After 21 seasons of crafting one of the nation’s top women’s basketball programs into a powerhouse, Kim Mulkey never considered leaving Baylor University.
That was until the unmistakable lure of home tugged at her heart strings and suddenly an overture from LSU turned into a homecoming.
The 58-year-old Mulkey, a native Tickfaw, completed a stunning turn of events, leaving her lofty perch at Baylor to restore LSU’s once-proud program where she was introduced April 26 as the school’s eighth women’s basketball coach amid a gala of sorts on the floor of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“I had been at Baylor for 21 years,” Mulkey said. “We built that program from the ground up. There’s only one institution I would have left for and they made the commitment and I’m home.”
Mulkey’s recurring theme of returning to her roots, some 40 minutes away located in Tangipahoa Parish, was literally played on a loop throughout her 30-minute news conference before a crowd that covered half of the floor – including fellow Tangipahoa Parish native Gov. John Bel Edwards – filled in the majority of the arena’s lower bowl that contained LSU’s pep band for the occasion.
It easily rivaled the average crowds of 720 fans LSU played before last season because of reduced capacity restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mulkey said she was aware the school had received 600 deposits on season tickets for the 2021-22 season, a number that surpassed 1,000 by Monday evening.
The hiring of Mulkey, a three-time national champion at Baylor, coincides with the departure of Nikki Fargas, who after 10 years of guiding the LSU program, resigned that post to reportedly pursue a position with the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.
Fargas led the Tigers to the NCAA tournament six times and to a pair of Sweet 16 appearances. The Tigers, which missed the last two NCAA tournaments that were available, hadn’t won a postseason game in seven years.
“I didn’t just come here to just win championships,” Mulkey said. “I came here to make an impact at the right time at an institution that needs something really positive. I came back to my home state.”
The hiring of Mulkey, whose contract terms weren’t disclosed, signaled the dawn of a new day for an LSU program which at one point reeled off a record five consecutive Final Four appearances (2004-08) under the late Sue Gunter and Pokey Chatman.
Mulkey asked members of LSU’s current team to stand and turn toward those banners hanging in the PMAC’s rafters with a definitive mission statement.
“Nowhere does it say national champion,” she said. “That’s what I came here to do.”
Following a successful 19-year run at Louisiana Tech as a player and assistant coach, where the Lady Techsters made 11 trips to the Final Four and won three national titles, Mulkey took over a Baylor program that had never advanced to the NCAA tournament.
She made the Bears relevant in a relatively short period of time, building the program in five years into a national champion.
“There are great coaches all over this country but it’s not every day you get to hire a champion,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said. “That’s exactly what Kim Mulkey is. A champion.”
Mulkey subsequently guided Baylor to national championships in 2012 – an unprecedented 40-0 finish – and 2019, becoming the only other program aside from UConn to be crowned national champions three times over the past two decades.
The Bears also made a total of four Finals Fours, six Elite Eights and five Sweet 16s. They also captured a total of 23 Big 12 titles that ranged from regular season championships to Big 12 tournament titles.
Mulkey became one of three coaches (the others being Bobby Knight and Dean Smith) to win national championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
Moreover, she became the coach – male or female – to win 600 career games the fastest at the Division I level and has a career mark of 632-104 for a .859 winning percentage – the third best of all-time.
“I had many opportunities to leave, and this is the only one that could get me to leave,” said Mulkey, an eight-time national Coach of the Year. “Thank you for bringing me back home.”
Mulkey’s playing career also includes four state championships as a player at Hammond High and claimed two national titles in four trips to the Final Four with Louisiana Tech.
Her career record during those eight years of her playing career – 266-11.
Mulkey also struck gold in 1984 as a member of the U.S. Olympic team.
“One of the most accomplished and respected coaches in American sports history is now a Tiger,” LSU interim president Tom Galligan said.
Mulkey has been further celebrated for her playing and coaching career as a member in nine different hall of fames in both Louisiana and Texas. Next month she will be enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame where she will be presented by fellow Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.
“In talking about national championships, it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Mulkey, who coached 19 All Americans at Baylor and had a 100 percent graduation rate among players that completed their careers. “Give it time. I can assure you that’s what I came here to do.”
LSU’s pursuit of Mulkey wasn’t described as a full-court press, but more of a fast break initiated by Woodward early last week, Mulkey said. Woodward offered her job the latter part of the week, she considered LSU’s offer (she was making more than $2.27 million at Baylor and will reportedly receive $2.5 million to start at LSU) and was LSU’s coach on Sunday after telling her team at Baylor she was headed home to coach the Tigers.
Tears were shed, first those of sadness for the team she was leaving behind in Waco, Texas, followed by tears of joy for the program she was about to coach.
“She’s the most passionate coach in the country,” Woodward said. “She’s the most authentic coach in the country and she instills pride in her players, her program and her institution. Most importantly LSU is home. That’s where Kim Mulkey is now. The best coach in the country is coming home to Louisiana.”