Here's why the hiring of basketball coach Kim Mulkey is worth every penny for LSU | Marcase

John Marcase
Special to The Town Talk

Many people have been asking why Kim Mulkey would leave Baylor, where she won three national championships and compiled the third best winning percentage in women’s basketball history, for LSU.

The cynic will note the $22.5 million over eight years before incentives LSU is paying her, second only to UConn’s Geno Auriemma, is a good enough reason to move to Baton Rouge except when you consider Mulkey was already making more than $2 million per year at Baylor.

And, Mulkey stood a great chance at winning a fourth national title next season with the Bears.

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As Mulkey said at her introductory press conference, coming to LSU was like coming home – home to Louisiana.

Her legendary status began at Hammond High School, which she led to four straight state championships. In Ruston that status was cemented as she led Louisiana Tech to two national championships as a player and another as an assistant coach. She also won Olympic gold as a player for the United States.

When anyone thinks of the Lady Techsters’ program, two names come to mind – Leon Barmore and Mulkey, and not necessarily in that order.

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It is no stretch to say the best thing that ever happened to Mulkey’s professional career was former Tech president Dan Reneau refusing to give Mulkey a fifth year on her contract when she was the obvious choice to replace Barmore when he retired the first time.

In a bit of irony, while Mulkey didn’t replace Barmore, she would eventually replace Sonja Hogg, her former Tech coach who helped launch the Lady Techsters’ dynasty. Hogg left Tech to finish her coaching career at Baylor where Mulkey ended up succeeding her.

Baylor had no qualms about giving Mulkey a fifth year, or plowing money into the women’s basketball program, and it paid off.

Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey reacts to play against Kansas in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Feb.4, 2021, in Waco, Texas. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)

In Mulkey’s 21 years in Waco, the Bears never won fewer than 21 games in a season. They won at least 30 games 10 times, including a perfect 40-0 season in 2011-12. Her .859 winning percentage (632-104) is behind only Auriemma (.885) and Barmore (.869), both Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers.

To put that into perspective, the LSU women have not won 21 games in a season since 2013-14 and haven’t seen 30 wins in a season since 2007-08 in Van Chancellor’s first season that was capped by the school’s fifth straight and last Final Four appearance.

When news broke Nikki Fargas was looking to leave LSU to be president of the WNBA’s Las Vegas team, there really was only one option for LSU athletic director Scott Woodward.  And that was Mulkey.

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The worst thing that can happen to any team is to become irrelevant and for fan apathy to set in. That had happened to the LSU football team under Les Miles and it had happened to the women's basketball program.

Hiring Ed Orgeron as coach, not to mention the transfer of quarterback Joe Burrow, was the jolt the football program needed. It paid off with the 2019 national championship.

Mulkey is the jolt the women’s basketball program needed. LSU has a rich history of success in women’s sports. The track program has won 25 team national championships. The softball program annually contends for the Women’s College World Series, and the gymnastics program became one of the nation’s best under D.D. Breaux.

Will LSU ever recoup the money invested in Mulkey? Who knows? Like most schools, LSU loses money in women’s basketball, but there is little doubt that interest in Mulkey and the basketball program will be at an all-time high over the next several years.

The Lady Tigers are likely to set a record for season tickets thanks just to Mulkey’s sizable family that has roots throughout the state, including the Poland community in south Rapides Parish.

Will a national title follow Mulkey to Baton Rouge?

Her track record says yes, and that may be why Woodward sees hiring Mulkey not as a gamble, but a sure bet.

John Marcase is a former assistant managing editor and sports editor of The Town Talk. He writes a weekly column.