By Jeffrey Swindoll
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey is a household name in women’s basketball. She has achieved great success at nearly every level possible in a basketball career. In Northwestern State head coach Brooke Stoehr’s own words, “She has got her fingerprints all over women’s basketball.”
Even a women’s basketball legend like Mulkey has to face her fair share of setbacks as coach. College sports are a constant cycle of players coming in for a few years and leaving only a few years later.
After losing Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims, two All-American, once-in-a-lifetime players, many expected Mulkey’s program to go into rebuilding for a few years.
Two seasons after Griner’s departure and just one season removed from Sims, the Lady Bears claimed their fifth-straight Big 12 conference regular season and tournament, producing another All-American in sophomore forward Nina Davis. Mulkey proved, once again, she’s still got some new tricks. Her trick this season – transformation.
Though Mulkey’s been at it for a while (34 years as a coach to be exact), she still found a way to keep things fresh this season. The key to her team’s success in 2015 was her ability to shake things up on her end, rather than hide behind her team’s youth as a caveat for failure.
“While there are still things that aggravate me and frustrate me, I think a sign of a good coach is ‘adjust yourself’ and maybe I need to make some adjustments and let these guys do what they do best and play,” Mulkey said.
This season dealt Mulkey a difficult task. The sheer mystery of her team’s identity was an issue from the start. Who would score? Who would make plays on the defensive end? Who would run the ship?
The 2014-15 season for the Lady Bears was a year of adjustments and self-discovery across the board.
“They’ve just made me play a lot of players,” Mulkey said. “They all bring something different to the table. I’ve played more players than what I’ve played before and because they’ve all demanded that,” Mulkey said. “They’ve all earned it and they’ve all helped us win games.”
Mulkey did things she had never done before and extrapolated the positives of her team to construct the best style of play.
“I’m talking about a team that had to play some zone [this season], and I’m not a zone coach,” Mulkey said. “I’m talking about a team that is too young to know some of the things we need to do to win a national championship and a Big 12 championship, but they give me everything they have on the floor.”
With late-blooming personalities on the team and an ever-changing game plan for the Lady Bears, Mulkey was patient in figuring out the best way to play her team.
“It’s a team that doesn’t talk very much,” Mulkey said. “They’re not loud. It was a struggle to get them to all talk. It was a struggle to find a captain because I think they have this notion that a captain separates themselves from the rest of the team. ‘Well, okay. Whatever y’all are doing is working so everybody just be the captain and lead each other.’”
Mulkey said her focus was to let the players decide how she would play them in order to avoid a trend in college sports: coaches making players adjust to them rather than the coach adjusting to the players.
“I appreciate that this team has made me step back and just let them evolve and become who they are,” Mulkey said. “Sometimes we can put an identity on a coach and on a program. Some coaches go and recruit styles of players that cater to their style of players. I’ve won with the big post players. I’ve won with the athletic post players, and I [won] with undersized players [this season]. You have to adjust and change as a coach to what they do well.”
It has never been “The Kim Mulkey Show” for the Lady Bears. Though she obviously plays a pivotal role in putting the Lady Bears in winning position, Mulkey has never made the game about her. Mulkey has always been about bringing the absolute best out of her players.
“I think that she pushes us so hard, and expects so much of us that I think sometimes it’s frustrating for some of us that we can’t meet those expectations,” freshman guard Kristy Wallace said. “But I think it makes us better people and better players as well.”
Mulkey’s patience clearly paid off for the Lady Bears this season. Numerous players had breakout seasons, including Wallace, sophomore guard Imani Wright and freshman post Dekeiya Cohen. Each of those players flourished into key contributors for the Lady Bears this season and, at times, were even in the starting five for Mulkey.
“What is enjoyable about this team is I have absolutely no issues away from the basketball,” Mulkey said. “When you can coach a program and a team, and you don’t have to discipline. You don’t have to worry about grades. They’re respectful of people. To watch them do what they’re doing right now at the age they are, it’s going to be fun the next two years.”