BATON ROUGE, La. -- It's early November, and Kim Mulkey is reclining on a white sofa in her new house. She has relocated from Baylor to Baton Rouge in one of the biggest coaching moves in women's basketball history. And just hours ago, she won her first game at LSU.
A half-eaten pizza and a newspaper are scattered on a white kitchen countertop nearby, fresh-baked cookies sit next to the stove. Mulkey glances at the television, where two top-10 women's teams are playing. It's opening day of the college basketball season.
The volume is nearly muted, like Mulkey's cellphone, which buzzes with congratulatory texts. Sage, her 4-month-old granddaughter, is the priority, sleeping soundly on Mulkey's chest. Outside on the front lawn, her daughter, Makenzie Fuller, and 3-year-old grandson, Kannon, toss a football in the afternoon sunlight. Mulkey's son, Kramer Robertson, comes and goes, along with friends and staff members.
Grandma Mulkey -- known as "Yaya" to Kannon and Sage -- is at this moment a far cry from the fiery figure on the sidelines, blazing eyes and tortured-looking facial expressions often immortalized on camera. On or off court, the coach's authenticity is both her superpower and Achilles' heel, winning over recruits and fans, and sparking controversy with a bluntness that is as synonymous with Mulkey as the three national titles she won at Baylor.
Mulkey is at the ultimate career crossroads. The 59-year-old Naismith Hall of Famer left a perpetual Final Four powerhouse she built from the ground up in Waco, Texas, and returned 50 miles from her childhood home to take over a program that has fallen into a middle-of-the-pack malaise. It's a homecoming with high expectations: Mulkey doesn't want to just turn around LSU, she wants to turn the Tigers into a national champion.
"I know what I've taken on," Mulkey said. "I understand how difficult it is."
LSU is banking on Mulkey's background and potential, despite the history that comes with it. A history that includes controversial episodes from her 21-year tenure at Baylor, a place where Mulkey ultimately parted ways with an administration she isn't sure wanted her to stay.
Mulkey is taking nothing for granted. Don't assume a victory, that people will fill the stands, that a second title will follow a first.
"It was something I was always preaching," she said, to players, staff and fans after every Baylor milestone.
And if you sift through all the reasons she had to stay at Baylor or move to LSU, it might come down to exactly that: She didn't want to be taken for granted. It's less ego than competitive survival instinct. Louisiana is her home, and that draw was strong. But LSU also told Mulkey very clearly that it needed her.
"I don't know if [Baylor] didn't think I would really do it," she said of the decision to leave. "Or if it was, 'Well, maybe they do just want me out the door. Maybe they'll say, 'Good riddance.'
"You have to keep feeding that success monster, and I didn't have a problem with that. I wasn't done at Baylor. That's the thing. No one saw this coming, myself included."
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS before the season opener, giddy fans fill a ballroom at a local hotel. Clad in LSU purple and Tiger-striped blouses, these boosters are well-versed in their new coach's history and eager for the Kim Mulkey era to begin. LSU has sold a program-record 4,502 season tickets in Mulkey's first year.
LSU fan Janice Guitreau, who is one of 165 at the luncheon, recalls watching Mulkey play in high school over 40 years ago. When news broke in April that then-LSU coach Nikki Fargas was leaving, Mulkey immediately came to mind.
"Other people were saying, 'We can't afford her,' Guitreau said. "I said, 'We can't afford not to have her.'"
"It was like Christmas," LSU fan Patti Scurlock said of Mulkey taking the job. "We know she needs time, but we believe she's going to take us places we haven't been in a while."
Behind stars Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles, LSU went to five consecutive Final Fours from 2004-08. But the Tigers, who lost in the national semifinals each time, haven't played in the NCAA tournament since 2018, and haven't won a game in the tournament since 2014. If Mulkey leads LSU to an NCAA title, it would be historic: No head coach in Division I women's or men's basketball history owns NCAA titles at two different schools. Rick Pitino did it at Kentucky and Louisville, but his 2013 title with the Cardinals was vacated after NCAA rules violations.
"I actually went to all five Final Fours," Guitreau said. "And it is so frustrating to be right there and not be able to take that next step to the national championship. I believe Kim will get us there."
Mulkey wastes no time working the room as expertly as she ran a team as point guard. One enthusiastic fan launches into a meandering monologue about Mulkey's background that references the Book of Esther's line about being born "for such a time as this." Mulkey thanks him and seizes the moment.
"Lord, I thought I left the Baptists in Waco," she said as the room roars with laughter.
