WBB: LSU and Mulkey reshape the SEC
For the second year in a row an April surprise has shaken up women’s basketball in the SEC. In early April last year, Vic Schaefer shocked everyone when he left Mississippi State and took over at Texas. This year, late April gave us Kim Mulkey leaving the powerhouse she built at Baylor to take over a middling LSU program.
In both cases, a pay raise and the lure of home came into play. Mulkey grew up in Louisiana, starred at Louisiana Tech, and her son played baseball at LSU. Mulkey was making a little less than $2.3 million at Baylor and is expected to get a boost to $2.5 million at LSU. That may not seem like a lot, but the amount is significant. It is the same salary LSU is paying men’s basketball coach Will Wade, and bumps Mulkey past Geno Auriemma ($2.4 million) as the highest-paid women’s basketball coach. Dawn Staley was previously the highest-paid coach in the SEC, making about $1.7 million per year (her pay is loaded with bonuses that can push over $2 million).
It’s a huge investment in women’s basketball for LSU, a school that had been seemingly unwilling to make such a commitment. Before resigning earlier this month, former coach Nikki Fargas was making just $700,000 a year, middle of the pack in the SEC, and as LSU sank into mediocrity her job security seemed to be based as much on institutional disinterest as positive results. But LSU athletics director Scott Woodward isn’t afraid to spend money - he was the Texas A&M AD who offered Jimbo Fisher a virtual blank check - and hiring Mulkey seems as much like a sure thing as possible.
Not that long ago LSU made five consecutive Final Fours, from 2004-2008, but those glory days had plenty of turmoil: LSU had three full-time coaches and two interim coaches during the span, a coach had an affair with a player (Pokey Chatman, for your Googling needs), and an aging coach who wasn’t prepared to return to the college game (Van Chancellor, who nonetheless had some marvelous stories about playing cards with Dawn Staley at the Olympics). Fargas brought stability, but that stability was at a much different - meaning average - level.
Mulkey has a chance to recapture the glory, and without the angst (despite her tendency to cut against the grain). Her first national championship at Baylor came in 2005, when she beat LSU in the semifinals. She was the fastest coach to win 600 games, despite building the Baylor program virtually from scratch. She is one of only four coaches with three or more national championships. And despite seemingly having been at Baylor forever (actually 21 seasons), Mulkey is only 58. She turns 59 in May, almost exactly eight years older than Dawn Staley.
Recruiting at LSU had fallen off under Fargas, including not signing a single top 100 player in 2018 or 2020, and just three in the past four cycles. LSU got good news recently when three of its top players, seniors Khayla Pointer, Faustine Aifuwa and Jailin Cherry, announced they would take advantage of their extra year of eligibility and return for next season. But that was before the coaching change and they could reconsider, especially All-SEC point guard Pointer, who is Fargas’ niece.
Mulkey, who is set to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer, introduced by no less than Michael Jordan, should provide an immediate recruiting boost for the Lady Tigers, but how much remains to be seen. Recruiting at Baylor was also in a slump, but not nearly as severe as at LSU. In the three classes since the blockbuster top-ranked 2018 class that included NaLyssa Smith, Baylor has signed just four players (and one, Jordyn Oliver) has already transferred out). Mulkey had come to rely much more on the transfer portal, picking up, among others, Te’a Cooper and Chloe Jackson, who was the NCAA Most Outstanding Player in 2019. Mulkey was raiding the portal again this offseason, signing former Alabama guard Jordan Lewis just last week.
There’s no disputing that Mulkey left a comfortable situation at Baylor for a challenge. Baylor dominated the Big 12 over the past decade, failing to sweep the regular season and conference championships just once in the past 11 seasons (I’m not even touching on how Mulkey’s move transforms the Big 12). On the other hand LSU is decidedly behind South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State in the SEC pecking order, and has struggled to keep pace with Tennessee and Kentucky, while Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss are programs on the rise.
Mulkey faces a significant rebuilding job at LSU, but hardly impossible. A few years ago she would probably have faced a two or three year process, but with the transfer portal Mulkey could possibly remake LSU’s roster by the end of this summer. In theory, Mulkey could bring over her entire Baylor team and have everyone eligible to play for LSU this fall. That almost certainly won’t happen (there are hurt feelings, roster limitations, Baylor wouldn’t let it happen without a fight, etc.), but just as the portal action was winding down, it could ramp back up again. And Mulkey and LSU are an attractive destination.
LSU must have promised Mulkey the resources needed to compete with South Carolina, on and off the court. After all, Mulkey claims she took the Baylor job in 2000 because Louisiana Tech only offered her a four-year contract instead of her desired five-year deal, which the Lady Bears agreed to. She was picky about jobs back when she had no leverage, so now that she can dictate terms she wouldn’t take the LSU job without assurances. Before her team ever sets foot on the basketball court, Mulkey has changed the SEC.