Kim Mulkey-Robertson has a way of seeming little and big at the very same time. It's all that edgy personality crammed into her 5-foot-3 stature. If you took a store-bought doll, gave it hurtful-looking spikes of tawny hair, and twisted its face into a permanent expression of pridefulness and stubbornness, all chin and cheekbones, that's Mulkey-Robertson.
She is the one person you can't take your eye off of in this NCAA Final Four, and she may well be the best coach of a new generation in women's basketball. She's become the game's most entertainingly telegenic figure as well as a most promising sideline talent, a whirling, stamping, wailing she-maestro, who has turned Baylor from a dead-last team into a championship contender in just five seasons.
She's done it with sheer force of personality. Every foul is a catastrophe, every missed rebound is tragic. She rears in a fury, and then slumps abjectly to the floor, her face contorted into end-of-the-world agony. She spins and rag dolls. She urges her players on with a dramatic, climb-the-mast-in-a-hurricane intensity, and if they balk, she tells them, "Everybody needs somebody to be hard on you in life."
Point guard Chelsea Whitaker replies wryly, "And that's what I got."
Off the court, Mulkey-Robertson, 43, is calmer but no less forceful. She talks with a steady gray-eyed frankness accompanied by a native Louisiana roux of an accent. In April 2000, she inherited a Baylor program that won just seven games, and finished dead last in the Big 12. She was 38, and it was her first coaching job.
"You're scared to death," she says. "You lay up in the bed at night saying, 'Can I do this?' And then you say, 'By God, I'm gonna do this.' "
She told the Baylor Lady Bears, "From 12th place, you can't go any place but up." In her first season, they achieved a moral victory when they finished sixth in the Big 12. "You start with realistic goals, just try to compete with someone you're not even supposed to be in the game with," she says.
Since then, Mulkey-Robertson's career record as a head coach has grown to a breathtaking 127-38, with four straight NCAA appearances, each time going a little deeper into postseason than the last.
Down in Waco, Tex., the crowds hold up signs that say, "We Got Mulk!" It's a cheerfully pointed reference to the fact that Baylor is lucky to have Mulkey-Robertson in the first place. Mulkey-Robertson is the loyal native pride of Tangipahoa Parish, La., where a street is named after her, and by all rights she should be coaching at Louisiana Tech -- and would have been if the university had not, in her view, betrayed her after a lifetime of service.
Mulkey-Robertson is the only woman who has appeared in the Final Four as a player and a coach: In her own day she was an undersized but brilliantly heady and hungry point guard who took the Lady Techsters to a 130-6 mark and four Final Fours, winning the NCAA championship in 1982. She played just as she coaches -- like she's never been given a crust of bread.
"Like someone who had to fight for everything she ever got," says Pat Summitt, whose Tennessee teams never managed to beat her.
Summitt held Mulkey in such regard as a player that she made her the point guard on the 1984 Olympic team that went to Los Angeles and won a gold medal. Before the L.A. Games, Summitt took the squad to Colorado Springs and put it through punishing workouts at high-altitude, full-court sprints. Mulkey was one player who never complained. She took every bit of punishment Summitt served up, and when other players got tired, she set her jaw and told them it was how they were going to win the medal. One day as the team was gathered at midcourt, Mulkey said to her USA teammates: "This is what you have to do. This is how to get it done."
Mulkey-Robertson returned to La. Tech as an assistant under Leon Barmore, and over the next 15 years, the team made seven appearances in the Final Four and had 10 30-win seasons. Along the way she married her college boyfriend, Randy Robertson, after he told her, "I'm tired of holding your hand," and they had two children. When Barmore retired in 2000, everyone assumed Mulkey-Robertson was his natural successor. After all, she had spent 19 years of her life on the campus, and she had never left the state. How could they not do everything to keep her?
"That's kind of what I was wondering," she says.
But Tech offered her just a three-year contract. The standard in the business is five. When Mulkey-Robertson refused to sign, the school grudgingly offered her a four-year deal "and felt they were doing me a favor," she says. Mulkey-Robertson was deeply offended. Over the years she had turned down three head coaching jobs, for considerable raises, to stay at Tech.
As it happened, Baylor was looking for a new head coach. Mulkey picked up the phone. "I was hurt and I left," she says.
Baylor had only one 20-win season in the previous 20 years before Mulkey-Robertson's arrival. Since then, they have yet to win fewer than 20, and this year's Final Four appearance is the result of a firestorm of emotional coaching. Mulkey-Robertson is genuinely unaware of how animated she is in the sideline. When the Lady Bears defeated North Carolina last week to reach the Final Four, she wept openly, and then was aghast to see her histrionics on tape.
"If I had known I was that ugly when I cried, I wouldn't have," she said.
Her only regret about Sunday night's semifinal against LSU is that when the Final Four is over her fellow Louisianans will "get to go home and eat crawfish, and I won't." Instead, her family has promised to bring her some in Waco. She's okay with the trade-off, because what's clear is that Baylor has arrived permanently on the scene as a contender. And so has Mulkey-Robertson. "I thank God for unanswered prayers," she says.