Mulkey, who grew up in tiny Tickfaw, has always been one of their own as a Louisianan. She went a combined 266-11 as a player at Hammond High and Louisiana Tech, with four state titles and two national championships, then 6-0 in the 1984 Olympics to win the United States' first gold medal in women's basketball.
In 15 years as an assistant and then associate coach at Louisiana Tech, Mulkey was part of seven Final Four appearances and helped guide the Lady Techsters to the 1988 national championship.
Before Mulkey arrived, Baylor had never even been to the NCAA tournament. With Mulkey, Baylor went 632-104, winning a dozen Big 12 regular-season titles and 11 conference tournament championships.
Mulkey beat LSU on the way to her first NCAA title -- becoming just the third college basketball coach (along with Bobby Knight and Dean Smith) to win national titles as a player and a coach. Baylor came back from a 15-point deficit to win 68-57 in the 2005 national semifinals, one of the most painful losses in Tigers history. Makenzie, then 13, and Kramer, 10, spent the first half crying in the stands of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, sure Baylor's title dreams were ending.
Two days later, after Baylor beat Michigan State for its first national championship, they raced across the court for a Mama Bear hug.
"I was at that perfect age: still a kid and so involved with the team," said Kramer, now a professional baseball player in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. "I thought I was one of them. I remember asking, 'Am I gonna get a ring?'"
Yet when Mulkey left for LSU, Kramer was so happy, he would have driven the moving truck himself. An All-American during his LSU baseball career in 2013-17, he fell in love with Baton Rouge and had hoped for years the Tigers' women's basketball job would come open for his mom.
"What else did she have to prove at Baylor? She had done everything there," Kramer said. "And no one is ever going to love her more than the people here in Louisiana will."
MULKEY'S SUCCESS IS undeniable, but she has her critics and has been a polarizing figure, largely because of some of her own comments. Did the LSU administration, which has dealt with plenty of controversies among its highest-profile coaches, take that into consideration when hiring her?
"For me, it was a nonissue. Kim's personality is something I kind of relish," LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said Wednesday. "I love passion. We're in a world where everyone wants perfection, and then we just totally discard someone who makes a mistake. We're humans."
In February 2017, Baylor was embroiled in a sexual assault investigation involving 31 members of the football team. Mulkey said she was disgusted by the allegations but became incensed when she heard a television commentator suggest parents shouldn't send their daughters to Baylor. For Mulkey, that was personal.
Mulkey had just won her 500th career game and told the postgame crowd at Ferrell Center, "If somebody's around you and they ever say, 'I will never send my daughter to Baylor,' you knock them right in the face. Because these kids are on this campus. I work here. My daughter went to school here, and it's the damn best school in America."
Kramer is, as Mulkey's friends put it, "His mama made over." Both are fierce, emotional competitors. But when he saw a clip of Mulkey's remarks, he texted her. "This is really bad," he wrote, and urged her to apologize and clarify what she meant as soon as possible.
Mulkey did, telling ESPN then: "I hate that I used the remark about punching them in the face. That was not literal. I was trying to make a point, to be firm in what you are saying back at them. I'm not a violent person. I apologize for the very poor choice of words."
Mulkey today still regrets that she used those words, and that anyone thought she was making light of the allegations. But she said she also wanted to stand up for her players and other staff members at Baylor who weren't involved but whom she thought were being unfairly tarnished by their association with the school.
Last January, after she returned from having COVID-19, Mulkey's comments again sparked controversy when she remarked that completing the season during a pandemic was about "the almighty dollar." Mulkey said she was just being pragmatic. There was too much money at stake, she said, particularly with men's basketball, to not play.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey suggests the NCAA stop testing the players for COVID-19 ahead of the men's and women's Final Four.
Then at the 2021 NCAA tournament, after Baylor's loss in the Elite Eight, Mulkey said NCAA officials "need to dump the COVID testing." NCAA medical staff told coaches during a videoconference call before the regional finals that the odds of anyone testing positive by that point were remote after so much testing in the San Antonio bubble, and Mulkey argued that a false positive might keep a player out of the Final Four. Critics slammed Mulkey for what many deemed a reckless suggestion during a pandemic. The NCAA continued testing.
Mulkey later revealed the comments stemmed from a conversation with UConn's Geno Auriemma before their Elite Eight matchup, and said he had asked her to speak out on the topic if Baylor won. Mulkey told Auriemma -- who confirmed the conversation -- she would do so whether Baylor won or lost, and was under the impression Auriemma also would address the topic. A controversial noncall dominated both Auriemma's and Mulkey's postgame videoconferences, though she ended her news conference with the unsolicited comments on testing.
