By Jeffrey Swindoll
Not even a full year ago, Baylor welcomed a new head coach to the acrobatics and tumbling program. With four consecutive national titles at the University of Oregon, Fee Mulkey’s resume spoke for itself when the school hired her.
Mulkey has been at the helm of Baylor’s awakening in the national picture of acrobatics & tumbling, a sport very much in its early stages.
Now with the Bears, Mulkey (no relation to women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey) had one of the toughest challenges of her coaching career in front of her. After establishing Oregon as a national powerhouse, Mulkey moved to uncharted territory.
“It was tough to leave,” Mulkey said. “I had been at Oregon for six years. I continue to have a great relationship with the girls on that team and the administration there. I was not unhappy at Oregon.
“Oregon is an amazing place. It’s beautiful and the people there are special, but I made the right decision coming here. I love the community. I love that I get to have my office in the middle of campus and feel all this energy all the time. I have zero regrets.”
Mulkey valued family and community above most of the reasons she considered for her move. Originally from Georgia, Mulkey resided on the opposite side of the country while at Oregon. Taking the job at Baylor allowed her the chance to connect with her family in simple ways she could not before.
“My family is one of the main reasons I took the job,” Mulkey said. “I’m closer to my mom now. She lives in Georgia so I got to drive home for Christmas and stay for two weeks. Those type of things are very important.”
Mulkey’s time to settle in was brief. She received the job in June. She arrived in Waco for her first time in August and quickly hit the ground running with team practices and workouts.
“I got into Waco for my first time on a Saturday in August,” Mulkey said. “Sunday, I went and bought an air mattress so I could have a place to sleep because my stuff wasn’t here. On Monday, I started at 8 a.m. and I promise you I have not come up for air yet.”
Her bedding situation was the least of her concern. Mulkey’s biggest obstacle was feeling out a brand new team for the first time. She was aware of Baylor’s already existent talent. Her recruiting experience as a coach at Oregon actually gave her previous knowledge of the program, she said.
“[Oregon and Baylor] recruit a lot against each other, being the two bigger division one schools in the [NCATA],” Mulkey said. “Because of that, I knew a lot of these kids before I came down.”
Knowing the talent exists is totally different from getting the talent to its full potential, Mulkey said. Her chance to be coach that could establish a winning tradition for Baylor acrobatics & tumbling was one of the greatest thrills a coach could feel.
“Just the opportunity to come down here, walk into an existing team and hopefully change a culture and uncover what was already here. We didn’t create any talent. I had not done that as a coach. Anybody who stood across the mat from Baylor in all of these past years could see the level of talent that was over there,” Mulkey said.
“It has definitely been a challenge, but it has been one of the most invigorating, fun things that I’ve ever done as a coach.”
In the same way she had never coached these players before, the players had never worked under Mulkey. Their trust had to be earned too. It did not take long for that to occur.
“I remember coming back from summer, we were all just a little rusty and just not sure what to expect with [the coaching change],” senior Ally Cheatham said. “They consistently encouraged and instilled this confidence that is unbelievable. Every day in practice it kind of just slowly sunk in that we can do this. We can be that team, represent Baylor and get that national championship.”
Mulkey helped ring in a new era of Baylor acrobatics & tumbling, senior Danielle Hardman said. Hardman has been on the team for four years. She said there was a clear advantage that Mulkey’s experience brought to the table.
“She definitely has more experience,” senior Danielle Hardman said. “She knows what to say and exactly how her team needs to be coached.”
The newly found relationship between Mulkey and her players was a runaway success. The Bears finished the season with a perfect 12-0 record, claiming the NCATA national title.
In addition to the national championship, the Bears earned eight individual titles (the most of any school this season) at the NCATA Individual Event Finals, the NCATA Freshman of the Year award (Shayla Moore), the NCATA Most Outstanding Athlete of the Year award (Kiara Nowlin) and three All-American selections. Baylor dominated from top to bottom.
“Our team has worked so insanely hard,” Cheatham said. “It’s a blessing to have been undefeated. It’s not all about winning, but it’s such a confidence booster seeing the change from last year to this.”
Mulkey led the Bears to unprecedented success this season. Baylor ended the year with its highest scores on the season at the national championships. The Bears would up their scores and start values each met. That is something that most teams cannot really do, Mulkey said.
From the first home meet, there was just a different atmosphere engulfing Baylor acrobatics & tumbling. Fans filled the stands, breaking program attendance records with each passing home meet. Just by looking at the crowd, one might have mistakenly thought the crowd at the Ferrell Center was cheering on a basketball game. The fan support was an incredible boost to the team’s morale and momentum evidently behind the team.
“The crowd’s been amazing, thanks to [the media coverage] helping us out. I think we hit a record high at the last meet. I don’t even know exactly how much it was, but standing on the floor and the crowd actually has to go around the side sections of the Ferrell Center for more seating, that gives you chills. The team is just so grateful for it.”
It took no time for Mulkey to bring the Bears their first national championship. She sees the national title in a different light, though. Mulkey is excited to be part of Baylor’s rise as a university and athletic department, not just acrobatics & tumbling, she said.
“They say that it’s a family feel before you come here, and it really is. The leadership between Ian McCaw and Judge [Ken] Starr is second to none. I noted it when I went through my orientation as an employee, not just as a coach. Where [Baylor is] on the growth cycle, athletically, is so much fun to be a part of. We definitely haven’t peaked as an athletic department.”
Mulkey won four straight national championships at Oregon. Longevity has never been her issue. She cares about family, community and winning culture. At Baylor, she may have found her perfect match.