Even at 5’4”, Kim Mulkey stands out at Baylor University. Since 2005, she has led the women’s basketball team to five Sweet Sixteen appearances, three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, and a NCAA championship win. This year the Lady Bears started 23-0 and have been ranked No. 1 in the country. Since taking over as coach of the Baylor program in 2000, Mulkey has built a powerhouse, and credits her success to a few key factors. In a conversation with Mulkey, we learned what those are.
Mulkey arrived at Baylor more than a decade ago to take the reigns of a struggling basketball team that finished the previous season with a 7-20 record. The first-time head coach was committed to raising expectations on all fronts (personal, academic and athletics) and didn’t waste time. Under Mulkey, players were expected to go to class, perform well academically, be respectful and always work hard. Her standards quickly took hold, guiding a turnaround of unprecedented proportions. In the course of a single season, Baylor basketball went from laughing stock to the NCAA tournament.
Since that remarkable first season, Mulkey’s standards have never dipped. “I want to see them play extremely hard,” Mulkey says, “and I know I’m going to coach hard.” She has an almost intuitive sense for what her players need in order to maintain their effort — whether it’s a hug, wink or a kick in the butt.
But maintaining high standards doesn’t come easy. Throughout her career, Mulkey has had to make some tough decisions to enforce those expectations she set. In one case, she had to dismiss a starting player in the middle of the season for missing class. At other times, she’s had to suspend players for being disrespectful.
hese decisions are excruciating for a head coach, who’s well aware that off-the-court discipline can cause a dip in on-the-court performance. Losing is never easy, particularly when a team blames it on the coach’s decision to suspend a star player. But to Mulkey, more important than short-term wins and losses is long-term success. As she says, “I’m very protective of the players, but not at the expense of the team.”
Mulkey says she is a mom before anything else. She has vowed to never let her career become more important than her two children, and sees family as her No. 1 priority. Fortunately for Baylor, she has a rather broad definition of family. “Family is a group of people within an organization that have a common goal,” she says. This is the same definition Mulkey uses for her team. While her kids always come first, her players and staff aren’t far behind.
As head of the Baylor women’s basketball family, Mulkey has hopes for her players that extend far beyond basketball, and wants to position her players to succeed in the classroom, in life and into their careers. “Ultimately our goal as we get these young ladies is to graduate them,” Mulkey says. And she sticks to it: Most recently her team exceeded the national average Graduation Success Rate score, with a 92. Like many mothers, she explains that she wants her players to look back and say, “She prepared us and we’re going to be okay.”
Mulkey has a genuine passion for her own development as well, making a point of not wanting to become a “stagnant” coach. “When a coach thinks they know it all,” she says, “they need to retire.” Mulkey’s latest learning opportunity? Coaching one of Baylor’s most talented players, Brittney Griner.
At the onset of the 2009-2010 season, a 6’8” Griner arrived on campus and Mulkey quickly realized that she needed to grow and adapt to her new recruit. Griner’s size and ability were new to Mulkey, and most of women’s basketball. As she recalls, “I didn’t know how to coach a kid that was that physically close to the rim.” For Mulkey, the adjustment was both strategic and tactical, as she learned how to incorporate zone defenses, lobs and dunks into the playbook in order to fully leverage Griner’s talents.
Mulkey has won at every level, from a 1984 Olympic gold medal as a player to a 2005 NCAA Championship win as a coach. She’s seen it all but keeps coming back for more. Mulkey’s passion for basketball, devotion to a high standard, dedication to her team and commitment to professional challenges are the ingredients behind her success. She’s a gifted coach who has managed to fly slightly below the radar in women’s basketball. Yet as her team continues through the 2012 season undefeated, maybe she’ll turn more heads — even if they need to look down to see her.
Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl are managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of the forthcoming book Team Turnarounds , to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass. Email them or find them on Facebook.