"Sometimes she'll say something I wish she wouldn't have said," said Leon Barmore, Mulkey's college coach and former boss at Louisiana Tech. "I'll think, 'Kim, why not just stay away from that?' She's not right every time, and she knows that. Deep down, she probably regrets some of those things. I know she does. But she's always got a sense of honesty about her."
Mulkey said she has learned to steel herself from criticism. But some has stung very hard, particularly in May 2013 when critics alleged the coach and her program were anti-gay after WNBA No. 1 draft pick Brittney Griner told ESPN The Magazine and espnW that she had been encouraged while at Baylor to keep her private life private. Makenzie also said that accusation "hurt the worst."
"Because I was on that team," Makenzie said, "and saw the interactions every day."
Griner said then, "It was more of a unwritten law [to not discuss your sexuality] ... it was just kind of, like, one of those things, you know, just don't do it. They kind of tried to make it, like, 'Why put your business out on the street like that?'"
Even so, Griner said in that interview that her sexuality was no secret at Baylor. "I told Coach when she was recruiting me. I was like, 'I'm gay. I hope that's not a problem,' and she told me that it wasn't," Griner said. "I mean, my teammates knew, obviously they all knew. Everybody knew about it."
On Thursday, Griner told ESPN that her 2013 comments were aimed at Baylor's policies, not Mulkey.
"It's not a personal attack on her; she didn't write the rules at Baylor. She was only doing what she thought was best," said Griner over the phone from Ekaterinburg, Russia, where she is playing in the WNBA offseason. "For me, it wasn't anti-her, it was anti-the-system. But I still love Baylor. ...
"I learned from it, too. I think she learned something from it and hopefully takes whatever it was and applies it with the new set of players that she's coaching."
Mulkey said she has played with, played for and coached gay people throughout her life in basketball, and it has never been an issue. She said she never paid any attention to the Baylor student handbook statement that says sex should be confined to heterosexual marriage. In May, Baylor passed a resolution to commit to providing support for all students, "regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity," but the resolution also maintained "that sexual relations of any kind outside of marriage between a man and a woman are not in keeping with the teaching of Scripture."
"Baylor is a private institution, but I'm a product of public schools," Mulkey said. "I would never work someplace that would have tried to make us go to church, or make us not cuss or try to control people's personal lives. Never."
But especially in the social media era, Mulkey does caution players to avoid putting too much of their personal life into the public realm. She accepts, though, that this is advice her players don't have to take.
"She says that whether you are gay, straight, bi, pansexual, whatever," said current LSU player Alexis Morris. "Let me just simply say this: Coach Mulkey is not homophobic. She tells me the same thing my grandmother tells me: Everybody doesn't need to know every detail of your private life."
Morris, who was dismissed from Baylor's team before her sophomore year after being arrested for an altercation, was openly gay as a freshman at Baylor in 2017-18. She transferred to Rutgers, then to Texas A&M, and showed up at LSU this past summer without any promise that Mulkey would add her to the team.
"I came here because I knew I needed that woman in my life," Morris said. "Things she said just stuck with me the whole way through. Plus, the way she teaches the game makes sense to me. And I think I feel the same way she does. I think I'm a misunderstood individual too."
Mulkey hopes she will never say the wrong thing again, but knows she likely will.
"My gut is what I go by," Mulkey said. "I do what I personally think is the right thing to do. It may not come across as politically correct, but my heart is in the right place. It's sometimes taken the wrong way. And, you know, that's fair. I don't want to hurt anybody. We all have our badness. But my good, I hope, will always far outweigh my bad."
MAKENZIE PLAYED FOR Baylor's 40-0 national championship team in 2012, and was on Mulkey's coaching staff for the third championship in 2019. When her mother first mentioned the LSU job in April, Makenzie thought, "It's not gonna happen. I'm just gonna let this blow over."
Mulkey said the decision to leave was "extremely difficult" and had nothing to do with money.
"Let me tell you," Mulkey said, "Baylor took good care of me and my assistants."
But her relationship with Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades was strained, which was obvious even in 2019. After Baylor won its third national championship and Mulkey got a question about her legacy, she responded that maybe her administration needed to be asked about that.
Mulkey had been hired by then-Baylor athletic director Tom Stanton in 2000 and spent most of her Baylor career under Ian McCaw, who succeeded Stanton beginning in 2003. Rhoades came to the school in 2016 after the sexual assault investigation prompted McCaw's resignation.
