Of all the crackups by coaches this week, one was more disappointing than all the others, and it wasn’t Bobby Petrino going “Easy Rider” into a ditch after losing control of his gearshift. We’ve seen things like that before. For some reason, the more disheartening crash was that of Baylor women’s basketball Coach Kim Mulkey, embarrassed by NCAA sanctions fresh off her national championship.
Maybe that’s because women’s basketball is comparatively clean. You hate to see the standards lowered in a sport that still actually has some.
Just a week after winning a title, Mulkey accepted penalties for an assortment of recruiting violations, most prominently with her 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner. Make no mistake: Baylor’s 40-0 season was less the result of improprieties than of Mulkey’s tireless work, strategic expertise and a vivid, charismatic personality that her players want to follow.
But that’s why the list of petty abuses she committed is so aggravating. Mulkey is positioned as the new standard bearer and bright coaching star of women’s basketball — a role she clearly wants, judging by her glittering outfits — but she just dipped the flag in the mud.
The women’s game is at an interesting juncture: Coaches and administrators are trying to figure out how to grow it in profitability without emulating the corruptions of the men’s game. They can legitimately argue that their audience is devoted — 4.2 million viewers watched Baylor beat Notre Dame for the title — precisely because the sport has a purer brand. Players are still real students who graduate at high rates; coaches are still real teachers as opposed to shysters; and the athletic scholarship is still meaningful, as opposed to a one-year inconvenience.
The question is how long it will stay that way. The answer is up to Mulkey.
That’s not a light or facetious statement. The answer really is up to her, personally. Because Mulkey is at the top of the game, every other coach in the country will now imitate her. All of her peers will treat the rules the way she treats them.
Here is how Mulkey treated them: According to the NCAA report, both the Baylor women’s and men’s coaches made hundreds of impermissible contacts with recruits through texts and phone calls. Mulkey claimed the calls and texts were not intentional but a failure to accurately keep her phone logs, a contention every coach in the country will laugh out loud at.
There is another situation in the NCAA report that illustrates how Mulkey treated the rules. She used her position as a parent to make improper contact with the Griner family when her daughter played with Griner on the same Texas AAU summer team, DFW Elite.
Mulkey’s defense is that she was in a difficult situation as a mother and a coach, and that’s a fact. But here are some other facts: In 2006, at around the same time she was cultivating the Griners at summer games, Mulkey hired DFW Elite’s Coach Damion McKinney to her staff. McKinney is the assistant who made many of the improper calls and texts detailed by the NCAA, more than 300 of them in 2011 to a current DFW Elite coach.
As noted by ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel, six players on Baylor’s championship roster come from DFW Elite. Including four of five starters, Griner, Odyssey Sims, Kimetria Hayden, and Jordan Madden.
Mulkey is hardly the first coach to cultivate an AAU recruiting pipeline, and by itself that’s not illegal under NCAA rules. But let’s be clear: The violations at Baylor were not simply unintentional bookkeeping errors, but rather part of an overaggressive pattern and loss of self-restraint. And it looks an awful lot like what goes on in the men’s game. Granted, these aren’t offenses on the level of slush funds, but Mulkey gained a competitive advantage. A very good coach, Gail Goestenkors, recently resigned from the University of Texas in part because she couldn’t make recruiting inroads in-state, and lost too many players to Baylor.
It should be no consolation to Mulkey that her penalties are light. In a way, that’s the worst part. The NCAA accepted Baylor’s self-imposed punishment: Mulkey was stripped of two scholarships and forbidden from recruiting off campus this July. Which will hardly dissuade other coaches from employing the same tactics. What are a couple of lost scholarships and a month off the road compared with 40-0 and a national championship banner, with another one likely next season? The conclusion is that it’s entirely worth it to cheat.
This not to say the women’s game didn’t already have some impurities. There are plenty of infractions and improprieties. But for the most part the water is still drinkable. It would be nice to keep it that way, and not watch it become another toxic dump.
There is reason to think Mulkey is hurt and discomfited by the sanctions. She cuts a proud figure. “I believe strongly in following NCAA rules and will always try to do so in the future,” she said in a statement through the school.
In every other respect she’s been a credit to the sport, winner of a championship and an Olympic gold medal as a player at Louisiana Tech, winner of two more banners as a coach in 2005 and 2012, a superb teacher of an unprecedented talent in Griner, and the leader of a second wave of coaches seeking to build on the huge successes and commercial foundations laid down by my friend Pat Summitt at Tennessee and Geno Auriemma at Connecticut.
Anyone who cares about the women’s game wants Mulkey to become everything she should be: not just the next possessor of multiple banners, but preserver of what integrity the game still has. That means embracing a certain reality: She has extra responsibility to do things the right way. If we eventually look over our shoulders and ask when the women’s game went down the slippery slope, we’ll look at this day, the day the reigning national champion went on probation, as the starting point.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, see washingtonpost.com/jenkins