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Sport: Nicki Collen Is Following Her Own Path at Baylor

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Replacing a program legend is never easy, but the Bears’ new coach is doing things her way in Year 1 in Waco.

Nicki Collen was mindful of her predecessor when she was named Baylor’s coach in May.

Collen came to Waco following the 21-year tenure of Kim Mulkey, a period that included a dozen Big 12 titles, four Final Four appearances and three national championships. Mulkey’s name became synonymous with Baylor over the last two decades, joining the likes of Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame and Geno Auriemma at UConn. After a three-year stint leading the Atlanta Dream, Collen’s move back to college marks the greatest challenge of her nomadic career.

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“I’m like everyone else,” Collen says. “I know that you don’t follow the legend. You follow the coach that follows the legend.”

Collen was hired to replace Mulkey in May. M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images © Provided by Sports Illustrated Collen was hired to replace Mulkey in May. M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Succession plans are commonplace in college basketball for coaching legends. Holly Warlick took over for Pat Summitt at Tennessee in 2012 after working on the legendary coach’s staff for 27 years. Jon Scheyer is slated to replace Mike Krzyzewski at Duke after his retirement next spring. Baylor’s transition, though, featured nothing of the sort. Mulkey’s departure for LSU in April sent shockwaves around the sport, and it left the Bears’ leadership scrambling in the process. There was no heir to Mulkey’s throne.

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Collen wasn’t exactly focused on the Baylor vacancy upon Mulkey’s departure. There was enough to deal with in Atlanta, where Collen’s future wasn’t perfectly settled after a tumultuous season. In 2018, Collen and the Dream earned a playoff berth in her first season with the franchise—a 23–11 campaign in which Atlanta led the WNBA in defensive rating—but the team slipped under .500 in ’19 and ’20. Collen’s concerns extended far beyond the box score.

In 2020, Dream players publicly issued their support for Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate facing team owner and Republican Kelly Loeffler in a race for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. That summer, Loeffler criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and the league's embrace of it, prompting a response from Atlanta’s players. Collen describes the situation as “incredibly difficult.” Loeffler hired Collen, instilling trust in a career college assistant making the jump to the WNBA. But Collen’s ultimate loyalty sat with her players. She stood beside the Dream as they campaigned for Warnock, one of many social justice demonstrations across the WNBA in ’20. Collen is often one of the loudest voices on the floor on a given night. Yet as the league's players began to flex their own political power, a shift in approach proved valuable.

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“Any leader needs to know when to stand alongside your people and when to let them take the lead,” Collen says. “I really spent a lot of that year walking behind, trying to learn and grow in my understanding of white privilege.

Loeffler sold the Dream in February, marking the end of a historic wave of activism from a professional team—and the league as a whole. Yet just as the dust settled in Atlanta, Baylor came calling. What followed was a whirlwind 72 hours. Collen flew to Waco and joined the university’s leadership team—including athletic director Mack Rhoades—for an eight-hour interview, a meeting apparently impressive enough to seal the deal. Collen prides herself on her ability to “make more with less,” a skill honed over a decade as a college assistant with five programs. There is no such issue at Baylor. A gig that was not even on Collen’s radar a week before had effectively landed in her lap. Now all that was left was replacing a school legend.

Collen’s basketball biography is exhaustive. She notched consecutive Big Ten championships as a player at Purdue before two years at Marquette, both of which coincided with NCAA tournament appearances. An overflow of talent into the WNBA from the folded ABL in 1998 effectively ended her playing career, but even after beginning an engineering job with Motorola, she returned to basketball at the first possible moment. She began working as an assistant at Colorado State in 2003, moving to Ball State before stints at Louisville, Arkansas and Florida Gulf Coast. Collen isn’t a carbon copy of any one coach. Her collection of mentors has helped mold one of the game’s sharpest minds.

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Tari Cummings first saw Collen’s basketball intelligence on display a decade ago. The Baylor assistant coach and former head coach at Arkansas-Fort Smith joined Collen as an assistant at Arkansas in 2011, with the pair arriving as the Razorbacks sat in the midst of a seven-year tournament drought. Cummings remembers Collen’s impact as being almost immediate.

As the team’s defensive coordinator, Collen instituted a gap scheme, creating a frenetic unit that feasted on turnover generation. The results spoke for themselves: Arkansas posted the best scoring defense in program history in her first year with the program. The Razorbacks held opponents to just 36.7% shooting from the field in 2011–12, improving upon the stingy mark in 2012–13. As her husband and then Arkansas head coach Tom Collen sat calmly on the bench, Nicki could be seen patrolling the sidelines with an infectious energy. Arkansas’s improvement can be credited to both a schematic and attitudinal adjustment across the roster.