Mulkey and Rhoades clashed at times over what Mulkey called "little things" that for her represented something bigger. Mulkey, for instance, was upset the school wasn't planning to drop confetti in celebration of her team clinching the Big 12 title. To her, it didn't matter how many league championships the Bears had already won. It was a first for some of her players.
"I mean, jeez, a Kim Mulkey doesn't come along very often, and you had her." Leon Barmore, stunned that Baylor didn't do more to keep Kim Mulkey from leaving
After Baylor's second NCAA title in 2012, boosters began advocating for Mulkey's name to be put on the Ferrell Center floor. A source told ESPN the administration said it "wanted to wait" to do it because Mulkey, who turned 50 that year, was still relatively young in her career. Seven years later, after Baylor's third national championship, the boosters continued the quest, offering to pay whatever it cost to add Mulkey's name to the court. The Baylor administration still resisted, the source said.
Baylor is now in the process of building a new basketball arena, and the court will be named for donors Paula and Mark Hurd.
"Look, that didn't make me leave," she said. "But I will say, obviously, I never would have left a program that would have put my name on the court."
Rhoades declined to answer questions from ESPN, referring instead to a previously released statement: "Baylor will always be grateful for the years of success and pride Kim brought to the university. Kim made a decision to go back home and we, Baylor, had done as much as we could to support her and the program."
As her frustrations with Baylor mounted, Mulkey said Woodward told her, "Kim, it's time to come back home. We need you. We want to embrace you. You have what it takes to help us get back on the right track."
The sales pitch worked.
"I don't know if it's because we're both from Louisiana, but he didn't have to say too much," Mulkey said of Woodward. "We talk a pretty simplistic language."
Woodward, a Baton Rouge native who is a year younger than Mulkey, said they are kindred spirits and that trying to hire her was a "no-brainer."
"As soon as I got on the phone with her, I felt like I was talking to my sister. I said, 'Hey, you coming home? We need to get this done. Let's go. Come on,'" he said. "The connection -- it was almost to the point of being bizarre."
Barmore was stunned that Baylor allowed Mulkey's departure to happen.
"It's really something where you can't quite understand, when you have somebody like Kim Mulkey winning championships for you," he said. "I think if either the president or athletic director had put their arm around Kim and said, 'We love you, we want you to stay,' she would be in Waco today. They did not do that.
"I mean, jeez, a Kim Mulkey doesn't come along very often, and you had her."
MULKEY SITS IN her favorite spot at her new home, a covered patio by a blue-tiled pool and hot tub. It's a quiet, relaxing place where she likes to watch game film and make phone calls if the weather is good.
She rests her feet, clad in fluffy, purple slippers, on the chair across from her as Kannon wanders out to fetch his paints, brushes and latest masterpiece from the patio table.
She sings a lyric softly.
"I try to look strong, as the whole world looks on, but sometimes alone I cry."
"My counseling and therapy has always been music," Mulkey said.
Trust means everything to her, and when it has been broken, it usually doesn't mend. She has talked about the devastation she felt when her father divorced her mother, and then wanted to bring his new wife to Mulkey's wedding in 1987. Mulkey refused to allow the couple to be seated in the row right behind her mother. There was no compromise, and Mulkey and her father have been estranged ever since.
When Mulkey's husband, former Louisiana Tech quarterback Randy Robertson, asked her for a divorce the year after Baylor won its first national championship in 2005, she was crushed.
"I think her dad and Randy, they really hurt her deeply, and she's had an awful hard time forgiving them," Barmore said. "She has a soft side, and I've seen that in the way she is with her kids and her players. But when certain things happen, she can't get past them.
"It's kind of like the Louisiana Tech job. I thought she had it. I wanted her to have it."
When Barmore announced his retirement in 2000, many in the industry expected top assistant Mulkey to replace him. But when Louisiana Tech wouldn't offer her the five-year deal she wanted -- insisting on four years instead -- Mulkey saw it as a repudiation of the 19 years she had spent at Louisiana Tech as a player and a coach. Barmore ended up staying on a couple more years while Mulkey went to Baylor.
Mulkey wept when she left Louisiana Tech, but moved on. Just as she said she has after every disappointment.
Music eases the pain. Her friend Rick May, the former Baylor women's play-by-play announcer, put together a playlist of songs about divorce to try to help after her marriage split up.
"It actually brought some smiles," she said. "I would listen to it driving to games. You know that song [by Rodney Atkins], 'If you're going through hell, keep on going'? Or that Lorrie Morgan song ...
