Nicki Collen embraces opportunity with Baylor women's basketball, hopes to continue momentum and 'win a national championship'

Nicki Collen had never been to Baylor before accepting the job this week to become the team's new women's basketball head coach. She was preparing to start her fourth season with the WNBA's Atlanta Dream this month, but couldn't bypass the opportunity to return to the college game at a high-level program when the Baylor job opened after Kim Mulkey recently left for LSU.

"I loved my time in the W, and I will be the biggest fan going forward," Collen said in an interview with ESPN on Wednesday. "What drew me, obviously, is you can recruit the best of the best, you can win a national championship at Baylor. But it also was about being a part of something bigger, being a part of an athletic family."

There's also the additional security of a college job for Collen, who has 16-year-old twins and a 13-year-old with her husband, Tom Collen. They coached together for several years at Colorado State, Louisville and Arkansas, with Tom as head coach and Nicki as an assistant. Nicki went to Florida Gulf Coast as an assistant, then moved to the WNBA as an assistant before taking the job as head coach of the Dream before the 2018 season.

Atlanta got new ownership in February, and general manager Chris Sienko was fired last month shortly after the WNBA draft.

"I've always joked that professional coaches are hired to get fired," Collen said. "I'm not saying that I was fearing for my job, or that the new ownership group in Atlanta wasn't going to do great things there. But I certainly was not in the situation with a six-year contract [where] I can be me. That I'm not looking over my shoulder, so there's stability for my family that way."

Collen said when rumors began to swirl that Mulkey might go to LSU to replace Nikki Fargas, a friend sent her a text saying, "What's it going to take to get you to Baylor?"

Collen answered with a laughing emoji, thinking there was little chance of that happening. But then Baylor contacted her, and she had lengthy conversations with school officials this past Sunday. Collen said it "didn't become real" until then. She was announced as Baylor's new coach on Monday.

Collen takes over a powerhouse that has won three NCAA titles and a combined 23 Big 12 championships between the regular season and the league tournament. All that came in Coach Mulkey's 21 seasons, in which she went 632-104, and Mulkey has been one of the sport's biggest personalities.

"You don't win like Kim won, and think that anyone's going to walk in here and for it to be easy," Collen said. "My style is different. I know we've been compared a lot in the last few days -- we're fiery, we're passionate. We probably go about things very, very differently as well, on the court, off the court.

"Ultimately, I'm going to do it my way; that's how I'm gonna sink or swim, or succeed or fail. If I try to be Kim, I'm 100% going to fail. If I try to be Nicki, I feel pretty good about my chances to succeed."

Collen went 38-52 in three seasons with the Dream, with her best being her first year, 2018, as Atlanta went 23-11 and advanced to the league semifinals. Longtime Dream star Angel McCoughtry missed the 2019 season with a knee injury, then left as a free agent last year, going to Las Vegas. Collen said she realized some might question her record.

"I learned more in the last two years about how to treat people, and how to say and do things the right way," she said. "I certainly learned to dial up a play in a timeout. Not that I ever feared that, but ... there's confidence in late-game situations."

Collen also knows people might question her going from a league known for its social justice activism and support for LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement to a private Baptist university like Baylor known for its conservatism.

"The W is a progressive league. My goal is to make sure players are treated right here, and that they know where I'm coming from," Collen said. "I think people see me as very real and authentic, and they're going to feel that. I don't do anything for show. I do it because I care about people, I care about who they are, I care about what's important to them.

"I also know how to delicately walk the line, when the line needs to be delicately walked. Because I did that for an entire summer."

Collen was referring to the Dream and other WNBA players publicly opposing then-Dream owner Kelly Loeffler last year in her U.S. Senate race and regarding her stance on issues such as Black Lives Matter. Collen spoke out in support of her players even though she was employed by Loeffler and then-co-owner Mary Brock.

"I think that it's important that our [Baylor] players understand that they can talk to me about those things," Collen said, "and that I'm going to hear them and really feel for them."

Collen said her time in Atlanta also helped in regard to facing adversity.

"I'm obviously going to have adversity here, you know, if Baylor loses to Texas at some point, which hasn't happened in a really long time," she said. "I've gotta be strong enough to handle it."

Baylor is 25-1 against Texas since the 2010-11 season, the only Longhorns win in that stretch coming in 2017. But Texas reached the 2021 Elite Eight -- as did Baylor -- under coach Vic Schaefer in his first season with the Longhorns. Oklahoma also recently changed coaches, as Sherri Coale retired after 25 years and was replaced by Jennie Baranczyk. Those three programs and Texas Tech are the current Big 12 schools that have made it to the women's Final Four, but only Baylor has done so in the past 10 years (2012, 2019).

Baylor is now entering a new era at the same time the Big 12 is, to a degree. Baylor was 28-3 last season and is led by rising senior forward NaLyssa Smith, who is No. 1 on ESPN's list of the top 25 players for 2021-22.

"Her goal should be to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft," Collen said. "I think her growth is going to come from how we continue to develop her outside game. I think she's got the physical tools to be an incredible WNBA player."