Kim Mulkey knew her departure came as a surprise. “One of the most-asked questions,” she admitted, “will be why I would leave one of the most successful programs in the country.” That was 20 years ago, when the Hall of Famer was 37-year-old Kim Mulkey-Robertson. She had recently turned down the top job at Louisiana Tech, the storied women’s basketball school where she’d played and worked as an assistant her entire adult life, for a five-year, $200,000 head coaching contract at Baylor University.
The questions aren’t too different this time around. After 20 years and three national championships in Waco, Mulkey is leaving the program she built into a powerhouse from nothing, and going back to her home state of Louisiana. On Sunday, Louisiana State announced it had poached Mulkey to replace the departing Nikki Fargas. The sport’s already crowded and competitive SEC grows slightly more crowded and competitive. It’s a blockbuster hire, certainly by the mostly static standards of women’s college basketball, but really by those of college athletics. Schools don’t roll out a private plane, a purple carpet, opening remarks delivered by the actual governor of Louisiana, and a rather sheepish-looking Ed Orgeron, mumbling some stuff about respect, for just anyone.
Mulkey’s introductory press conference Monday evening was a characteristic one: businesslike, weird, and with some negging. First, she made a theatrical display of tossing aside her mask, a kind of coda to the Unsolicited COVID Takes she shared after Baylor’s tournament loss in March. She thanked Governor John Bel Edwards for his kind words and then offered him a few of her own: He was neither as handsome as his father nor as smart as his mother. There was lots of talk about crawfish and Ponchatoula strawberries. She asked the assembled group to look up at LSU’s Final Four banners and pointed out that none of them were championship banners, before reminding everyone she was there to change that. She alluded to another calling, too. “I assure you, I didn’t just come here to win championships,” Mulkey said. “I came here to make an impact at the right time at an institution that needs something really positive.”
A brief confession: I think Kim Mulkey is among the worst and most fascinating people in America. As a study of the assorted anxieties of the women’s basketball world and its fundamental conservatism, she works marvelously. And I’m not sure she’s ever so neatly described her life’s work as she did there in that line. Mulkey understands image and appearance to be the real foundation of a successful college program. She learned this from the best, her college coach and Lady Techsters legend, Sonja Hogg. (My favorite Hogg story: She disowned Louisiana Tech’s original mascot, the bulldog, because “a lady dog is a bitch.”) “We always have to look like ladies,” a 21-year-old Mulkey said in a 1983 Sports Illustrated profile of Hogg’s program. “Sometimes it’s a pain, but if you want to be a national champion, you have to look like one.”
At Baylor, that way of thinking took an elevated form. By now, Brittney Griner’s experience as a gay athlete at Baylor, where she was discouraged by Mulkey from being open about her sexuality because it might affect recruiting, is infamous in college basketball. More broadly, though, Mulkey saw the potential for her program to function in terms of uplift and rehabilitation. It could look good, and win, and so long as it did that, it could make other undeserving people and institutions around it look good, too. “This one was for Baylor University, who needed a shining light and then it beamed across an entire nation,” Mulkey said at a team banquet after winning the 2005 championship. She partook in a lot of that in her time at Baylor, invocation of the dark days in Waco, though it always stopped just short of why the days were so dark or whether a championship really made up for any of the darkness the men’s basketball scandal wrought in the early 2000s. Mulkey was celebrating her 500th career victory in 2017 when she told the crowd, in the aftermath of Art Briles’s firing and the football program’s sexual assault scandal, “If somebody’s around you and they say, ‘I will never send my daughter to Baylor,’ you knock them right in the face.”
So it clearly isn’t lost on Mulkey that she’s descending on LSU at a moment the athletic department is under federal investigation for its mishandling of sexual misconduct cases, and months after it came out in a lawsuit that the school worked to cover up accounts of Les Miles’s sexual harassment. The day of Mulkey’s press conference, USA Today reported that seven women have filed a lawsuit against LSU in which they say the school’s interest in protecting its athletic department’s reputation created a “culture of silence” that made it impossible for victims of sexual misconduct to be heard. In a column on the Mulkey hire for The Athletic, Chantel Jennings wrote that “any half-decent PR person who had a seat at that table in Baton Rouge certainly would’ve brought up the optics.”
But there are different ways to address a community’s pain. One, yes, is to manage it thoughtfully and sensitively. Another is to throw a party so big and festive that enough people forget they were ever upset, to shine a light bright enough it blinds. While it doesn’t fully explain the peculiar divorce—she’ll be getting a pay bump, but the leading theory for Mulkey’s leaving involves a fight over Baylor’s plans to construct a new arena in downtown Waco rather than on campus—there is something perfect about the next marriage. Kim Mulkey is a company woman. So long as she is on your payroll, she will champion your rot and make righteous your sin. Her teams can win, and they can make everyone else look better in the process. In this crude and narrow sense, she’s the consummate college coach and LSU has made an excellent hire.