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Monday, March 26, 2012
Kim Mulkey is Title IX personified

By Mechelle Voepel

Activists don't necessarily carry placards, go on marches, or even define themselves as activists. So if you were to tell Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey that her life story could be a highlight reel for the success of Title IX, she likely would just shrug.

"I can't talk about the struggles that women and young girls had before Title IX," says Mulkey, who was 10 when Title IX was signed into law in 1972. "I can read about it -- and I have -- and I'm much appreciative that I don't have to fight those battles. I know enough about the history of the game that we're reaping the benefits of those that came before us."

It's interesting that Mulkey doesn't seem to consider herself in the ranks of those who made things better for future generations of female athletes. Because she certainly is one of those people, having first come to national prominence as a point guard for Louisiana Tech from 1980 to '84.

But perhaps because she thinks she ran into fewer barriers -- and usually knocked over the ones she did encounter -- Mulkey actually seems uncomfortable putting herself into that category of what you might call the second wave of women's sports pioneers in the United States.

Louisiana Tech was one of the early dynasties of women's basketball. It had a very energetic supporter of the sport in the late F. Jay Taylor, the school's former president who'd been a Navy pilot during World War II. Before most other schools even began reluctantly funding women's athletics because they thought they had no choice, Louisiana Tech was already eagerly embracing women's basketball as part of its national identity.

Partly because of that, Mulkey says, "I've never felt like I've had to be a second-class citizen because I'm a female."

Yet, there was a time when she was discriminated against for her gender. She knows that now, and even knew it then -- in 1974, when she was 12 years old and wasn't allowed to play in a baseball all-star tournament. At the time, league officials tried to claim the issue was that her name wasn't on her team's active roster, which didn't fool anybody.

She wrote about it in her 2007 book, "Won't Back Down." Mulkey's father got a temporary restraining order to halt the tournament, but in the end, Mulkey decided to not fight the issue, because it would have kept her teammates from playing.

"There were women's libbers out there, TV cameras, and my dad allowed me to make a decision as a 12-year-old," Mulkey recalls. "I said, 'I'm not going to stop this game; my team will be punished.'

"I was very mature beyond my years in understanding what was going on. They didn't want to admit it was because I was a girl; they wanted to say it was paperwork. You watch adults, you stand, observe and listen. My parents allowed me to make that decision.

"So I stood outside the dugout and watched my team play. I had tears streaming down my face, but they were more tears of embarrassment that this amount of attention had to be brought to this. I was just a baseball player. This was embarrassing. It's not something that was necessary. If I had put my hair up in my cap, would you know I was a boy or a girl?"

Mulkey played two additional years in the league -- including in all-star events -- without incident. And you might think that the coach who sometimes looks like she's blowing a gasket about referees' calls against her players would have steam coming out her ears as she recalls that incident when she was denied a chance to play.

But to the contrary, she talks about it rather dispassionately, pointing out that all people sometimes have to face unfair disappointments. The key is how you respond to them.

"When you have obstacles in your life, you can choose to continue on and be motivated by them, or you let it consume you," Mulkey says. "I tend to be motivated by … I don't want to say the negative, but things that don't go your way.

"It motivated me as a player if a coach would say, 'She can't do this or that.' I'm not one that's motivated by always positive, nonaggressive coaching. I'm motivated by people who are intense; I guess it's because it's the personality I have."

When you have obstacles in your life, you can choose to continue on and be motivated by them, or you let it consume you. I tend to be motivated by … I don't want to say the negative, but things that don't go your way.

-- Baylor coach Kim Mulkey

When Mulkey went to Louisiana Tech, the popularity of the women's basketball program already had been established. She just made it more popular. Louisiana Tech went 34-0 in winning the AIAW title in her freshman season in 1980-81, then won the first NCAA tournament for women in 1982.

Mulkey looks back at her playing career in Ruston, La., with fondness in particular for the administrators whose acceptance of women's sports didn't seem forced by Title IX.

"I think F. Jay Taylor was a visionary and pioneer in the women's game," Mulkey says. "There's probably not another university president at that time that valued the importance of a women's basketball program more than him. He was proud, he loved it, he talked about it, he gave it the resources.

"How many male presidents at that time could envision what this would mean to a university in north Louisiana? He was special in my life and to all of us at Louisiana Tech."

Mulkey's participation in the 1984 Olympics was significant, too, as it was just the second time a U.S. women's basketball team competed in the Summer Games. Women's hoops hadn't received status as an Olympic sport until 1976, and then in 1980, the United States boycotted the Moscow Games.

For 15 years following her graduation, Mulkey served as an assistant for a Louisiana Tech program that still rode the wave of success that comes with being one of the earliest programs to fully fund women's basketball. During her time on the Tech bench, the program won another NCAA title (1988) and advanced to the Final Four on six other occasions.

Longtime Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore announced he was retiring in 2000. But Mulkey and school administrators -- Taylor had retired long before, in 1987 -- couldn't agree on the length of her contract to become head coach.

Her move to Baylor stunned people who had always assumed she would become Tech's head coach someday. Instead, she took over a program that had never appeared in the NCAA tournament and turned it into an NCAA champion in her fifth season in Waco, Texas.

Baylor has spent much of the 2011-12 season ranked No. 1, and there's the possibility that Mulkey's squad could finish 40-0 this year, when Title IX is celebrating its 40th birthday. If Mulkey seems not very engaged by the general conversation about Title IX, it isn't because she's unable to connect the dots between the legislation and the place where women's athletics are now.

It's more that Mulkey, who will be 50 in May, avoids anything that is inauthentic. Thus she doesn't speak much about Title IX because she readily admits she hasn't spent time studying how it has been applied and adjudicated.

Yet just the way she has lived -- her childhood, adolescence and adulthood largely defined by participation in sports -- is itself a testament to the philosophy that brought Title IX to life.