- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has been asked a lot, especially in the past season, how much her personality rubs off on her team. It does some, she says, but by the same token she never expects players to have to "live, eat and breathe" the sport the way she does.
"It's very rare this day and age that they're as intense as you are or they're polished like you want them to be when you get them," Mulkey said, adding that her basic philosophy is, "Just be truthful and fair and see if you can't take those kids to a level that they don't even know they have within themselves."
Mulkey has done that at Baylor now for 12 seasons. But on the eve of her third Final Four with the school, she is facing a health scare for which she and her players might have to compensate.
It was announced Thursday that Mulkey was diagnosed with Bell's palsy, a form of facial paralysis caused by dysfunction of the facial nerve. Mulkey noticed some issues while the team was at the regional in Des Moines, Iowa, this past weekend, but became more concerned Wednesday with what was happening on the right side of her face.
Mulkey is receiving medical treatment; many cases of Bell's palsy are not long-lasting, nor do they leave much if any permanent facial paralysis. But it is possible.
Mulkey is getting great care, and she will do everything she can to be on the sidelines against Stanford on Sunday in Denver and keep this from being any distraction for the Lady Bears. But the players are human, and one of them is Mulkey's own daughter, Makenzie. Still, you can bet Mulkey will tell them very convincingly not to worry about her.
All teams tend to get their emotional compasses from their coaches. And in Baylor's case, Mulkey provides a great deal of confidence. It radiates off her.
Plus, she's the one who makes the strategic decisions. Some head coaches hand off elements of offense or defense to assistants, to the point of relying on them to be basically in charge of that. There's nothing wrong with that system; for some programs, it works very well. But at Baylor, while Mulkey listens to her staff, she is always the one who makes the call.
However, she does have on staff an experienced former head coach in Bill Brock. He ran the Grayson County junior college program in Texas for 13 years before joining Mulkey when she took over at Baylor in 2000. Brock had a three-year stint as an assistant at Texas Tech -- from where both his daughters graduated -- from 2006 to '09.
So Brock wasn't on the Baylor staff when Mulkey missed a first-round NCAA tournament game in March 2009 because she needed surgery to remove kidney stones and then had ensuing complications.
She was in the hospital while No. 2 seed Baylor defeated No. 15 seed UT-San Antonio in a tight contest that went to overtime. Her mentor at Louisiana Tech, Leon Barmore, was then an assistant coach for Baylor, and for that game, he stepped back into the head-coaching shoes. Mulkey returned for Baylor's second-round victory over South Dakota State.
Back then, Mulkey said her post-surgical complications were scary for about a 24-hour period before everything started to come back to normal. Heading into the Sweet 16 that year, she joked, "I'm not going to go away that easy."
One of the advantages Baylor has, even if Mulkey is not 100 percent herself on the bench at the Final Four this year, is that the Lady Bears have very good on-court chemistry. And everyone listens to sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims.
Players such as juniors Brittney Griner, Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden all have previous Final Four experience; they were freshmen on the Baylor team that went to San Antonio in 2010. Plus there is Destiny Williams, a junior who sat out the spring semester of 2010 after transferring from Illinois. She has the kind of personality that has helped Baylor stay even-keeled all season.
"We are more calm; we have a lot of poise this year," Williams said after the Lady Bears' Elite Eight win over Tennessee. "We don't rush things. When you get too excited, you can force things. By us keeping calm in hot situations, that's when you become great players and overcome things."
Kim Mulkey, diagnosed with Bell's palsy on the eve of her third Final Four, will tell her Baylor players not to worry about her. The Lady Bears' on-court chemistry could help counter any distractions.