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Sunday, April 21, 2024
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Kim Mulkey Grabbed the Mic. Maybe That’s What LSU Needed

  • The coach pre-blasted a ‘hit piece’ story and ripped a column about her team of ‘dirty debutantes.’
  • The effect: LSU looks loose and hungry—and free of attention—coming into an Elite Eight game against Iowa.

Kim Mulkey has been known to play the victim. But when she’s right, she’s right. And the fiery LSU coach was spot-on Saturday when she tore into a Los Angeles Times column as “sexist” and “awful.” You can throw in racist as well.  

Before Saturday’s Sweet 16 matchup, the Times’ UCLA beat writer, Ben Bolch, wrote that the game amounted to a good versus evil “reckoning” between the “milk and cookies” Bruins and the “dirty debutantes” of LSU. In her press conference after the defending champions’ 78-69 victory over UCLA, Mulkey declared that the column crossed a line.

“You can criticize coaches all you want. That’s our business,” said the Hall of Fame coach. “You can come at us and say You’re the worst coach in America. I hate you, I hate everything about you. We expect that. It comes with the territory. But the one thing I’m not going to let you do, I’m not going to let you attack young people. There were some things in this commentary, guys, that you should be offended by as women. It was so sexist. And they don’t even know it. It was ‘good versus evil’ in that game today. Evil? Called us dirty debutantes? Take your phone out right now and Google ‘dirty debutantes’ and tell me what it says. Dirty debutantes? Are you kidding me? I’m not going to let you talk about 18-to-21-year-old kids in that tone.  

“It was even sexist for this reporter to say UCLA was ‘milk and cookies.’ Now you women sit there, and you keep your mouth shut if you want. I’m in the last third of my career. But I’m not going to let sexism continue. And if you don’t think that’s sexism, then you’re in denial. How dare people attack kids like that? You don’t have to like the way we play, you don’t have to like the way we trash-talk… . We’re good with that. But I can’t sit up here as a mother, a grandmother, and a leader of young people, and allow somebody to say that.”

Far from dividing the sport, LSU has helped grow the women’s game, she added. “I know sexism when I see it and I read it. That was awful.”

By Saturday night, the Times had removed Bolch’s “dirty debutantes” and good versus evil references (but left in the characterization of the game as a battle between an “inclusive” UCLA—led by “unfailingly cheery” coach Cori Close—against a villainous LSU and the “grandstanding” Mulkey). “A previous version of this commentary did not meet Times editorial standards,” noted the paper, a rep for which declined comment to Front Office Sports. “It has been updated.”

On Sunday, LSU guard Hailey Van Lith, who is white, came to the defense of her Black teammates. “We do have a lot of Black women on this team, and unfortunately that bias does exist still today, and a lot of the people that are making those comments are being racist towards my teammates,” said Van Lith. “I’m in a unique situation… I’ll talk trash and I’ll get a different reaction than if Angel [Reese] talks trash. I have a duty to my teammates to have their back. Some of the words that were used in that article were very sad and upsetting.”

I’ve been critical in the past of Mulkey’s irascible style. She’s old-school, like Nick Saban or the late Bob Knight. These coaches want control over their players, their program, even the media coverage directed their way. They forget that the media’s job is not to support their team but to tell the team’s story. Mulkey is the highest-paid coach in women’s college basketball, with an annual salary of $3.26 million per year. She should expect national media scrutiny.

But “dirty debutantes”? Good versus evil? The Times deserved the criticism it got. Even Close, UCLA’s coach, who initially reposted Bolch’s column on social media, issued an apology Saturday night. 

“I made a huge mistake in reposting without reading [the Times story] first, and I am very sorry for that. I would never want to promote anything that tears down a group of people in our great game,” she wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter). “I do not condone racism, sexism, or inflammatory comments aimed at individuals in our community. I apologize to Kim Mulkey and the entire LSU women’s basketball program; I only want to grow our game and have a positive impact on the people who come together because of basketball.”

The timing couldn’t have been better for the 61-year old Mulkey. The controversial Times column dropped the same day the The Washington Post published a much-talked-about Mulkey profile that had been two years in the making. A week before that piece was published, Mulkey threatened a defamation lawsuit against what she predicted would be a “hit piece” by “sleazy” reporter Kent Babb. Why? Because, Mulkey declared, she didn’t like a separate “hit job” story that Babb wrote about LSU football coach Brian Kelly two years earlier. In the end, guess what? Babb’s latest story, headlined “The Kim Mulkey Way,” was a layered, warts-and-all profile covering the coach’s career as a four-time national champion at LSU and Baylor. And it was far from a hit piece. …But with the Times column, Mulkey can continue to push the idea that the national media is out to get her and her team. 

Perceived disrespect is the ultimate bulletin board fodder. What better way for Mulkey to motivate her Tigers to a second straight championship, with Caitlin Clark and Iowa standing in their way on Monday night, than to declare the media is aligned against them? 

As Reese, the LSU forward, said Saturday: “We’re the good villains. Everybody wants to beat LSU. Everybody wants to be LSU. You’ve got to realize, like, we’re not any regular basketball team. We’re just changing the game.”

LSU fans have rallied around Mulkey, asking why Babb, a South Carolina graduate, keeps going after their coaches. First Kelly, now Mulkey. As one alum wrote to me this week:  “People like Mr. Babb can’t see past the tip of their noses. Football is a business, and when business is good (because you invest in quality coaches), it benefits everyone.”

Before this year’s tournament, I thought LSU’s chances of repeating were slim. UConn, South Carolina, USC, and Iowa are all formidable. But the Tigers looked loose and hungry against UCLA on Saturday.

Could it be that Mulkey, a master motivator, has been playing all of us? It’s not hard to imagine that she used the threat of the Post’s “hit piece” to galvanize her team to a Sweet 16 win over a talented UCLA team. Her in-your-face presser last week took the pressure off her players and put it squarely on her—and it’s not terribly hard to imagine an invigorated LSU running the table for a second straight national championship.

Sure, Mulkey can be exasperating. She said Sunday she won’t read Babb’s “trash” article; she will have her lawyers  review it. But this could end up being the best coaching performance of her career.

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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