My favorite Sportsman of the Year winners have always been the people who combined victory with character. Seeing Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa posed on SI's cover (1998) did little to inspire me then, and does even less today. Seeing the "Do you believe in miracles?" edition of the U.S. Olympic hockey team (1980) on the cover inspires me to this very day.
For that reason, my enthusiastic choice for 2005 Sportswoman of the Year is Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson. Or, as a small group of friends and myself who are in awe of the 43-year-old hoops coach refer to her, The Mulkey.
Let's assess the success issue first. Last April, The Mulkey guided a team that had zero national recruits, penetrated the UConn-Tennessee oligarchy that is women's college basketball and led the Lady Bears to a national championship. The Lady Bears finished 33-3 and ended their season with a 19-game winning streak highlighted by an impressive 15-point comeback in the national semifinal against No. 1 overall seed Louisiana State. It was only The Mulkey's fifth season at Baylor, a school that had never won a national title in any women's sport. The year before she arrived in Waco, the Lady Bears finished 7-20 and last in the Big 12.
But the world of sports is a vast pantheon, and let's face it, women's college basketball does not draw the same attention -- or, to be honest, the same level of competition or athleticism -- as Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NFL. Or college football. Or the Tour de France. Here's my point: As much of an acolyte as I am of women's college hoops, I am not so deluded to think that, incredible as The Mulkey's feats last season were, they trump Lance Armstrong's seventh Tour win or USC's 33-game (and counting) win streak in college football.
No, it is what The Mulkey accomplished and the character that she has long displayed. For that, you need some background. A child of Hammond, La., Kim Mulkey was as legendary a scholar-athlete as you could ever meet. She is believed to have been the first girl ever to have played organized baseball in a boys league. She made the All-Star team. At Hammond High School, The Mulkey graduated with a 4.0 GPA, was valedictorian, led her team to four consecutive state titles and a four-year record of 136-5, and, as if the college application needed some padding, she set the national high school career scoring record with 4,075 points.
(Stay with me, here, people. This is all prologue.)
At Louisiana Tech, The Mulkey transformed from scorer to playmaker and led the Lady Techsters to four consecutive Final Fours, a 130-6 record, and a pair of national championships. In 1984, The Mulkey, who is only 5-foot-4, played on the U.S.'s gold-medal winning Olympic team.
So far, not bad, right? Following the Beach Boys philosophy "Be true to your school", The Mulkey spent the next 15 years as a Louisiana Tech assistant coach under her mentor, the legendary Leon Barmore (576-87 career record). After the 1999-2000 season, Barmore retired. Louisiana Tech offered the vacancy to Mulkey-Robertson, but on a lease-to-own basis.
As a state employee with 15 years on the job, Mulkey-Robertson would accrue full benefits, pension, etc., once she attained 20 years. That would translate to a five-year contract offer from Tech. And the five-year deal was a standard one. Tech offered four. It was as if the school said to its own paragon: "Prove yourself."
Mulkey-Robertson never whined. Never begged. She must have been heartbroken -- you think she spent 15 seasons in Ruston because she wanted a job somewhere else? Instead, she and her husband, Randy Robertson (a former Louisiana Tech quarterback) packed their items and took the best available offer. They went to Waco. They made, from lemons, lemonade.
In fact, The Mulkey is only the third person (the first two being former SI Sportsman of the Year Dean Smith and Texas Tech coach Bob Knight) to win a Division I NCAA championship as both a player and a coach.
Live long enough and you'll learn that the only people who are ever disappointed are those that believe life is fair. It isn't always. You have two choices. You can whine about it, get litigious about it, waste years blaming others for your misfortune. Or, you can follow the words of Nat King Cole:
Will you remember the famous men Who had to fall to rise again They picked themselves up Dust themselves off And start'd all over again.