Nicki Collen knows she has taken a different and more meandering path than a lot of coaches. The latest step to becoming coach of three-time national champion Baylor happened in a hurry.
“It hasn’t been an even staircase to the top,” Collen said Wednesday. “But I have a lot of experience, I have a lot of life experience, and so I bring a different things to the table. I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m all those things all of the time. And I’m also at a point in my life where I’m comfortable with who I am.”
Collen was preparing for her fourth season as head coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, even leading them through practice Monday before being named that night as the new coach for the Baylor program that Kim Mulkey built into a national power the past 21 years until returning to her home state as LSU’s coach. The Lady Bears were national champs in 2005, 2012 and 2019, and won the Big 12 regular-season title each of the past 11 seasons.
“I’m not trying to be somebody I’m not, and I’m not going to try to be Kim Mulkey,” Collen said before her formal introduction on the campus in Waco, Texas. “I’m just going to be me. And I’m not saying that makes it easy. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the right formula, but it’s my right formula.”
She told the crowd at the Ferrell Center she was going to be “authentically me,” and understood why a few days earlier they didn’t even know her name while Mulkey’s name is still synonymous with Lady Bears basketball.
“The expectations haven’t changed,” Collen said. “Maybe how we do it has changed, but the expectations haven’t changed.”
Collen got emotional explaining how she signed her Baylor contract on Monday, the birthday of her late sister who passed away seven years ago after a short bout with cancer. She also told of speaking by phone Sunday night with coach Scott Drew, whose team last month won Baylor’s first men’s basketball national championship, and who ended their conversation with a prayer.
It is the first college head coaching job for the 45-year-old Collen, previously an assistant at Colorado State, Ball State, Louisville, Arkansas and Florida Gulf Coast. Three of those stops were on the staff of her husband, Tom, and she took a seven-year break from coaching when they started a family. Their three children are now all teenagers.
Collen said the current players are her first priority at Baylor, and that her job now is to re-recruit them after they went 28-3 and made it to an NCAA regional final. They met as a group Tuesday, and the players were in their arena for her introduction.
There are four potential returning starters, led by All-American forward NaLyssa Smith. The others are 6-foot-3 center Queen Egbo, and guards Moon Ursin and Trinity Oliver. The Lady Bears also have some key reserves, including forward Caitlin Bickle, and last month signed Alabama point guard Jordan Lewis as a graduate transfer after she started 130 games the past four seasons for the Crimson Tide.
“I feel good about where we’re headed that way, but they still have to make the right decision for them,” Collen said. “I want them to feel good about me. I want them to feel good about where we’re headed, that and how it works for them.”
Smith replied to Baylor’s tweet this week welcoming Collen with, “time to get to work!” Egbo tweeted “New Beginning” followed with hearts of green and gold, the school’s colors.
DiJonia Carrington and versatile guard DiDi Richards were both WNBA draft picks last month. The only other departure has been Hannah Gusters, a 6-foot-5 freshman center who entered the transfer portal last week and immediately joined Mulkey at LSU.
Collen had never been on Baylor’s campus before Tuesday, when she walked down the hallway lined with championship trophies and into the team’s practice gym where the walls are covered with huge photos of past players and program achievements.
“It’s a combination of overwhelming, because it’s a lot happening at once, and pure kind of joy and excitement for kind of the journey that’s ahead.” Collen said. “It feels more real when you start to talk to the players, when you’re starting to meet staff.”
After coaching a preseason WNBA game Saturday night, Collen spent seven hours Sunday with athletic director Mack Rhoades and other Baylor officials. The more they talked, the more excited Collen became about the opportunity.
Rhoades said he was impressed by Collen’s passion and knowledge of the game, and her humble spirit.
“There was no doubt that she coaches for the right reason,” Rhoades said. “It’s about her players.”
More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball