there was any question why LSU hired Scott Woodward as athletics director two years ago, it was answered Sunday.

He swayed 58-year old Louisiana native Kim Mulkey, a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach, who had been entrenched for 21 years at Baylor University where she guided the Lady Bears to three national championships and won an average of 30 games per year, to become coach of a mediocre LSU program with almost zero fan interest and losing more money than any sport on the Tigers’ campus.

Indeed, Woodward is the Coach Whisperer, something he proved as Washington’s athletics director and as Texas A&M’s AD prior to being hired by LSU in April 2019.

At Washington, he hired Boise State head football coach Chris Petersen. It was thought the only way Petersen would ever leave was Boise was in a casket after he died from old age.

By the time Woodward exited Washington to become Texas A&M’s athletics director in January 2016, Peterson had the Huskies in the College Football Playoffs.

Woodward had been at Texas A&M a year before he dumped head football Kevin Sumlin and stole national championship coach Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State in December 2017. A&M was 9-1 last season in Fisher’s third year and the Aggies’ season-ending Associated Press ranking of No. 4 was their highest since they won the 1939 national championship.

On the surface, Woodward’s hiring of Mulkey seemed to be the most challenging of his career. Why would someone with one of the most impressive college coaching and player pedigrees ever want to coach at a place drawing witness-protection sized crowds watching a listless program that previous coach Nikki Fargas had left twisting in the wind in the last half of her 10 years at LSU because of lousy, lazy recruiting?

Because Woodward, a Baton Rouge native, likely sold Mulkey on one of the main things that lured him from Texas A&M.

Sooner or later, if the timing feels right, we all want to come home.

LSU graduate Woodward had been the school’s Director of External Affairs until 2004 when he left for Washington when LSU president Mark Emmert became the U of W president. He had been gone 15 years until LSU came calling when the Board of Supervisors knew it was firing previous athletic director Joe Alleva.

Mulkey had been at Baylor since former Louisiana Tech president Dan Reneau had been dumb enough in 2000 not to give Mulkey, then a Tech assistant, the contract length deal she wanted to become Tech’s head coach succeeding the retiring Leon Barmore.

At that point, Mulkey, who had previously turned down three head coaching offers from other schools, wanted a five-year deal to become fully vested (at 20 years) in the state of Louisiana pension plan.

Reneau wouldn’t go higher than a four-year deal, so Mulkey stunningly became head coach at Baylor where her former Tech coach Sonja Hogg was retiring for a second time in her career.

Mulkey took over a Baylor program that had finished the 1999–2000 season 7–20 and had never in its history received an invite to the NCAA tournament.

And of course, Baylor went 21-9 in her first season, went to the first of its 20 NCAA tourneys under Mulkey and by her fifth year she had won her first national championship as a coach.

Mulkey has never been short on charisma, confidence and passion, something she had as a fearless 5-4 point guard who helped Hammond High win four straight championships (to match her 4.0 grade point average) and in her four seasons from 1980-84 at Louisiana Tech when the Lady Techsters were 130-6 (including 54 straight wins) and won two national championships (one AIAW and the very first NCAA-sanctioned title in 1982).

Her nickname was “The Hammond Honey”, she drove a white Corvette with vanity plates reading “Kim 20” and she wore her hair in knotted ponytails that she sometimes whipped around to lash defenders who got a bit too cozy.

“She was a little Pete Maravich in our state,” Barmore said. “She could have been good-looking, which she was. She could have had those ponytails, and she did. But she had to be able to play, and she led us to championships.”

Mulkey has coached with that same fire and she has replaced her Corvette with a dazzling kaleidoscope of sideline fashion. She coaches her teams hard because she expects them to play that way. She doesn’t cut refs much slack and she’s a media favorite who answers with the bluntness of a Steve Spurrier.

All that said, why did she leave a program she had turned into a well-oiled perennial national championship machine, even if LSU has matched or has come close to her $2.27 million annual salary at Baylor?

Eventually coming home to finish a career after perfecting your craft and pursuing excellence for decades elsewhere, whether it’s Mulkey or Woodward or even this humble columnist who spent almost 30 years working in Memphis, isn’t something you think about.

Until the offer is in front of you.

Then, you question if the timing is right for you and the people you affect on a daily basis. Do you need something upsetting your life when your career is practically on autopilot or is that nagging gene deep inside you still yearning for a fresh challenge in a new, yet familiar locale?

Finally, as you edge toward 60 years old, you don’t know how many more chances you’ll have to come home and be near long-time friends or aging parents.

Maybe Woodward sold Mulkey on all of that. Or maybe he didn’t need to because the timing was finally copesetic.

“I don’t care where my career takes me, Louisiana will be my home,” Mulkey said almost 10 years ago. “You don’t spend 38 years of your life in a state and not go back to your roots. Those are the greatest years in my life as a college athlete, but with everything in life, change happens.”

And it happened again.

Welcome home Hammond Honey.

Man, it’s going to be a helluva show.

3 Comments

  1. Ron,
    I am so glad you are back writing about LSU. I first read your work in New Orleans, and have been a fan of your writing style and your honesty when it comes to reporting the hits and misses that coaches and players make. Please stay local and dont move away to BFE again.
    Jim Bates

  2. Ron,

    It’s GREAT that Kim Mulkey is coming to LSU. I’m old enough to remember her as a great and feisty point guard for Louisiana Tech back in the day. I’m also fairly sure that LSU is paying her at least what she got at Baylor, and probably more.

    Anyway, your story angle about coming home was right on. Thanks, and keep up the good work!

  3. Fantastic article on Kim . She played for the best women’s coach at Tech Leon Barmore where she took his knowledge and now she has become the best in the land of women’s coaches . She will bring the Lady Tigers to being feared every year . Great job Scott Woodward its been a long time coming to shore that program up .God Bless

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