“Nicki is one of the smartest people I’ve been around,” Cummings says. “Her knowledge of the game is one thing, but the way she can teach it and make things accessible for players is so impressive.

“At first our players were a little hesitant about the changes, but as they got used to it, it really sparked us. She got everyone to trust her, and we flourished.”

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It’s unsurprising to hear how Collen details her own playing style. She was, stereotypes be damned, a pass-first point guard, one who wanted to dictate each possession with precision. An admittedly crooked jump shot and slight frame was little impediment to success. She played with a noted edge, honed from years playing against the boys at Bo Ryan’s annual basketball camp in Platteville, Wis. She briefly dated former Oklahoma State guard and current college hoops analyst Doug Gottlieb while in college, where the two battled for the coveted intrarelationship assist title. Collen laughs at the memory, though she insists the assist competition was no joke.

Collen’s past as a pesky point guard and energetic assistant suggests a certain mold of coach, one who looks to run every aspect of a program with exacting detail. But Collen belied that notion in her first weeks with the Bears. Baylor forward and National Player of the Year candidate NaLyssa Smith notes the warmth and openness displayed by Collen in her first meetings with the team, with a spirit of collaboration standing as a central tenet of her coaching philosophy. Most of Baylor’s roster had never met Collen before she was hired, though it didn’t take long to generate buy-in across the program. Collen’s sincerity shone from her first conversations with her new team.

“Even things like just chatting in her office before she got introduced, listening to her talk, you could tell she really cared,” Baylor forward Caitlin Bickle says. “She put in her full effort to make sure we would be a true team.”

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Collen’s demeanor isn’t the only thing separating her from Baylor’s previous head coach. The Bears play with an uptick in tempo in 2021–22, and their half-court attack now features a heavier diet of ball screens and secondary actions. “I can’t stand isolation basketball,” Collen says. “I want the ball to have energy. I want to move.” The adjustments have led to top-30 rankings in assists, free throw rate and assist-to-turnover ratio entering Thursday. Five Baylor players are averaging at least nine points per game, even as sharpshooters Jordan Lewis and Ja’Mee Asberry struggle from beyond the arc. But ultimately, Collen’s arrival has paid the greatest dividends for Baylor’s top option.

Smith is in the midst of a career year as she eyes a potential top-three selection in the 2022 WNBA draft, entering Thursday averaging 20.5 points on 56.8% shooting from the field. She also leads Division I in rebounding, with 13.3, and ranks No. 13 in the nation in player efficiency rating. Only six players have generated more win shares, per Her Hoop Stats data. Smith is being trusted as a facilitator and offensive fulcrum more than ever before. Her creativity is shining both on the low block and near the foul line, where she contorts her body around defenders for a stream of easy baskets and and-ones. Smith is one of college basketball’s leading stars regardless of the scheme surrounding her. Collen’s system has unlocked the outer limits of her talents.

Smith looks well on her way to an All-American season, at minimum. Emil Lippe/AP © Provided by Sports Illustrated Smith looks well on her way to an All-American season, at minimum. Emil Lippe/AP

“We play with this kind of five-out offense,” Smith says. “I can rise. I can roll. Everything feels kind of interchangeable, which is nice.”

Collen is careful to cool any conversation regarding Final Fours or national titles despite an auspicious start to the season. Her Baylor tenure currently consists of just seven months and 11 regular-season games. The Bears enter the 2022 portion of their schedule at 9–2, with narrow losses to ranked squads Michigan and Maryland on the ledger. Even without a true championship favorite, penciling any team past the NCAA tournament's second weekend seems like a foolish exercise. March feels miles away with the start of conference play still on the horizon.

The pressures of tournament time will arrive soon enough for Collen and the Bears. The program’s first March without Mulkey since the 20th century is sure to come with a bright spotlight, as a first-year coach pairs with a potential top draft pick. Collen says she isn’t ignorant to the attention, adding it’s "difficult to follow someone who had such immense success as well as a huge personality.” Though as Collen has shown time and time again over the last two decades, she isn’t looking to be the next Mulkey, nor anyone else. Her coaching values have remained consistent from Fort Collins to Fayetteville to, now, Waco. Collen is confident the postseason success will follow.

“I know authentically who I am,” Collen says. “With the paths I’ve been on and the mentors I’ve had, I know I can do this my way.”

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