By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
There’s a new billboard in town, and it displays a familiar, yet potentially unpleasant face.
The sign is just off I-35 and 22nd St., and it shows an image of Kim Mulkey, former Baylor women’s basketball head coach and current Louisiana State University head coach, along with some of her players. Directly in the middle, it exhibits the 2023 Women’s Final Four logo, which is being held in Dallas this year.
It lets everyone know where Mulkey and her Tigers are headed, which is the peak of the Big Dance, slated to be held just up the road.
The billboard flashes between several other images and advertisements, and ironically, one of them is a picture that says “This is Bear Country,” decked out in green and gold. But again, moments later, the screen would switch to the snapshot that hypes up Mulkey and her accomplishment.
To Baylor fans, that digital switcheroo can resemble what it may have felt like on April 25, 2021, when Mulkey left Waco after 21 years at the helm for the then-Lady Bears: from green and gold to purple and gold in an instant.
Mulkey, now in her second year at LSU, has led her program to the Final Four following a dominant season in which her team is 32-2 on the year. During her time at Baylor, she won three national championships (2004, 2012 and 2019) and brought the program to the upper echelon of women’s college basketball on a national scale.
Yet, after a bitter exit from the place she called home for over two decades, locals aren’t too thrilled to see the former Baylor coach displayed in front of the thousands that travel along I-35. One student couldn’t even believe it at first.
“I [told a friend, I] was like, ‘What do you mean they have a billboard in Waco?” Pasadena senior Jenna Patteson said. “I just think it makes her look kind of trashy. It was completely unnecessary.”
In a statement acquired by the Baylor Lariat, an LSU spokesperson said running the billboard in Waco was because Mulkey still has ties there and it felt necessary to tap into that.
“Coach Mulkey still has a house in Waco and her grandkids live in Waco,” the statement read. “Additionally, a lot of our staff has family and friends that live in Waco. Having spent over 20 years there, there are a lot of people in Waco that still support Coach Mulkey and her staff and our athletic department wanted to recognize them.”
The LSU spokesperson also noted billboards have been running in Baton Rouge, La., since Sunday and the location of the Dallas sign is at I-30 and Peak Street.
Patteson said she didn’t see it that way, as she thought it was a way for Mulkey to flex on her former program.
“It just shows how it was an intentional dig and I think it’s just lame,” Patteson said. “If you’re really so happy you’re gone and you’re so happy to be back home in Louisiana and you’re a Final Four team, like, take your cake and just leave us alone. Why do you care?”
Mulkey left Baylor on a sour note, as she told ESPN she thought the athletic department didn’t even want her back. Mulkey said she wasn’t done with the institution, and some believe she left because the school’s administration wouldn’t put her name on the Ferrell Center floor.
She said that wasn’t the reason she left, but it could’ve been the reason she stayed.
“Look, that didn’t make me leave,” Mulkey said. “But I will say, obviously, I never would have left a program that would have put my name on the court.”
With Mulkey’s rocky road out of the door, SicEm365 co-owner Ashley Hodge said the celebratory sign was a way for Mulkey to flaunt her quick success with her former school in the rearview mirror.
“I do think that she knows what she’s doing,” Hodge said. “She wanted to do that to let the people that let her walk [away] know that, ‘You made a big mistake.’ I mean, I think that was certainly her motivation behind it.”
Tyler Harden, a sophomore at LSU, and a women’s basketball beat writer for the school’s student-run newspaper, the LSU Reveille, saw it a different way. Harden aligned with LSU’s statement and thought Mulkey “clearly still has a soft spot for Baylor and the city of Waco.”
“I definitely think it’s a good thing that she’s still kind of keeping relations – at least trying – with Baylor,” Harden said. “She might not meet everybody halfway but it’s good to see that she’s still keeping them in her thoughts.”
One of Harden’s co-workers, Peter Rauterkus, sports editor for the Reveille, thought the whole billboard plan was just a way to spur up a conversation from both sides.
“Whether the feeling now is good thoughts or bad thoughts toward her, I think it’s just one of those [things] where they knew that one way or another, they were going to get people talking in Waco if they put a billboard up there,” Rauterkus said.
Rauterkus did admit that he, along with the LSU faithful, would be upset if something like that happened in Baton Rouge. Although not completely similar — given that Mulkey didn’t leave Baylor for a rival — Rauterkus compared it to if the University of Alabama’s head coach, Nick Saban, put up a billboard on LSU’s campus. Saban used to coach for the Tigers and won a national championship in 2003.
“If they put up a Nick Saban billboard in Baton Rouge, the city would riot,” Rauterkus said.
Hodge said the main basis for Mulkey giving the go-ahead on the digital graphic is that “resentment fuels her,” and that resentment is “like oxygen for her.”
One of Mulkey’s former athletes, Queen Egbo, reacted on Twitter to the billboard being in Waco.
Her tweet read, “this is so childish and extra.”
Patteson circled back to Mulkey’s departure and thought that adding this billboard on top of that is a “bad look” for the Hall of Fame coach.
“For her to look bad on her way out and then to do this billboard two years later. This continues to add to the bad look for her and I’m just like, ‘We don’t need to do this,’ but she feels the need to I guess.”
As a Baylor student herself, though, she’s just glad it’s at least 1.8 miles from campus so that she can avoid it.
“[It’s] not my vibe right now,” Patteson said. “I’m glad it’s not closer to campus, so I don’t have to see it. I have to go out of my way to find it and I’m not going to do that.”