When people meet Bunnie Cannon, the youngest of the late Billy Cannon’s five children, the topic is typically something related to LSU football.
Lately, though, the conversations have changed course.
“They’ve quit asking me about football and more about women’s basketball and Kim Mulkey,” said Cannon, president of the LSU women’s basketball Fast Break Club booster group.
“They say, ‘Man, what a hire.’ They might be people who don’t even go to any LSU sporting events; just the random person. But there’s an energy now that wasn’t there before.”
Mulkey’s arrival in April after a legendary head coaching career at Baylor has electrified support in LSU women’s basketball that had fallen into dormancy in recent years under former coach Nikki Fargas. It’s reflected in unprecedented season ticket sales, rising membership in the Fast Break Club and a general crackle of anticipation around LSU and in Baton Rouge that something remarkable is about to happen.
“It definitely is a different feel from what I’ve gotten the past four years I’ve been here,” said LSU guard Jailin Cherry, a fifth-year graduate student. “It’s a great feeling to know that the community backs us up now and supports us. We’ve got people cheering every time we score. It’s different. I’m enjoying it a lot.”
Mulkey, like most coaches, has tried to redirect the attention toward her players, semi-derisively referring to herself as “the attraction because of what I’ve done in my career.”
It’s hard to ignore a legend.
Paul “Bear” Bryant once famously described himself saying: “I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.” Mulkey could have said the same about herself if Bryant hadn’t beaten her to it.
After leading Hammond High School to four straight state titles, she was the point guard for the Louisiana Tech team that won the final AIAW national title in 1981 and the first NCAA championship in 1982. She was on the first U.S. women’s team to win Olympic gold in 1984, won another national title as a Louisiana Tech assistant in 1988 and three NCAA titles at Baylor among her 623 career victories.
If Mulkey were an attraction, she would be an “E” ticket.
Former LSU All-American Marie Ferdinand-Harris described Mulkey as an early Christmas gift.
“I’m more engaged than I’ve ever been since I left LSU,” she said.
Mulkey quickly made reconnecting with former LSU players a priority. She had her staff send them gift boxes filled with LSU gear, with a card reading: “We wanted to send you a little something to reboot your Tiger spirit and be part of our program.”
Ferdinand-Harris was recently invited by Mulkey to speak to her team. The energy in the practice gym, she said, was tangible.
“As soon as I walked into the practice facility, there was an energy I hadn’t felt since I left LSU” in 2001, she said. “The family, the camaraderie, the love from the coaches. It was different. It’s nothing that you have to go looking for. I was like, ‘Give me my tennis shoes, I want to go practice.’
“It’s what I felt was missing for so long. As an alum, it did my heart so good. I thought, ‘Wow, we’re on our way to being a winning program again.’ ”
Ferdinand-Harris isn’t the only one who feels that way. Boosters and fans are eager to get in on the ground floor of a program Mulkey is not shy about saying is aimed at the top of women’s basketball.
The Fast Break Club has gone from a mere 22 members two years ago to nearly 200. A week ago, armed with a goal of selling 5,000 season tickets, LSU was already at 4,459. The previous record — set in the 2006-07 season when the Tigers made their fourth of five straight Women’s Final Four appearances — was 2,947.
“It’s been wonderful,” Mulkey said of the fan reaction. “Everyone genuinely seems to now have an interest that maybe wasn’t there the last few years.
“Is that because I’m from Louisiana? Because I grew up here? That I left a dynasty to come here? It doesn’t matter. I just want them to be interested. I want to see people buying LSU women’s basketball season tickets who never bought them before. I’m being told that’s happening. I want to see them fighting for courtside seats, and I understand that’s happening.”
As ever, Mulkey is preaching patience, for herself and LSU’s swelling ranks of fans. LSU’s first NCAA championship is the goal, but as she reminds, that first title didn’t come at Baylor until 2005, her fifth season.
But patience is as hard to come by as those prized courtside seats.
“I think she’s going to win it,” Cannon said. “The combination of the school and what she has to offer and the momentum of the fans. I could be wrong, but I think it’ll be more than one.”