"Good as I was to you, is this the thanks I get?" Mulkey sang. "Are all the years we shared so easy to forget?"
"It actually helped me. And the same thing when Makenzie found out during her pregnancy that she was going to lose her baby."
Mulkey's first grandchild, Scout Marie, had severe birth defects and was stillborn in 2017.
"That just about put me over the edge," Mulkey said. "My friends would send me songs. One of them I still think about is that you can't let everybody see you grieve, but at night, that's when you do it."
Kim Mulkey looked back at her career after finding out she was inducted as part of the 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame class.
Her closest circle hasn't changed a lot since her Louisiana Tech days, which includes two current staff members, Jennifer Roberts and Johnny Derrick. There's also Cheryl Gaude, a lifelong friend who kept the scorebook at Hammond High when Kim played at the school not far from Tickfaw. Gaude and her husband, Ralph, thought of Mulkey as the daughter they never had. After Ralph died in 2005, Cheryl came to stay with Mulkey and her family and never left.
Mulkey said she is content without a romantic relationship, because her family, friends and team mean everything to her. She also doesn't want to be that vulnerable again.
"People say, 'Did you ever date since your divorce?' I don't want to put the effort into it," she said. "That sounds selfish, but the unselfish part is I thought it would be too complicated for my children. They are far more important than anything else. Some people need a spouse or a partner; I don't. I'm very content with who I am, and I don't get lonely.
"I don't allow a lot of people to really get to know me."
WHEN THE LSU players heard Mulkey had taken the job, they were excited, knowing her record, but also curious. They talked to players they knew who had played for Mulkey, such as Chloe Jackson, the 2019 Final Four Most Outstanding Player at Baylor.
"She said, 'You're gonna love her. She's passionate, and she gets the best out of players,'" said LSU point guard Khayla Pointer, a fifth-year senior.
Mulkey doesn't play pickup or set screens and take charges in workouts like she did when she was younger -- "I'm not stupid," she said -- but her energy level is still palpable.
"The pace and tempo with her is definitely different," Pointer said. "It's been fun to come to practice."
The Tigers, who are 5-1 heading into the season's first Top 25 test Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) against No. 14 Iowa State, are learning "Mulkeyisms." Want to know the scoop on something? "I'll tell you how the cow ate the cabbage," Mulkey says. And if she doubts the veracity of something, Mulkey suggests, "If that's the truth, I'll kiss your ass and call it 'Love Story.'"
Even though Makenzie -- who has, for now, opted to stay in Waco with her husband, Baylor graduate Clay Fuller, and Kannon and Sage -- and Kramer think they've heard their mom's entire repertoire of country witticisms, occasionally she will still make them laugh with a new one.
"If you want 'real,'" Makenzie said, "she truly is as real as it gets."
Former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who lost the 2012 and 2019 national championship games to Mulkey's Baylor teams, said she couldn't have imagined leaving the Irish after so many years to coach somewhere else, but she admires Mulkey for it. The chance to build something again, McGraw said, can be one of the most rewarding parts of coaching.
"She brings a feisty sort of presence to our game," said McGraw, who retired in 2020. "Most women coaches are very careful about everything they say. Kim pretty much just says what she thinks. It's refreshing to listen to her. And she's like a walking history book of our game."
Mulkey has played and coached with and against most of the best in the history of women's college basketball since the 1970s. Just about any milestone from the sport's past 50 years, Mulkey was either a part of it or knew someone who was.
"I probably didn't think of it like that for a long time, because she was just 'Mom,'" Kramer said. "But going to the Naismith Hall of Fame and seeing these legends -- Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas -- that knew all about her, I think that was cooler than anything."
And Mulkey still has the desire to keep adding to that legacy. Barmore, who finished at Louisiana Tech in 2002 with an .869 winning percentage (576-87), worked as an assistant to Mulkey for three years at Baylor.
"I've got to tell you the three coaches I think are the greatest of all time in the women's game are Geno [Auriemma], Pat [Summitt] and Kim," Barmore said. "I think so much of Pat; I always did. And you've got to hand it to Geno; that man can coach. And so can Kim."
Mulkey will have more huge wins and some tough losses. She will sit up suddenly in bed in the middle of the night, turn on the light and write down something about the team on the notepad she keeps on the table beside her for that very purpose.
"I'm not the same age I was when I went to Baylor, but I have wisdom," she said. "My knowledge and the experience you have -- there's no substitute for that. I've got a lot left in the tank."