Kim Mulkey stokes the fire at Baylor
This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
WACO, Texas -- On an unusually cold December afternoon in central Texas, a persistent breeze made temperatures in the low-50s feel even chillier. But Gaylynn Shaffer came prepared. All cozy in a green and gold Baylor hooded sweatshirt, Shaffer sat in the shotgun seat of her friend Denny Sue Lynam's Mazda Tribute SUV outside the Ferrell Center at Baylor University, debating whether to eat the sandwich she'd brought from home.
It was a little after 4 p.m. on a Thursday, about three hours before the Baylor women's basketball team would face the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in a nonconference game. In most parts of the country, there is no reason to arrive this early for a women's basketball game. Especially for season-ticket holders like Shaffer and Lynam.
But the Lady Bears and their fiery coach, Kim Mulkey, are a huge deal in this city of about 125,000 smack between Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin. Since Mulkey's arrival from Louisiana Tech in 2000, attendance at Lady Bears games has skyrocketed from 1,508 to last year's school-record 7,933, sixth-best in the nation. A 2005 NCAA championship helped, along with another Final Four appearance in 2010 and an Elite Eight berth last season.
This year, the Lady Bears sold 6,384 season tickets for the Ferrell Center, which holds about 10,300. Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III regularly attends games, and former Baylor football coach Grant Teaff and his wife, Donell, have season tickets. The joint jumps. In the town where Dr. Pepper was invented, Ferrell is the hottest place to be.
"They're all into it," said Brittney Griner, Baylor's 6-foot-8 center. "They know everything. They know the stats, they know your high school, they know what you like to eat.
"The crowd and the community, they're really into women's basketball. They know the history. I found that unique. Most towns, it's either football or men's basketball, especially Texas for football."
Most Baylor observers attribute that to Mulkey, 49, who transformed the program and its fans through her personality and force of will. Mulkey's down-home frankness, devotion to her two children and demand for excellence from everyone around her -- on the court, in the classroom and even in the stands -- resonates with Baylor's predominantly senior citizen fan base.
"Whatever the 'it' factor is, she's got it," said Leon Barmore, the Women's Basketball Hall of Famer who coached Mulkey at Louisiana Tech and hired her there as an assistant. Barmore later came out of retirement to join Mulkey's staff at Baylor for three seasons before returning home to Ruston, La., after last season.
"She's got charisma. She's got energy," Barmore said. "She's got a program now that's kind of like the Louisiana Tech program in the 1980s. The fans just flocked out here. And they're not in a gigantic city where it's hard to get to the game and that stuff. They're coming out to the game, and they're coming out in droves."
Of the 25 biggest crowds to see the Baylor women, 24 have come with Mulkey coaching. The only exception: the 1998 WNIT final against Penn State. There will be another big house Sunday night (ESPN and ESPN3, 8:30 p.m. ET), when the top-ranked and undefeated Lady Bears play No. 2 UConn, a game that sold out two weeks ago, earlier than any other.
"I hate that I can't accommodate everyone who has called me for tickets," Mulkey said.
Many fans, like Shaffer and her husband, Calvin, and friend Lynam, arrive early to claim the few unreserved handicapped spaces in the small lot nearest the Ferrell Center. The school sells season handicapped parking in that lot but leaves seven or eight free spaces available on a first-come, first-serve basis. There are more handicapped spaces in another lot served by a shuttle, but Shaffer and Lynam would rather park close. It means getting there hours in advance. Yet Shaffer doesn't mind.
"I've got this thing about the Lady Bears and Kim Mulkey," said a beaming Shaffer, a 1974 Baylor graduate.
"Let me tell you a thing about Kim Mulkey: She's a rare bird. She's probably the best motivator of young people you could ever meet. Just talking to her a little bit, she's motivated me at lot. And she doesn't care if you've got $3 or $3 million, she'll speak to you. She's always got time for her fans."
Straight-shooting with the fans
Every month or so, the Baylor women's basketball Tip-Off Club holds a luncheon in a function room at Floyd Casey Stadium, overlooking the football field. It's always packed. People line up an hour early to stake out a table close to the podium, where Mulkey speaks for a while then takes questions from the audience.
The room is laid out wide rather than deep. At last week's luncheon, about 400 people jammed in, eating chicken or roast beef with salad and brownies off paper plates. Those who only see Mulkey operate on the sideline -- the flashy clothes, the intense eyes, the piercing voice audible throughout even the loudest arenas -- would be stunned to see the side Mulkey shows in this format.
Dressed in what she says is her favorite attire of sweats with no makeup, Mulkey took questions for 45 minutes. Longtime Baylor boosters say the Q&A portion is a show in itself. Speaking with candor and cracking jokes, Mulkey so enraptured the audience that everyone sat quietly, hanging on every word. Only once, near the end, did a cell phone go off.
Until last week, Mulkey had never permitted a reporter to attend one of these luncheons. She agreed to this time, on one condition: Nothing she said in that room could be repeated.
