BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Hall of Fame coach Kim Mulkey’s introduction at LSU had an overriding theme that echoed constantly under the domed roof of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
It was the word, “home.”
“When you grow up, you don’t forget where you come from,” said Mulkey, who is leaving a Baylor women’s basketball program she built into a three-time national champion to return to her native Louisiana. “This state made us who we were. … It’s so unbelievably comfortable for me to come back to my roots.”
A native of Tickfaw, Louisiana, Mulkey won state championships at Hammond High School, about 45 miles east of LSU,. She then won national titles as both a player and assistant coach at Louisiana Tech before spending 21 years in Waco, Texas.
So when an opportunity was presented to the 58-year-old to return to Louisiana and coach at the state’s flagship institution, the pull was too hard to resist — even if it meant leaving a program she’d built into a perennial contender for another that missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament after going 9-13 last season.
LSU hasn’t made it past the Sweet 16 since 2007.
“There’s only one institution I would have left for, and they made the commitment and I’m home,” said Mulkey, who helped Baylor win the 2019 NCAA championship.
The Bears lost to UConn last month in the regional finals of this years NCAA tournament.
“If you have followed my career, I’ve said it numerous times. No matter where I go … Louisiana is my home,” said Mulkey, who grew up near the town that hosts the state’s annual strawberry festival. “I can’t wait to eat some Ponchatoula strawberries. I can’t wait to have some crawfish.
“I can now tell Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes and people don’t look at me like I’ve lost my mind.”
Mulkey was flown into Baton Rouge by LSU on the university’s jet and was greeted by athletic director Scott Woodward, along with men’s basketball coach Will Wade and baseball coach Paul Mainieri, for whom her son, Kramer Robertson, played from 2014 to 2017.
After Mulkey arrived on campus, she was greeted by football coach Ed Orgeron. Mulkey also credited recently retired LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux, who remains with LSU’s athletic department, for talking her through what she described as an emotional decision to leave the program she’d built during two decades.
“Many, many tears were shed,” Mulkey said as she described discussions with the Baylor players she was leaving. “All I could tell them was I was going home and that I love them and that I hope that they could understand and not be angry at me. But it’s just a feeling in my gut that it was time to go home.”
A number of Mulkey’s family and LSU dignitaries, and even Gov. John Bel Edwards, were present at her introduction, which was open to the public.
“There are great coaches all over this country, but it’s not every day you get to hire a champion,” Woodward said, noting how LSU fans had watched and admired Mulkey from “down the road” throughout her playing and coaching career.
“The next championship coach Mulkey wins, we all will be watching from the front row,” Woodward said. “The best coach in the country is coming home to Louisiana.”
While Mulkey doesn’t have the most victories or championships of any active coach, she became the fastest coach in Division I history to reach 600 wins — needing only 700 games to do it.
In 21 years as the head coach at Baylor, Mulkey led the Lady Bears to four Final Fours. Her teams reached the Elite Eight six times and the Sweet 16 on five other occasions.
A member of the 2020 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class, Mulkey built Baylor into a national power, as they became just the third program in NCAA history to have at least three national titles, joining UConn and Tennessee.
She takes over for Nikki Fargas, who stepped down last week.
Before coming to Baylor, Mulkey spent 19 years as a player or coach at Louisiana Tech. As a player, she helped the Lady Techsters win the first NCAA championship in 1982. She also played for the gold medal-winning U.S. National team at the 1984 Olympics.
Mulkey asked current LSU players, who’d she’d met earlier in the day, to stand and be recognized before directing their attention to five Final Four banners hanging above them.
“No where on there does it say, ‘National Champion,’” Mulkey said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. … Give it time. But I can assure you that’s what I came here to do.”