Louisiana state basketball coach Kim Mulkey squats on the sidelines like a catcher in high heels and wears sleeves adorned with pink flowers and artificial flowers that suggest, “No hibiscus died in the making of this jacket.”
“Look, we’re from Louisiana,” said 60-year-old Mulkey during an earlier round of the women’s NCAA tournament. “We like glitter, we like diamonds, we like Mardi Gras, we like food, and we like to party.”
On Sunday, Mulkey wore a tiger-striped trouser suit of gold, pink and black sequins. However, it would have been a serious mistake to link her gaudy wardrobe with triviality as a coach. With LSU’s 102-85 win over Iowa and its star guard Caitlin Clark on Sunday, Mulkey added a fourth national title as head coach to the three she won at Baylor. Her most recent came only in her sophomore season at LSU, with nine new players added to the roster.
“Year 2 at LSU, and you’re hoisting this trophy is crazy,” Mulkey said on the field.
She is a divisive figure in college basketball, especially regarding her complicated relationship with former Baylor star Brittney Griner, who Mulkey’s advice to downplay her sexuality as a lesbian while playing for the religious school. Their relationship got a new scrutiny when Griner was detained in Russia a year ago.
Still, Mulkey has been very successful in catching players in trouble and giving them a second chance. And she now trails only Geno Auriemma in Connecticut (11 titles) and former Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt (eight titles) among the most successful championship coaches in Division I.
As always on Sunday, Mulkey sat on the couch. She clenched her fists and looked up, as if to say “Hallelujah,” as her team continued to make 3-pointers in the first half. When the game was finally in hand, she tried to hold back the tears. Earlier, when she got upset, she stamped her feet and clapped in the face of an umpire and pretended to throw Clark an elbow to clear herself for shots.
Jay Bilas, the ESPN commentator who played with Duke, said he was L.SU. as a Final Four team in his group because he was afraid of Mulkey. But her players seem to feed on her passion and feverish energy.
“I can sometimes chuckle at the way she does things,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, “but her confidence and her swagger translate to her teams and they win.”
Close, the outgoing president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, continued, “I believe that when I view her with respect, her elite is her ability to make her kids play hard, appreciate defense, and play with great confidence. And I think that transcends all X’s and O’s.”
Arizona Coach Adia Barnes, who took her team to the 2021 national championship game, said she believed Mulkey’s strategic maneuvers were underrated. On Sunday, LSU hit perimeter shots that South Carolina failed to make against Iowa in the semifinals. Five Tigers scored in double digits. Point guard Alexis Morris displaced Clark, who put up 30 points and 8 assists but was called twice for putting off, missing 10 of her last 15 shots.
Frustrated towards the end of the third quarter, Clark cleared the ball behind her back and made a technical foul for a delay in play. It was not Clark but Morris (21 points, 9 assists) who made the most decisive plays of the game.
“Caitlin, you played a great game, you’re a great player,” said Morris, addressing Clark from the victory podium. “But you have to have some respect for LSU. You should have some respect for my name. And you have to respect Coach Kim Mulkey a little bit.
The emotions on Mulkey’s face served as a kind of play-by-play throughout the game, from revelry to fear to anger. Rarely is she at a loss for words. During an in-game interview in the regional final against Miami, Mulkey was so appalled at both teams’ poor shooting, she said, “If I watched this game, I’d turn it off.”
But sometimes what she says — or doesn’t say — has left her open to widespread criticism.
Last September, while Griner was still detained in Russia, Mulkey interrupted a reporter who asked her for her opinion on Griner.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything from you on that,” said Cory Diaz of The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, La., when Mulkey replied, “And you don’t.”
Griner has said she respected Mulkey’s disciplined approach to coaching at Baylor and appreciated the way Mulkey defended her from brutal taunting during games. But, says Griner, she started to get annoyed when Mulkey admonished her to cover up her tattoos, delete Twitter posts about her friend, and “keep your business behind closed doors.”
Two former Baylor players criticized Mulkey for not supporting Griner. Recently, Mulkey said she hadn’t spoken to Griner since her release, but added, “I’m glad she’s safe, she’s healthy.”
There still seems to be tension between Mulkey and Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose team left star Angel Reese to join LSU. In an interview on Saturday, Frese said, “Some coaches, chemistry is important and character is important. But not with Kim. Kim wants to win.”
But Mulkey’s players clearly adore her. “She keeps it real,” Reese said of Mulkey. “When I got to LSU, I needed a coach to really stick with me. Like, “Angel, you’re not doing enough. You’re not helping the team.’ Like being able to have difficult conversations. You need someone to humble you.”
Morris, the point guard, briefly played for Mulkey at Baylor, was fired from there after an arrest – the outcome of which is not clear – and now plays for her again, at her fourth school. She has Mulkey to thank for providing structure and discipline. “Coach Mulkey, given the type of person she is, wouldn’t have taken me back” if she hadn’t grown up, Morris said. “I was just an immature child. I didn’t understand the structure. I didn’t understand discipline. And you know it just caught up with me at a bad time.
Morris said he was given a second chance by Mulkey, saying “I’m so lucky to be back where I started.”
Could it be that LSU football coach Brian Kelly, now that Mulkey has won a national title, is also going to spruce up his wardrobe?
“We’re going to have him wear glitter for the first game,” Michael Bonnette, the spokesman for the athletics department, said with a laugh.