Where Kim goes, success follows

Originally Published: April 3, 2005
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson was asked Tuesday about being the first person to win an NCAA women's basketball title as a player and a coach. She pretty much shrugged off the question.

"I don't think about those things," she said following Baylor's 84-62 dismantling of Michigan State in the championship at the RCA Dome. "Certainly, it's an honor. But, as I said, I've been blessed all my life to put myself around winners."

Kim Mulkey-Robertson
AP Photo/Michael ConroyFive years after Kim Mulkey-Robertson took over a team that was 7-20, the Lady Bears can call themselves champions.

At first, I shook my head thinking, "What do you mean you don't think about 'those things?' Who wouldn't think about that?"

But then I decided that maybe when you're constantly shooting for the next sky-high goal, you don't spend a lot of time dwelling on things that happened a week ago, let alone more than 20 years ago.

Mulkey-Robertson comes across as one of the most confident people you will ever meet. Sometime during this NCAA Tournament – I think it was in the first and second rounds in Seattle, but after a million news conferences this month I'm a little fuzzy – she was asked whether something another team did was intimidating.

I almost laughed out loud. I don't think a 10-foot grizzly bear (if they get that tall) would intimidate her. I don't think all those fighters who ran up the walls and around the rooftops in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" would intimidate her. I don't think a 12-eyed space creature with a laser death ray and five-human-a-day-diet would intimidate her.

Mulkey-Robertson's answer was something along the lines of, if you know anything about me, you know intimidation is not in my nature.

I'm sure of that, but here's the odd thing: I've never really been sure why it took her as long as it did to become a head coach. And when I first talked to her extensively after she took the Baylor job five years ago, she indicated she wasn't completely sure, either.

True, the most obvious answer was that she was waiting for the head-coaching job to open at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech. And maybe she thought that would happen sooner than it did, which is why she turned down other head-coaching opportunities. You know how it goes sometimes in life. You say, "I'll give it one or two more years ..." and before you know it, that can add up.

But besides that, being a Louisiana Tech assistant was a very good job. It meant multiple trips to the Final Four and better fan support than most places. It meant winning a lot of games and having traditional rivalries, such as with Tennessee. And it meant being "home."

Mulkey-Robertson has said again and again she will always be a "Louisiana girl" no matter where she is living. So maybe the only thing that ever really did intimidate her was the thought of leaving the Bayou State.

There is a lot to be said for knowing the exact lay of the land, the weather patterns, the smell of the outdoors, the people around you, the way things work. It was where her family and friends were. Plus, her husband, Randy Robertson, went to Louisiana Tech, too, where he was a quarterback.

So maybe for a long time, there really was just no reason compelling enough to leave Ruston, La.

And then came the spring of 2000. By chance, because Kansas was in the Louisiana Tech subregional and I covered that team for my newspaper, I happened to be at the news conference the day Leon Barmore announced before the NCAA Tournament began that he would be retiring when Louisiana Tech's season ended.

He said he was doing it then because "this is the time when you hire coaches," which sounded as if Louisiana Tech was going to have some kind of big search. But wasn't it obvious, I thought, that Mulkey-Robertson would take over?

Anyway, I found that trying to be an "outsider" sorting through that whole situation was akin to taking a baseball bat to a hornets' nest. You heard all kinds of stuff: that Mulkey-Robertson had been upset when Barmore took a contract extension, that they hadn't been communicating particularly well that whole season.

Mulkey-Robertson has since said that she had no problem with Barmore or vice versa, and that the only reason she didn't stay at Louisiana Tech was the whole four-year contract offer when she wanted five years.

It seemed weird, at the time, that one year on a contract would make that much of a difference to someone who'd spent 15 years of on-the-job training to be Tech's head coach. Several Louisiana Tech fans said then and say now that there was "a lot more to the story" (isn't there always?). And I'd guess whatever hard feelings some had for Mulkey-Robertson when she left have been eclipsed by anger at the Tech administration for letting her go.

Alas, though, from her standpoint it's all water under the bridge. She is Baylor through and through now.

But what about ... the light blue suit she wore Tuesday night?

Mulkey-Robertson said it was something her assistant coach, Jennifer Roberts, saw in a store and got for her. OK, are we supposed to believe that of all the colors she might have worn for the biggest game of her head coaching career, it was sheer chance she wore Louisiana Tech blue? Well, maybe that's another one "those things" Mulkey-Robertson doesn't think about.

But plenty of observers did, and I doubt it could have escaped the notice of Louisiana Tech fans. I feel bad for them. Not because Mulkey-Robertson has had success someplace else, but because they are worried about their program.

Many of these are folks who've supported women's basketball for decades now. They deserve to stay in the sport's elite. But coach Kurt Budke has left for Oklahoma State, and Mulkey-Robertson has won a national title for Baylor. Tech fans are left wondering what their future holds.

But Mulkey-Robertson gave 19 years to Louisiana Tech as a player and coach. She invested a great deal to that school and certainly left no debts behind her. Meanwhile, Baylor officials did what schools have to do now if they want to be contenders in this sport. They put the financial resources into the program, and the administration truly is behind it.

And they got the right leader: One who was confident enough, hard-working enough and could flat-out coach.

So maybe Mulkey-Robertson really doesn't reflect much on being that kid with the braided pigtails who ran the show for Tech in the early 1980s. It was several milestones ago for her. But I think about it, and I'd bet anyone who saw her as a player does, too.

She won state championships in high school and national championships in college as a player. She won a ton more titles, including the 1988 NCAA championship, as an assistant coach. Now, she has led her own program to a national title.

Mulkey-Robertson said she's always "put herself around winners." But, actually, it's more like people become winners when she's around. Because she has always been one.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

ALSO SEE