It seems as if a five-month cloud has hung over LSU, a deluge of Title IX atrocities in the Tigers’ football program mostly during the Les Miles era exposed by a series of USA Today stories prompting a university-commissioned investigative report.
Almost daily, nauseating and embarrassing details were revealed. LSU, as a school and athletic program, is regarded nationally as an out-of-control Animal House.
Louisiana legislators held hearings and wanted anybody’s head from LSU on a platter. A current football office employee filed a $50 million lawsuit against the school. Interim president Tom Galligan, who inherited the mess and started to take steps to fix the problem, doesn’t want to be hired as president and prefers to return being an anonymous law school professor out of the line of fire.
But on a clear, blue sunny Monday morning, LSU’s private jet delivered a ray of sunshine sorely needed as much for her people skills to galvanize deep-pocket donors and common folk as she is for her national championship coaching abilities.
Soon-to-be-Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and south Louisiana native Kim Mulkey, a 58-year-old three-time national championship coach who averaged 30 wins per season in 21 years guiding Baylor University, hopped off the Tigers’ plane clapping and immediately gave a big hug to the man who hired her as LSU’s women’s head coach.
In turn, LSU athletics director Scott Woodward returned the love and didn’t stop smiling the rest of the day.
“If you play for her, you will finish your career with a diploma in one hand and there’s a pretty good darned chance you’ll finish with a championship ring on the other,” Woodward said at the start of Mulkey’s public purple-and-gold coronation in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center late Monday afternoon.
Executive deputy athletics director and chief operating officer Stephanie Rempe worked the financial numbers of Mulkey’s reported $2.5 million contract. Retired LSU gymnastic coach D-D Breaux, in her role as school ambassador, repeatedly contacted Mulkey to convince her to come home.
“I called her so many times that if she were a recruit it would have been illegal,” said Breaux, who Mulkey acknowledged saying “D-D Breaux could sell ice to an eskimo.”
But Mulkey said it was Woodward who swayed her in a 10-minute phone call that she was needed far beyond the basketball court because of the Title IX negativity hangover.
“Scott and I were on the same page because it wasn’t just about basketball,” Mulkey said. “It was about a lot of things he thought I could help him with, not just at LSU but in the state of Louisiana. It touched home with me, and it touched my heart.
“I can assure you I didn’t just come here to win championships. I came here to make an impact at the right time at an institution that needs something really positive.”
It wasn’t only Mulkey’s win-loss record that made her the apple of Woodward’s eye. It was also her intangibles.
“She is the most passionate coach in the country,” he said. “She’s the most authentic coach in the country.”
Passion has driven Mulkey to be a champion her entire athletic life. It transformed her from 5-4 pocket rocket point guard who led Hammond High to four straight high school championships and Louisiana Tech to back-to-back national titles into a fireball Baylor head coach who produced a trio of national championships including an incredible undefeated 40-0 run to the 2012 title.
“It’s no secret I do coach with passion, I do coach with intensity,” Mulkey said. “But I think I learned that from the great state of Louisiana. We’re fighters here. I’m going to fight for my team, I’m going to fight for LSU and I’m always going to fight and defend the state of Louisiana.”
Yet, what makes people – players, fans and strangers – gravitate toward Mulkey is her undeniable authenticity.
She can tell you remembers LSU running back and former Hammond High star Brad Davis catching the TD pass vs. Ole Miss in 1972 as time expired.
She told Collis Temple Jr., the first African-American basketball player at LSU from Kentwood High in the early 1970s, that she remembers watching him play when she was a little girl.
“For Louisiana, clearly for LSU, for Tangipahoa Parish, this (hiring Mulkey) is a godsend,” said Temple, now an LSU Board of Supervisors member . .we basically just hired the female version of Nick Saban.”
Mulkey is so spellbindingly adept at zigging and zagging her thoughts, voice tones and facial expressions you’d think she majored in theatre at Louisiana Tech instead of business administration.
But it’s not fake. It’s who she has been every day of her life and once Mulkey gets rolling on such a grand occasion as Monday’s homecoming welcome, she just empties her emotional tank.
Those in attendance, including returning members of LSU women’s team, got 30 minutes of a full-metal jacket Mulkey, starting with a nod to her son and former Tigers’ shortstop Kramer Robertson
She opened her speech by ripping off her COVID-19 mask, flipping it over her shoulder saying, “Well, I’m gonna take this damned mask off, ‘cause I have a lot to say.
“First of all, Kramer’s mom has come home.”
From that point, Mulkey alternated folksy, funny and fiery, touching every nerve and skipping no detail.
When she spied Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards sitting in the front row, just for a moment you thought the event should have been held sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of a general store on the 11 miles of Highway 51 between Mulkey’s hometown of Tickfaw and Edwards hometown of Amite.
“John Bel is not as good-looking as his daddy Frank was,” Mulkey said with a laugh, “nor was he as smart as his momma who worked in Lolly Kemp charity hospital in Independence.”
Mulkey also expressed her relief, as do many Louisiana natives who move back to the state, that she is permanently reunited again with Louisiana cuisine such as crawfish and Ponchatoula strawberries.
“I miss my food from Louisiana,” Mulkey said. “And I can now tell Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes, and people don’t look at me like I’ve lost my mind.”
She paid tribute to late LSU women’s basketball coach Sue Gunter saying, “If I can do what Sue Gunter did at LSU, Scott can’t fire me.”
Mulkey also brought the intensity she is known for when she had current members of the Tigers’ women’s team stand, turn and gaze upward where LSU’s Final Four banners hang.
“Nowhere on those banners does it say `national champion’ and that’s what I came here to do,” Mulkey said as she slapped the lectern for emphasis.
“National championships don’t happen overnight. Let me remind you rabid LSU fans that can be crazy and want coaches fired tomorrow, give it time. Give it time.”
Mulkey also unflinchingly addressed the elephant in the room – her annual LSU salary in an eight-year contract that starts $2.5 million. That’s the same salary as Tigers’ men’s basketball coach Will Wade, as well as a slight bump of her $2.27 million per year at Baylor and substantially more than the $700,000 annually paid to previous Tigers’ women’s coach Nikki Fargas.
“How do you get a coach to leave an institution that has had so much success?” Mulkey said. “The first thing you’re going to wonder is, `Goddddd, she got a boatload of moneeeeey.’
“My boat does not float because of money. Yes, it took some money to get me away from Baylor. But I can assure you that anybody who knows me, I’ll wear the same warm-up the whole season in practice because I’m too lazy to spend money and buy something else.”
LSU had tried to persuade Mulkey to leave Baylor a couple of times before, the last occasion 10 years when former Tigers’ athletic director Joe Alleva hired former Tennessee player Fargas away from UCLA.
So why finally come home now?
“The timing in your life is so important,” Mulkey said. “If it doesn’t feel right at that time in your life you don’t do it. If it feels right, you do it.
“That’s another part of why I’m here. The timing in my life, it felt right.”