All we can tell you is this: If presidential news conferences were as entertaining as The Mulkey Show, they would draw higher ratings than "Dancing with the Stars." Fans know they can ask Mulkey pretty much anything, and Mulkey usually responds, even to the most personal questions.
"Those fans feel like, not only is Kim their coach, Kim's their daughter," Barmore said. "They feel like they can say things and do things as if it's inside their home. It's a unique thing. It's not like that everywhere. I give Kim credit for being open and honest with them."
Five years ago, while Mulkey and her husband, Randy Robertson, were divorcing, Mulkey said someone at a luncheon asked why she wasn't wearing her wedding ring. Long after the divorce was finalized, another asked if she had started dating. (Mulkey often says she hasn't dated since her divorce and won't in the near future to avoid stressing out her daughter, Makenzie, a sophomore reserve for the Lady Bears, and son, Kramer, a prep standout in football and baseball.)
"I'm not offended by it, and they're not offended by my remarks," Mulkey said in her office the next day. "I will let them know when it is something they need to know, and when it's not. That's a security I have in who I am. I'm transparent. What you see is what you get. Like me or not, you're going to usually get an answer that is just brutally honest.
"In some small way, it makes them feel even more a part of the program. Any curiosities or any gossip that you heard, here's the chance to get it from the horse's mouth."
Mulkey's forthrightness drew national attention two months ago at Big 12 media day in Kansas City, Mo. Asked whether she would keep scheduling Texas A&M after it leaves for the Southeastern Conference, Mulkey reminded reporters that A&M president R. Bowen Loftin compared the move to a divorce.
"My feeling is this," Mulkey said. "If a man wants to divorce me and says our relationship has no value to him, and then he asks me if he can sleep with me, the answer is, 'No!'"
That played favorably with the Baylor fan base, which dislikes the Aggies. Mulkey's unwavering insistence that her family comes first, ahead of her job, is another plus. Last Friday night, while the Lady Bears flew to New York City in advance of Sunday's Maggie Dixon Classic; Mulkey stayed behind to watch Kramer quarterback Waco Midway to a 51-20 rout of John Tyler in the state 4A Division I semifinals. She flew up the next morning.
"I think my honesty is appreciated," Mulkey said. "I think what you see in that room is, they really relate to me being single, having a job and never losing sight of the fact that those two kids I raise are more important than anything I do."
Sam Crain and his wife, Vicki, season-ticket holders since 1998, are among those drawn to Mulkey's values and commitment to excellence. "She's the type of coach every one of us wish we had, the type of coach you wish your kid had and the type of coach and person you'd want to leave your kid with," Crain said. "And that rubs off on 7,000 people."
Recruiting an audience
When Mulkey arrived in Waco in 2000 to replace the retiring Sonja Hogg, attendance had fallen off more than 2,000 a game from a high of 3,657 in 1997-98, the WNIT season. Mulkey needed to recruit fans as well as players, so she agreed to speak to any local group that would have her.
"The first thing we tried to do was put a hardworking product on the floor, where the fans would appreciate their efforts," said associate head coach Bill Brock, who except for a three-year stint at Texas Tech has been on Baylor's staff since Mulkey arrived.
"There were numerous things done in the community, mostly by Kim -- all kinds of speaking engagements, trying to involve the community in the women's basketball program, to try to create for us a following. We're just telling people, 'Come give us a chance, see if you like it. If you don't like it, all you've done is lost one game. We think you will like it.' That's exactly what happened. The fans multiplied quickly."
Attendance more than doubled that first season, when the Lady Bears improved from 7-20 to 21-9 and earned the program's first NCAA tournament bid. The fan base grew from there. Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw recalled that when the Lady Bears sold out a game for the first time, against Texas in January 2005, a police official called him over and said he had a problem: His officers were about to arrest scalpers outside.
"I said to him, 'You think that's a problem? I think it's great news,'" McCaw said. "To get to the point where we had scalpers at a women's basketball game, that really told me that our program had reached a whole different level in terms of fan support and excitement."
In a football-mad state, Mulkey discovered Baylor's new fans needed to learn and appreciate the game's nuances, like drawing a charge or a key defensive stop. In those first years, the running gag around the program was that fans cheered more for an in-game pizza giveaway than anything on the court.
"I always talked about that in my speeches around the community," Mulkey said. "I wanted to live to see the day where we cheer more for the game than we do for a free pizza."
So Mulkey talked strategy and basketball philosophy at her speaking engagements and Tip-Off luncheons. She also invited fans to watch practice, which few coaches permit anymore. "I have nothing to hide," she said. "This game is simple. Coaches want to make it harder than it is." The same caveat applies at practice as the luncheons: Nothing Mulkey says to her players leaves the building.
Quickly, fans picked up on things. "I've learned a lot of basketball since I've started going to practice," said Dr. David Hoffman, a vascular surgeon in Waco who has had season tickets since 2001 and occasionally flies on the team charter to road games.
