Monday night was far from the first time Baylor looked like a collection of talented basketball players thrown together at the last minute and sent to the lions to play against a highly organized, disciplined, talented Kansas team.
It was, however, the first time while I was watching a true team play against an All-Star squad that a thought pitched a tent in my cloudy head: Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey, a driven, smart (high school valedictorian), intense leader who commands so much respect from peers and players, could get the Bears to play better basketball and win more games than Scott Drew wins.
No Division I school ever has hired a woman as head coach of its men’s basketball team. Tennessee did once discuss the men’s job with its women’s coach, the legendary Pat Summitt, who retired after last season and is in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease. During an interview on ESPN Radio in New York City a decade or so ago, I asked Summitt why she did not want to make the jump to the men's game. She said she seriously considered it, but thought she could do a better job of promoting women’s basketball by staying put. We’ll never know if Summitt’s opinion on that matter was on target.
But if Drew decides to take his considerable recruiting talents elsewhere, Baylor would be wise to try what Tennessee tried with Summitt, as classy a coach as there is in basketball.
The women’s game has grown since Summitt decided to stay in it, but its popularity still lags. Something needs to happen to jolt it. UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s recent suggestion to lower the hoops to bring dunking into the game didn’t gain much traction. (He’s not the first one to make such a suggestion, just the smartest). Should Mulkey coach a talented group of men into a national powerhouse, that would gain respect for the women’s game.
It’s no insult to Drew to suggest that Mulkey could do a better job with his players than he does. Mulkey has a great basketball mind, knows how to communicate what she knows in understandable fashion and holds her players accountable without coaching the joy out of the game. Her players show steady improvement.
In fairness, Drew’s recruiting has elevated the program. He has reached the Elite Eight twice, which suggests his laid-back style might result in his teams playing less tight than others during the NCAA Tournament. But his players are not dragged out of their comfort zones often enough to stay on a rapid improvement curve. Still, Drew’s recruiting touch makes him a hot coaching prospect. If he bolts for a fatter wallet, Baylor doesn’t need to leave the building to find his replacement.
As a player, Mulkey won four Louisiana state high school titles, two national titles for Louisiana Tech and an Olympic Gold Medal in 1984. As a coach, she has won two national titles (2005, 2012) and has a team that has a good shot to win a third.
It would take a woman unburdened by insecurity to crash the men’s gate and Mulkey certainly qualifies. She doesn’t shy from the big stage.
A year ago at Big 12 Media Day, the fiery, stylish Mulkey grew her considerable fan base when asked if she would continue to schedule Texas A&M after it left the Big 12 for the SEC, a move A&M’s president compared to a divorce. (Mulkey is divorced).
“My feeling is this: If a man wants to divorce me and says our relationship has no value to him and then asks me if he can sleep with me, the answer is, ‘No,’ “ Mulkey said.
Talk about a memorable moment.
Mulkey loves her current job so much she might never want to change it. But if she ever decides to blaze a trail, stand back and watch her shoot to the top.