The Southern swagger of Kim Mulkey

DENVER — She has one eye that barely blinks and a side of her mouth that doesn’t move because of a recent diagnosis with Bell’s palsy.

None of that deters Kim Mulkey from looking the questioner straight in the eye and telling her exactly what she thinks. Especially if the question is meant to put her just a little bit on the spot.

On Monday, the day before her Baylor team faces Notre Dame for the women’s NCAA basketball championship, Mulkey was asked if she understood why there are those — primarily women’s sports activists — who find the Lady Bears’ nickname offensive.

Mulkey, a self-professed “country girl from Louisiana,” didn’t hesitate to reply, and in a gentle Southern manner hinting at deeper subtleties the questioner may not have fully understood.

Baylor, with coach Kim Mulkey and All-American Brittney Griner, could become the first NCAA women's team to go 40 if the Lady Bears defeat Notre Dame Tuesday.

Baylor, with coach Kim Mulkey and player of the year Brittney Griner, could become the first 40-0 NCAA women's team if the Lady Bears defeat Notre Dame in Tuesday's national title game.

“We’re from the South. We still say yes ma’am and no ma’am. I think it’s a tradition of respect, believe it or not, than it is disrespect from people on the outside.”

Mulkey also wondered aloud that “too much is made of it.”

She wasn’t the only one, given the enormous stakes on the line Tuesday at the Pepsi Center.

The Lady Bears — for that is what they call themselves — are 39-0, matching the record of Tennessee’s 1998 NCAA title team and UConn championship squads from 2002, 2009 and 2010. In going 40-0, they would set a new mark for wins by a title team.

With the 2005 NCAA title in tow and most of her core team returning next season, including national player of the year Brittney Griner and All-American point guard Odyssey Sims, Mulkey has the makings of a dynasty in Waco, a true threat to the dominance UConn and Tennessee have enjoyed since the mid-1990s.

Who cares about a nickname?

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, does, as she continued her longstanding diatribes against anything the women’s sports establishment finds “demeaning.” During her 161-word question/Women’s Sports Foundation gospel reading (give or take a dozen contractions), The Stenographer of the Sisterhood was sure to mention Title IX and laud Mulkey as a “role model” for young girls and women.

For all of her unvarnished advocacy for women’s sports and complaints about a lack of media coverage of women’s basketball, Brennan might have done better to familiarize herself with the Southern culture of the sport, and Southern society in general. For Mulkey is steeped in the deepest traditions of a game that for girls in her native Louisiana and elsewhere in Deep South was embraced more than it was rebuffed.

A diminutive fireball with braided pigtails, Mulkey arrived at Louisiana Tech out of Hammond, La., in 1980, playing for the flamboyant Sonja Hogg, with her silvery hair, snappy attire and keen sense of marketing and branding. She changed the women’s nickname to “Lady Techsters” from the school’s generic “Bulldogs,” famously quipping that “I just didn’t want us to be the Lady Bulldogs. I could hear people saying, ‘There comes Coach Hogg and all of her little bitches.’ ”

During the final years of the AIAW era, Louisiana Tech battled Old Dominion for dominance, as the power centers of the sport were shifting from small schools like Immaculata, Delta State and Wayland Baptist and ultimately to Tennessee, UCLA and Texas in the early NCAA years.

As a freshman, Mulkey was the starting point guard for the 1981 AIAW national champions who went 34-0 and prompted Tennessee coach Pat Head (now Summitt) to declare that Louisiana Tech “has the two best teams in America.” In 1982, the Lady Techsters went 35-1 and were crowned the first NCAA champions.

Asked Monday if her present team was better, Mulkey unabashedly declared that it is: “We kick their butt. I’m on that team. I’ll take Odyssey Sims on any day. But I don’t compare teams. I don’t compare generations.”

Mulkey played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team coached by Summitt, then became an assistant to Leon Barmore, Hogg’s co-coach and sideline wizard, as Tech won another NCAA title (its last) in 1988.

When Barmore retired in 2000, she was offered the job, but with only a four-year contract. Insistent on job security and demanding no less than five, Mulkey turned it down, and went to Baylor, where Hogg was her predecessor but had been only 7-20 in her final year.

In five years, the Lady Bears were NCAA champions, the result of Mulkey’s relentlessness in every aspect of her job. Her memoir, “Won’t Back Down,” describes the tenacity that led her to be the first person to win an NCAA championship as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

Along the way, her Southern swagger — a combination of the ultra-confidence fostered at Tech, her occasional outspokenness, a fiery sideline demeanor and her penchant for eye-catching game outfits — has become the embodiment one of the sport’s giant coaching personalities.

“She tells me all the time she could beat me one-on-one and she could take me to the hole,” says Sims, a rugged sophomore and designated defensive stopper. “I just tell her ‘Your days are over, you don’t do that any more.’ We joke around about crazy stuff but coach is always going to talk noise. We just get a kick out of it. She always tells [Griner] she can take her to the hole too.”

For all the bluster, Mulkey proudly regards her persona as “old school.” The divorced mother of a daughter, Makenzie Robertson, a reserve Baylor player, and Kramer Robertson, who will attend LSU on a baseball scholarship, the 49-year-old Mulkey disdains “all that social media junk.” She ignores blog comments and message board material that truly demean players (especially Griner), far more than calling a female basketball player a “Lady” ever will.

“This is someone’s child,” Mulkey says, with motherly passion rising in her voice. “This is a human being, people. She didn’t wake up and say: ‘God, make me 6-8, make me have the ability to dunk. This child is as precious as they come. She just makes me happy.”

Slow-talking and plainspoken, Mulkey understands the outside image others have of her. She says that raising children changed her life, and that it helps with her Baylor players.

“Really, I’m not tough, that’s what’s so funny,” she says. “You see me on the sideline and that’s what I do. I get a little bit of an advantage because I have to deal with my own children and what motivates them, and they give me some insight because they’re the same age as the athletes I get to coach.

“But yeah, I could coach them. In fact, I could make some of them a little bit tougher than they are.”

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One Comment

    Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    What a great article. i love it!! what a gr8 inside to coach as a person.