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Penny wise, pound foolish

La. Tech decision sent Mulkey-Robertson packing

Posted: Wednesday April 6, 2005 12:38PM; Updated: Wednesday April 6, 2005 4:16PM
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Kim Mulkey-Robertson
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson became the first woman to win a national title as both a player and a coach.
Bill Frakes/SI

Five years ago Louisiana Tech University's athletic department made a short-sighted decision that has haunted it ever since. Certainly it did last night if any La. Tech administrators or fans watched the NCAA women's basketball championship.

The year was 2000 and legendary Lady Techster head coach Leon Barmore announced he would retire. It was a fait accompli Barmore's long-time assistant, Kim Mulkey-Robertson, would succeed Barmore, and why not? Mulkey-Robertson was a Louisiana Tech legend herself, and had never been anything but a winner.

Mulkey-Robertson's curriculum vitae to that point:
Age: 37
Childhood: Raised in Hammond, La., and is believed to have been the first girl in the U.S. to play organized baseball on a boy's team. She made the all-star team.
High School: Led Hammond (La.) High School to four state championships, a 136-5 record and finished her high-school career with the national record for most points scored (4,075). For good measure, she graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was valedictorian.
College: As a La. Tech point guard, she led the Lady Techsters to four consecutive Final Fours and a pair of national championships from 1980-84. La. Tech was 130-6 with Mulkey on the court. After graduating summa cum laude she earned a gold medal at the summer Olympics as a member of the 1984 USA women's basketball team.
Post-Collegiate: Mulkey-Robertson was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, served as Barmore's assistant for 15 seasons (seven of which ended at the Final Four), married Randy Robertson, and gave birth to a daughter and a son.

So you can understand why, following 19 years of involvement with the La. Tech women's hoops program (11 saw the Lady Techsters advance to the Final Four despite not belonging to a major conference), that the administration would try to low-ball her.

Mulkey-Robertson, as a state employee, needed 20 years of employment to be fully vested for her pension. She had 15 years, so when it came time to replace her mentor, Barmore, she sought a 5-year deal.

Tech offered four.

And though Baylor courted Mulkey-Robertson with a $200,000 a year contract, she was willing to remain in Ruston for $130,000 per year -- if La. Tech would offer five of them, not four.

Here was a young woman that comes along once a generation, at best, in representing a school. Mulkey-Robertson, even then, wasn't the type of person who wins trophies -- she was the type of person after whom you name trophies. And yet, with all that she had already accomplished, and with such a brigh future ahead of her, La. Tech was not willing to offer her the golden ticket that five years (and hence a guaranteed pension) promised. It was as if they were saying, "Nice job, Kim, but you're still going to need to prove yourself."

La. Tech would not budge. So Mulkey-Robertson bolted.

Former La. Tech president F. Jay Taylor was outraged -- not at Mulkey-Robertson -- at the current administration. "Tech officials were willing to sacrifice the future of the Lady Techster program for one additional contract year," Taylor seethed. "In my view, the future of the Lady Techster program is in doubt and will enter an era of decline."

Mulkey-Robertson took over a Baylor Lady Bears team that had been hibernating in the basement of the Big 12 the year before with a 7-20 record. In her first season in Waco she guided the team to a 12-0 start and a 21-9 record. That's the worst record the Bears have had in her half decade there.

It gets better. On Tuesday night, Mulkey-Robertson coached the Bears to the national title with an 84-62 win over Michigan State. On Sunday, Mulkey-Robertson, who combines a Pat Summitt-like intensity with a Nell Fortner-like femininity, coached the Bears back from a 15-point deficit against No. 1 LSU to earn the berth in the final.

Meanwhile in Ruston, well, the name is apt. The Lady Techsters have gone no farther than a regional final (in 2001; Barmore returned to coach them that year) since Mulkey-Robertson departed and were eliminated in the opening round by Temple this year. Barmore's successor, Kurt Budke, has bolted for Oklahoma State and the greener recruiting pastures promised in a super conference. Budke is also shrewd enough to see that there's a new, young, vibrant coach downstate (Pokey Chatman at LSU) who should consistently out-recruit La. Tech for Louisiana's bevy of backyard basketball talent.

Then again, Mulkey-Robertson's team took out Chatman's team Sunday night with inferior talent. Who knows if she might have been able to maintain La. Tech's prominence, and in-state dominance, had the school's officials caved on that final year.

It's a shame that Louisiana Tech treated one of its own -- one of its very, very best -- so shabbily. Five years later, though, who's sorry? Mulkey-Robertson? Hell, no. She believed in herself enough to make her exodus to Waco, all the while keeping her feelings of hurt and betrayal (this was just not her employer; it was her alma mater) to herself.

Who's sorry? Louisiana Tech, a school that does not belong to a major conference and has squandered the fruits of its legacy by banishing Mulkey-Robertson.

Who isn't sorry? Baylor, which yesterday won its first women's national championship in any sport and who, during the tournament, signed Mulkey-Robertson to a six-year contract extension.

Last year, on Selection Sunday, someone asked UConn head coach Geno Auriemma how he had such a terrific eye for hiring good assistant coaches.

"I don't hire good coaches," Auriemma replied. "I hire good people. If they turn out to be good coaches, too, that's a plus."

Mulkey-Robertson is both. And Louisiana Tech knew it, but never appreciated it. The Techsters will regret that mistake for a long, long time.