Baylor coach Kim Mulkey made headlines after the Bears’ narrow loss to Connecticut in Monday night’s Elite Eight for questioning the need for continued COVID-19 testing in the Final Four of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
In the hours that followed, Mulkey’s comments drew more attention than the controversial no-call on Baylor’s final possession — “You can’t swallow your whistle when the game is on the line,” senior guard DiJonai Carrington wrote on Twitter — or the Bears’ failure to repeat as national champions.
Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Several times in her Hall of Fame career, Baylor’s longtime coach has come under scrutiny for comments that have been perceived as callous or, judging from the reaction to her comments Monday, dangerously misinformed.
Baylor’s head coach since 2000 after a long and successful career as a player and assistant at Louisiana Tech, Mulkey has led the Bears to 631 wins and three national championships, including a perfect 40-0 record in 2011-12 and a 37-1 mark in 2018-19.
In many ways, Mulkey has emerged as such a well known and talented coach, she is receiving the same kind of scrutiny, particularly when it comes to her behavior, as some of her legendary male counterparts like Bob Huggins or Jim Boeheim.
It’s also fair game to examine her decision to accept the invitation of then-President Donald Trump to visit the White House, in the same way other coaches, like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, was criticized by some for accepting Trump’s invitation after a number of players declined to attend.
After Baylor won the 2019 title, Mulkey’s team became the first female team — in any sport — to receive its own championship ceremony during Trump’s presidency. More than 20 women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, with many allegations surfacing after the 2016 release of a recording in which then-candidate Trump used lewd language as he brags of kissing and groping women.
“It’s not a political issue for me. It’s an honor to go to the White House,” Mulkey told The Associated Press in April 2019. “I want everyone to say they went to the White House. Not many people can say that.”
Here are five instances that stand out from Mulkey’s tenure with the Bears:
Advocating for no COVID-19 testing
“They need to dump the COVID testing,” Mulkey said Monday, unprompted. “Wouldn’t it be a shame to keep COVID testing and then you got kids that test positive or something and they don’t get to play in the Final Four? So you just need to forget the COVID tests and get the four teams playing in each Final Four and go battle it out.”
For Mulkey to advocate against daily COVID-19 testing “is mind-boggling,” USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour wrote. “The restrictions have been onerous and the testing is inconvenient. But to suggest throwing it all away now, less than a week before the men’s and women’s title games, is the height of irresponsibility.”
Surprisingly, Mulkey’s stance comes three months after she tested positive for the coronavirus, which forced Baylor into a two-week pause on team activities and led to the cancellation of an earlier non-conference matchup against the Huskies.
‘Knock them in the face’
Mulkey came under criticism after winning her 500th career game in late February 2017, which came as Baylor was reckoning with the sexual-assault scandal that had occurred within the university’s football program and broader athletics department.
Addressing the home crowd over a microphone, Mulkey said, “If somebody is around you and they ever say ‘I will never send my daughter to Baylor,’ you knock them right in the face.”
Mulkey didn’t back down from her remarks in an ensuing press conference, saying she was “just tired of hearing it. I’m tired of people talking on a national scale that don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Mulkey spoke with ESPN the next day and apologized “for the very poor choice of words.”
“My point was, ‘Please don’t paint, with a broad brush, the women at Baylor.’ I didn’t think about what I was going to say. I looked at my players, and the little girls and the women who are cheering for them. And I spoke with a lot of emotion.”
NCAA Tournament behavior
Mulkey has twice been publicly reprimanded by the NCAA for inappropriate comments on officiating and the women’s tournament bracket, even drawing an unprecedented NCAA Tournament suspension after criticizing officials in the wake of Baylor’s upset loss to Louisville in the 2013 Sweet 16.
Two years earlier, she was reprimanded for making “disparaging comments on the integrity of the championship bracketing process,” per the NCAA.
“The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee noted this is the latest misconduct act by Mulkey during the past several championships and believes a more stringent penalty is appropriate to prevent these actions from continuing,” the NCAA said in announcing her suspension.
She would miss Baylor’s 2014 tournament opener against Western Kentucky before returning to lead the Bears to the Elite Eight.
In an Elite Eight game against Oregon State in 2016, Mulkey was given a technical for throwing her coat in disgust at what she felt was a missed call on the Bears’ offensive end. Baylor would lose 60-57.
Casting blame for the Louisville loss
That loss to Louisville in 2013 is counted among the most shocking results in women’s tournament history: Baylor had won 74 of its previous 75 games and was seen as a lock for the Final Four, if not as the favorite to defend its national championship, while the Cardinals entered the postseason as the third-ranked team from the Big East.
In her postgame press conference, Mulkey unloaded on an officiating crew she felt was largely responsible for allowing the game to become “way too physical.”
“I thought that all three of them,” meaning the officials, “if they go past this round of officiating, it will be sad for the game,” she said.
Strained relationship with Brittney Griner
In a 2013 interview with ESPN, former Baylor superstar Brittney Griner said Mulkey told players not to be open publicly about their sexuality because it would hurt recruiting.
“It was a recruiting thing,” said Griner, who came out publicly as gay during a 2014 interview with USA TODAY Sports. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, Griner would expand on her relationship with Mulkey and the university at large in her 2014 autobiography, In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court.
“I would love to be an ambassador for Baylor, to show my school pride, but it’s hard to do that — it’s hard to stand up and say, ‘Baylor is the best!’ — when the administration has a written policy against homosexuality,” wrote Griner, who is considered one of the most dominant interior players in women’s basketball history.
“I’ve spent too much of my life being made to feel like there’s something wrong with me. And no matter how much support I felt as a basketball player at Baylor, it still doesn’t erase all the pain I felt there.”
Contributing: Mike Freeman, Tom Schad
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg