Collen does it her way, preps for Bear victory

Women's basketball coach, Nicki Collen leads the team to a number two seed in the March Madness Tournament, despite criticism. Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics

By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor

The Baylor women’s basketball program, its players and all of Baylor Nation were shocked in spring 2021 when Head Coach Kim Mulkey announced she was leaving to go coach at Louisiana State University.

“It definitely hurt, just cause I’m a very very loyal person,” senior forward Caitlin Bickle said. “That’s who I came here for, like I think a lot of people when Kim was here would say, ‘I came to be coached by Kim Mulkey,’ like that’s what they came here for. It was just a known and a given.”

While director of intercollegiate athletics Mack Rhoades sought the next leader of the powerhouse program, the senior trio of Queen Egbo, NaLyssa Smith and Bickle had to make a decision on what they would do in their final year.

“I remember once Kim left, we kind of all texted about it and were like, ‘What are you going to do? How are we going to move forward?’” Smith said. “We all just came to the realization that we were just going to stay and just keep competing. And as long as we got each other, we can do anything.”

Eventually Rhoades announced the hiring of Nicki Collen as the next leader of Baylor women’s basketball, and the trio was happy in their decision.

“I was glad I stayed,” Bickle said. “I was glad I stuck it out until they had found another coach because I ended up loving it.”

However, it wasn’t just current players that dealt with a different coach than the one they signed up for. Graduate guard Jordan Lewis had made the decision to transfer from the University of Alabama after five seasons to play her last under Mulkey. In the end, Collen was able to win her over and keep her onboard as well.

“Nicki actually was at Florida Gulf Coast when I was coming out of high school, and so a lot of people around the area and people that I have trusted knew who she was and knew what kind of person she was and heard nothing but good things about her,” Lewis said. “She actually called me the night she got the job, and that means a lot for a head coach to call you and still wants you to know that she wants you here and wants you to play a big role on the team. That was a big step for me.”

Coming in to take over a team that had set a precedent of being one of the best in the nation and had one of the best coaches in the nation was not easy. Collen said she knew the expectation was to bring championships back to Waco, and she has yet to shy away from it.

“When I took this job, I knew this was the expectation,” Collen said. “Obviously, there’s an enormous amount of pressure as a result of that. A lot of it was just living up to the expectations that were here and trying to do it authentically my way — to put my stamp. This is the only way I know how to coach; I feel things very deeply, I’m pretty emotional, I say what I think.”

Collen initially won the fan base over with her introductory press conference, but it didn’t take long for fans to start comparing what she was doing to what Mulkey had established. When the Bears were scraping out wins against teams they had blown out in years past, Collen heard about it. When the Bears were plagued with COVID-19 and were just 10-4 with an 0-2 conference record, fans were calling for her job on social media. They began to question if her pro-style system was good enough for Baylor and if her seven-player rotation was enough to make it through a full season. However, Collen never wavered and continued to try and prove she was the right person for the job.

“Just getting to coach this special group of players, I didn’t want to let them down as much as anything,” Collen said. “As much as I know we caught some flack from fans, it was about the people in the locker room and the administration, that was our main focus. For me, it was doing a good job for them so that people could say I was the right person at the right time to take over this program.”

And that’s exactly what she did. After losing to the University of Oklahoma 83-77, Collen asked fans to trust the process and believe that their best basketball would come in March. So far that seems to be the case. The Bears went on to win 15 of their next 16 games to close the regular season out with a 25-5 record and a 15-3 conference record, good enough to win the Big 12 title outright. It seemed as if Baylor was getting better each and every game, going from nail-biting victories to the blowouts that so many Baylor fans were accustomed to. Collen said it was the adversity early on that made the team stronger.

“It brought us closer together,” Collen said. “It was like, ‘This is our circle. These are our people. This is who we’re doing it for, and we’re going to do it for each other. We’re going to do it because we believe in one another, because we believe in what we’re doing.’ We’ve come a long way and I’m just super proud of how far we’ve come.”

Baylor carried that momentum into the Big 12 tournament as Collen became the first first-year head coach to reach the championship game since 1997. While the Bears ultimately didn’t get the result they wanted, losing to the University of Texas 67-58, Collen convinced the doubters she could lead the program in the right direction.

“Going into such a big role at Baylor and having to fill that, a lot of people can be overlooked in that position,” Smith said. “I feel like she’s doing a great job, though. I feel like the world should know that, too.”

While it took some time to get the fans back on board, it seemed as if she had won her players over instantly with the confidence and belief she instilled in them as they bought into her system and continued to express their support for her.

“She has a very different approach,” Lewis said. “First and foremost, she calls herself a player coach and she’s 100% that. She trusts all of us and she challenges all of us. She gave us each [a] role to fulfill this year and we’ve had to adapt to that. Playing for her, she’s always going to believe in you. She’s going to be confident in you, but you have to first believe in yourself. Playing for her and her as a coach, she’s an amazing person and she’s always going to try to put you in the best position.”

While the goal is and always has been to win a national championship, at the end of day, Collen wants her squad to appreciate everything they’ve accomplished so far.

“I challenged them that for us right now, I want to cherish every day I have with this group,” Collen said. “I want them to cherish every day that they have together, to understand this might be the best team they ever play on. Hopefully it’s not, but if it is, that they’ve really poured themselves into it and gotten a lot out of it.”