By Shehan Jeyarajah
Up 33 points with seven minutes left against Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, you’d think Kim Mulkey could relax.
Perhaps the most successful coach in Baylor history, regardless of sport, Mulkey was set to lead a young Lady Bears squad to their seventh Sweet 16 in as many years.
But even with the game decided and a trip to the Oklahoma City Regional all but booked, Kim Mulkey was on her feet.
“If you go back and look at the game, everyone’s playing,” she said. “Looking back to when I was a player, I didn’t ever go and play half-speed because the score’s lopsided, so I won’t go and coach like the score is lopsided.”
When a player committed a foul, she was up in her face. When someone hit a three, she fired up the crowd.
“The intensity and energy never changes, whether we’re up by 40 or down by 40,” junior point guard Niya Johnson said. “She doesn’t interrupt. She’s trying to make each and every one of us better both on and off the court and she’s going to keep coaching.”
When it’s game time, Kim Mulkey is one of the most intense coaches in sports.
“Coach Mulkey is special,” sophomore guard Imani Wright said. “She demands defense. She wants excellence and it does make a difference. You know what it takes and she’s going to get it from you.”
The energy is present whenever she’s on a basketball court. It doesn’t change from practice to games. Late in games and workouts are simply opportunities for the entire team to improve.
“Our practices are very intense,” sophomore guard Alexis Prince said. “I guess that’s what makes us successful. We don’t take anything for granted.”
While it may be her trademark, intensity is not exactly exclusive to Mulkey. There have been countless coaches who try and stay on top of their players for 40 minutes a night. Most have not been as successful. Fewer still have been as beloved.
But that’s what makes Mulkey special as a coach. While she may be one of the most demanding coaches in the business, she knows how to press the right buttons and get the best out of her players.
“She learns to talk to people differently,” Prince said. “Some are more quiet, some don’t really get into it like that. She’s learned how to talk to certain people so you don’t really have to adjust a lot to her.”
“There’s a lot of coaches who keep yelling and pounding and pounding and eventually breaks people down, but she’s never that person,” sophomore forward Nina Davis said. “She knows when to give you a hug. She knows when to slap you on the back. She knows the right thing to do.”
Davis may know this better than anyone. Coming out of high school in 2013, Davis was a Parade All-American and dominant high school recruit, averaging 28.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game for Memphis Central High School in Tennessee. However, skeptics questioned whether her game would translate to the next level as an undersized forward with an ugly-looking jump shot.
“Even when she talks about me now, [Mulkey]’s sorta kinda unable to describe my game,” Davis said with a smile.
Mulkey’s not alone. Davis has proven to be one of the most unorthodox players in women’s basketball. She has handles, but not quite enough to be a guard. She can attack the basket, but lacks the requisite height to be a post.
But one thing is certain: Davis can play.
“About two months into practice her freshman year, I realized she was special,” Mulkey said. “The only hesitation I ever had is whether I should move her to the perimeter. But I didn’t need to; she didn’t create any liability. When I realized that, I was just able to let Nina be Nina.”
Mulkey embraced the differences and nurtured her into a star.
“Once she watched my game and noticed I could score, she never tried to change who I was,” Davis said. “A lot of people ask her, ‘Did you ever try to change Nina’s shot?’ And she said no, she just wanted to let me be who I am.”
Davis was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2014 and Big 12 Player of the Year in 2015 after averaging 20.9 points and 8.3 rebounds on 58.6 percent from the field in 2015.
“She’s an All American coach and has coached All American players,” Davis said. “She coaches every player differently. She’s definitely able to read people and I think that just comes from her experience.”
“I used to watch her on the sideline and see how much passion and intensity she had, I wanted to play for that lady,” Davis said. “When I see the way she dressed, her fashion and style, I wanted to be there.”
While Mulkey stays focused from go to woe on the basketball court, she separates her life off the court.
“People on the outside, they don’t realize how goofy and funny she is,” Prince said. “She’s intense when we’re playing, but she’s also a fun person to be around. She’s always joking around.”
Players call her laid back, kind and funny when hanging out with the team. She shows flashes when she interacts with the media, but her players, coaches and family know her best.
“I think she’d probably kill me if I told any of her stories,” Davis said. “But just know, she’s a great woman to be around and I just think she’s one of the best coaches.”
“I show a human side to my players that the public doesn’t see,” Mulkey said. I’ve had several players tell me I have everybody on the outside fooled, them thinking I’m mean and never lighten up.
“I always tell my players, don’t let anyone on the outside know because then I’ll lose my competitive edge.”
Life goes on when Mulkey goes home. But back on the court, Mulkey is still scowling.
“Stop fouling!” she shouts at freshman forward Dekeiya Cohen, who committed the offense with 1:29 remaining and the Lady Bears up 73-43.
Soon afterward, the buzzer sounded, the crowd went nuts and Baylor qualified for the Sweet Sixteen for the seventh year in a row. Mulkey gave her senior leader, Sune Agbuke, a long hug as she left the Ferrell Center floor for the last time.
The Ferrell has dozens of banners professing Mulkey’s accomplishments in her 15 years at Baylor: 14 tourney appearances, seven Big 12 tourney titles, six Big 12 regular season titles, three Final Fours and two national championships.
“I am fortunate to be at a university that allows me to be me,” Mulkey said. “Then I go home and am around people who love me and they will continue to love me, win or lose.”