"When you win, wow, that solves a lot of problems," Mulkey said. "But when you are visible in the community, when you are accessible to the community -- not just me as the head coach, but when you allow your program and your players to be accessible to them -- they feel a connection. And they feel an ownership-type of thing: This is our team. I've just seen it grow to where we are today."
There are still times when Mulkey, with one dramatic wave of her arm, must prompt the crowd to rise from Ferrell's green seats. "We love it, because when she raises her hands to get the crowd going, she does it once, and everyone erupts," senior guard Lindsay Palmer said. "It's so funny. It's like everyone's talking to their neighbor, 'She said to cheer!'"
But for the most part, the crowd understands. The crowning moment came last season, when Tennessee played at the Ferrell Center for the first time.
In interviews, Mulkey mentioned how much Vols coach Pat Summitt meant to her and her career; Mulkey won an Olympic gold medal playing for Summitt in 1984. When Summitt walked out before the game, fans gave her a standing ovation. Mulkey was still in the locker room and didn't learn of the reaction until her son told her after the game.
"I was just so proud," Mulkey said.
Fashioning a winner
Game night. The school announces a crowd of 7,066 for Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but with exams in progress and little doubt about the outcome -- the Panthers, from the Horizon League, are 2-5 with only one starter taller than 5-foot-11 -- there appear to be about 2,000 no-shows.
Mulkey is the last one out of the locker room. Fashionistas in the crowd take note of her clothing: a white and blue patterned jacket, gray slacks and a matching blouse. Mulkey said she wished she could coach in sweats, like Bob Huggins. "I'd do it," she said. "But the game is just not at that point."
From her schoolgirl days, Mulkey has liked dressing nicely. But she no longer has the time or the patience to spend hours in a store trying on clothes. Friends who enjoy shopping pick out things for her and bring them to her house. She keeps what she likes and returns the rest.
"I want to represent Baylor in the most professional way that I can, whether it's at a speaking engagement or on the sideline," Mulkey said. "I do not sit there and go, 'God, what do I wear for the next game to look good?' There's no plan. There's no process in my head of what I'm going to wear every game. I just walk in the closet about 30 minutes before getting dressed and say, 'OK, this fits me today, I'll wear it.'"
As always, a tape of Mulkey giving a pregame speech in the locker room appears on the video board, pumping up the crowd. But the Lady Bears need little help this night. The undersized Panthers can't defend Griner, the consensus preseason player of the year whom Barmore calls a cross between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton: a dominant low-post player and shot-blocker with rapidly improving passing skills. Griner finishes with 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting without committing a turnover, and makes it look effortless.
"These last two years I was there, her freshman and sophomore years, and I saw so much greatness there it's unbelievable," Barmore said. "She's not a guard like [Diana] Taurasi or Cheryl Miller. But at the end of these two years, I think people will write this kid up as the greatest that's ever played."
The crowd usually feeds off Mulkey. If she's excited, walking around pumping her fist, they're excited. When she argues with the officials, which happens frequently, the fans get on them.
Sometimes Mulkey will walk over to sports information director Julie Bennett, who sits courtside, and gripe about a call. Two weeks ago, during a game at Minnesota, an exasperated Mulkey turned to a Gophers fan sitting behind the Baylor bench and asked what she thought of a call that had gone Minnesota's way. The woman, flabbergasted, said she hadn't seen it.
"You never really know what to expect from Kim," Barmore said. "It's an excitement. It's a mystery. The fans kind of hang on the edge of their seat to see how she's going react, or how she's going to be dressed. A lot of them want to see how she conducts herself with her fire and energy and her passion, and you just get into it.
"At times she'll conduct herself calmly, and at times she'll conduct herself in a high-strung manner of getting on an official. But I think Kim has matured to the point where she knows which is best to do at what time. I've enjoyed watching her mature as a coach."
The game gets out of hand quickly; it's 22-5 in favor of Baylor midway through the first half and 44-18 at halftime. Griner, point guard Odyssey Sims and forward Brooklyn Pope combine for 57 points in the 72-41 rout, but the rest of the Lady Bears are sloppy and listless. It's an effort Mulkey knows will be unacceptable against UConn or defending national champion Texas A&M, which ended the Lady Bears' season in the NCAA tournament last season after Baylor had beaten the Aggies three previous times. That loss still stings.
"I thought only three players came to play tonight," Mulkey growled afterward. "It's pretty darn obvious who they are."
That's why Baylor fans, such as Ed Knipper, adore their coach. An 88-year-old World War II veteran originally from New York City, Knipper and his wife, Mary, who are season-ticket holders, graduated from Baylor in 1948. Knipper is known for his green and gold top hat, which he bought on a trip to Ireland four years ago.
"She's a gem," Knipper said of Mulkey. "She tells it like it is. She doesn't mince words. We were lucky to get her. And she's excited to be here. We don't have to worry about somebody taking her away from us."