Baylor coach Kim Mulkey’s leap of faith lands her in Naismith Hall of Fame

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Kim Mulkey sat in the office of Louisiana Tech’s president. It was April 2000, and Mulkey — a former Louisiana Tech player and longtime assistant coach — was the heir apparent to Leon Barmore, who was retiring as the Lady Techsters’ head coach.

Mulkey wanted a five-year contract. She was offered four.

“I went through every feeling imaginable,” Mulkey later wrote in her 2007 book, “Won’t Back Down.” “I got out of my chair, onto my knees and begged that man for a five-year contract. Tears were flying everywhere. It was humiliating.”

When Louisiana Tech stood firm at four years, Mulkey realized: “It was time to go.”

Mulkey then made the biggest leap of faith in her coaching career. Twenty years later, it has landed her in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

People might have forgotten — or aren’t old enough to remember — that it was a jump that Mulkey pleaded to not have to make.

Mulkey — who on Saturday was announced as part of a star-studded nine-person Hall of Fame Class of 2020 that also included Tamika Catchings — left a championship program in the only state she’d ever lived in, Louisiana, for a program in Texas that had never been to the NCAA tournament and was coming off a seven-win season. Today, going from Louisiana Tech to Baylor seems like a no-brainer decision. It was anything but when Mulkey made one of the most significant moves in women’s basketball history.

Mulkey has guided Baylor to three NCAA titles, including last year’s championship, and the Lady Bears have been to one other Final Four. Baylor has won 11 Big 12 regular-season titles, including the last 10 in a row, and 10 Big 12 tournament titles. Tying West Virginia for the 2014 title and losing the tournament final to the Mountaineers in 2017 are the only trophies Baylor has allowed the rest of the conference to have over the past decade.

Mulkey went from one of the former superpowers of the sport to create her own essentially from the ground up, a Hall of Fame coaching résumé if ever there was one. Mulkey is so highly competitive, and was so ready to be a head coach when she first ascended to that role a month before turning 38, that her success seemed destined.

Yet it was one pivotal day two decades ago that dramatically altered her path and that of both Louisiana Tech and Baylor. A disagreement over one year that changed the next 20 — and beyond.

In March 2000, Louisiana Tech was coming off two consecutive Final Four appearances. Barmore ended what seemed like a routine pre-NCAA tournament news conference with the shocking announcement that he would retire when the season ended.

At 55, he didn’t seem ready to retire, but he felt he was holding back Mulkey, who’d been an assistant for 15 years. Everyone assumed the school would look no further than its own bench to replace him. Mulkey had played on two national championship teams (one AIWA and one NCAA) and been an assistant for another. She’d spent her entire adult life at Louisiana Tech and was Barmore’s so-called heir apparent.

But Mulkey wrote in her book with Peter May that Louisiana Tech dawdled in even talking to her about the job, and in the meantime Baylor expressed great interest. She had already turned down three other head-coaching offers in recent years.

It wasn’t until after Louisiana Tech’s Elite Eight loss that the school began negotiating with Mulkey. So she visited Baylor, which had already offered the job. Still, her loyalty — her whole life to that point — was with Louisiana Tech.

Mulkey said the final dispute was this: She wanted that five-year deal. Louisiana Tech’s then-president Dan Reneau wouldn’t budge from four.

How many coaches would wait 15 years for an opening and then refuse it because they didn’t get one more year on their contract? But to Mulkey, it was a sign her loyalty might not be reciprocated. If they were battling her over contract terms now, what else would they fight over in the future? Louisiana Tech countered that the dispute was more over things like shoe contract money, which Mulkey said wasn’t even discussed.

Baylor, meanwhile, had taken the recommendation of its outgoing coach Sonja Hogg, who’d coached Mulkey in college, that she would be an excellent hire. Then-Baylor athletic director Tom Stanton envisioned the school becoming a much bigger power in the Big 12 in all sports, including women’s basketball.

Plus, the landscape had been changing for a while in women’s basketball. Several schools had not started funding varsity programs until after Title IX was signed into law in 1972. Many early powers in the sport — like Immaculata, Delta State, Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion — were not from big conferences. But then those leagues started putting more money into women’s basketball.

Louisiana Tech had managed to defy that and stay near the top, but the school was entering its last year in the Sun Belt before heading to the more geographically challenging Western Athletic Conference in 2001. Travel would be more expensive and money tighter all-around at Louisiana Tech.

Mulkey had realized that too when she made the leap, but she said that wouldn’t have deterred her if she’d been given the five-year deal. Still, in the late spring of 2000, adjusting to the new town of Waco, she tossed and turned, worried that she’d made a big mistake. But it was Louisiana Tech that did.

The Lady Techsters didn’t immediately fall off the radar; Barmore actually returned for two more years, including another Elite Eight run in 2001. Kurt Budke also had success in three seasons there with two Sweet 16 appearances. But the Lady Techsters missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2006-07, under Chris Long. They’ve only made the Big Dance twice since, in 2010 and ’11 under alum Teresa Weatherspoon.

Could Mulkey have maintained at least some semblance of Louisiana Tech’s dominance into today? All things considered, that would have been a challenge; she might have ended up going elsewhere a few years later. But if anyone could have done it, it was her.

Prior to Mulkey, Baylor’s best league finish was tied for fourth in the Southwest Conference in 1983 and best postseason success was making the WNIT final in 1998. The Lady Bears had just finished last in the Big 12 when Mulkey took over. Five years later, Baylor won the national championship.

The Lady Bears have reached at least the Sweet 16 in 14 of the last 16 seasons, the exceptions being second-round losses in 2007 and ’08. Mulkey has had her heartbreaking losses — the biggest being in the Sweet 16 to Louisville in 2013, when Baylor was defending champion.

And she has had some controversies, as has the Baylor athletic department. That intersected in 2017, with Mulkey’s comments to a postgame crowd suggesting that if someone said Baylor was a bad place to go to school because of the sexual assault scandal that plagued the athletic department, they should be punched. She apologized, saying her emotions got the best of her, and she has never denied being a very passionate coach.

That passion, actually, is a big part of what led her to Baylor in the first place. Mulkey had waited a long time for what she — and everyone else — thought was her dream job. She didn’t take it.

But the choice she made has brought her to the Hall of Fame.

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