Kim Mulkey, Louisiana State’s basketball coach, crouches on the sideline like a catcher in high heels and wears sleeves adorned with pink flowers and artificial flowers that suggest, “No hibiscus died in the making of this jacket.”
“Look, we’re from Louisiana,” Mulkey, 60, said during an earlier round of the women’s N.C.A.A. tournament. “We like sparkles, we like diamonds, we like Mardi Gras, we like to eat, and we like to party.”
On Sunday, Mulkey wore a tiger-striped pantsuit of gold, pink and black sequins. It would have been a serious mistake, though, to link her ostentatious wardrobe with any triviality as a coach. With L.S.U.’s 102-85 victory over Iowa and its star guard Caitlin Clark on Sunday, Mulkey added a fourth national title as a head coach to the three she won at Baylor. Her most recent came in only her second season at L.S.U., with nine new players on the roster.
“Year 2 at L.S.U., and you’re hoisting this trophy is crazy,” Mulkey said on the court.
She is a divisive figure in college basketball, particularly regarding her complicated relationship with the former Baylor star Brittney Griner, who bristled at Mulkey’s advice to play down her sexuality as a lesbian while playing for the religious school. Their relationship received new scrutiny when Griner was detained in Russia one year ago.
Still, Mulkey has been highly successful at taking troubled players and giving them a second chance. And she now ranks behind only Geno Auriemma at Connecticut (11 titles) and the former Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt (eight titles) among the most successful championship coaches in Division I.
As always on Sunday, Mulkey was operatic on the bench. She pumped her fists and looked upward, as if to say, “Hallelujah,” as her team kept hitting 3-pointers in the first half. When the game was finally in hand, she tried to hold back tears. Earlier, when she grew upset, she stomped her feet and clapped in a referee’s face and mimicked Clark throwing an elbow to free herself for shots.
Jay Bilas, the ESPN commentator who played at Duke, said he placed L.S.U. as a Final Four team in his bracket because he was afraid of Mulkey. But her players seem to feed off her passion and feverish energy.
“I may snicker sometimes at the way she does things,” U.C.L.A. Coach Cori Close said, “but her confidence and her swagger are translated to her teams, and they win.”
Close, the outgoing president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, continued: “I believe, watching her with respect, what makes her elite is her ability to make her kids play hard, to value defense and to play with great confidence. And I think that transcends any of the X’s and O’s.”
Arizona Coach Adia Barnes, who took her team to the 2021 national championship game, said she believed that Mulkey’s strategic maneuvers were underrated. On Sunday, L.S.U. hit perimeter shots that South Carolina could not make against Iowa in the semifinals. Five Tigers scored in double figures. Point guard Alexis Morris crowded Clark, who delivered 30 points and 8 assists but twice was whistled for pushing off, and missed 10 of her final 15 shots.
Frustrated near the end of the third quarter, Clark threw the ball away behind her back and drew a technical foul for a delay of game. It was not Clark but Morris (21 points, 9 assists) who made most of the game’s decisive plays.
“Caitlin, you had an amazing game, you’re a great player,” Morris said, addressing Clark from the victory podium. “But you’ve got to put some respect on L.S.U. You’ve got to put some respect on my name. And you’ve got to put some respect on Coach Kim Mulkey.”
The emotions on Mulkey’s face served as a kind of play-by-play during the game, from celebration to anguish to anger. Seldom is she at a loss for words. During an in-game interview in the regional final against Miami, Mulkey was so aghast at the poor shooting of both teams, she said, “If I was watching this game, I’d turn it off.”
Sometimes, though, what she says — or doesn’t say — has left her open to widespread criticism.
Last September, while Griner was still incarcerated in Russia, Mulkey cut off a reporter who asked for her thoughts about Griner.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything from you on that,” said Cory Diaz of The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, La., when Mulkey responded, “And you won’t.”
Griner has said she respected Mulkey’s disciplined approach to coaching at Baylor and appreciated the way Mulkey defended her against brutal taunting at games. But, Griner has said, she began to chafe when Mulkey admonished her to cover her tattoos, to delete Twitter messages about her girlfriend and to “keep your business behind closed doors.”
Two former Baylor players criticized Mulkey for not speaking in support of Griner. Recently, Mulkey said she had not spoken with Griner since her release but added, “I’m glad she’s safe, she’s sound.”
There appears to still be tension between Mulkey and Maryland Coach Brenda Frese, whose team the star Angel Reese left to join L.S.U. In an interview on Saturday, Frese said, “Some coaches, chemistry matters and character matters. But not with Kim. Kim wants to win.”
But Mulkey’s players clearly are fond of her. “She keeps it real,” Reese said of Mulkey. “When I came to L.S.U., I needed a coach to keep it real with me. Like, ‘Angel, you’re not doing enough. You’re not helping the team.’ Like just being able to have tough conversations. You need somebody to humble you.”
Morris, the point guard, played for Mulkey briefly at Baylor, was dismissed there after an arrest — the outcome of which is not clear — and is now playing for her again, at her fourth school. She has thanked Mulkey for giving her structure and discipline. “Coach Mulkey, being the type of person she is, wouldn’t have taken me back” if she had not matured, Morris said. “I was just an immature kid. I didn’t understand structure. I didn’t understand discipline. And you know it just caught up with me at a bad time.”
To have been given a second chance by Mulkey, Morris said, “I’m just so fortunate to be back where I started.”
Now that Mulkey has won a national title, could it be that Brian Kelly, L.S.U.’s football coach, will also spruce up his wardrobe?
“We’re going to have him wear sparkles for the first game,” Michael Bonnette, the athletic department’s spokesman, said with a laugh.