WACO, Texas — It has been nearly 20 years since Baylor last hired a new head basketball coach for either its men's or women's programs. The last coach introduced inside the Ferrell Center: Scott Drew in 2003.
So, when Baylor Director of Athletics Mack Rhoades said from his podium, "Here's to new beginnings," before new Head Women's Basketball Coach Nicki Collen walked onto the stage, he meant it.
Collen will be just the fifth women's basketball coach in Baylor history. She takes over for Hall of Fame Head Coach Kim Mulkey, who left Baylor to become the new head coach at LSU.
Before arriving in Waco, Collen served as the Head Coach of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, which is set to begin its season May 14. Collen was preparing for the upcoming season when Baylor reached out to her about the job opportunity.
"If you would have asked me a week ago if I would have been the next head coach at Baylor I would have said 'Heck No," Collen said. "But here we are. This was the next best opportunity."
Collen said she entered into discussions with Rhoades last week. During one of their phone calls, Rhoades asked if she would like to talk with Men's Basketball Coach Scott Drew.
That conversation changed everything for Collen.
He asked if he could pray over me," Collen said. "It was that moment that I knew this is the right place. This is the right place for me."
In the WNBA, Collen was successful in her first season, earning the WNBA Coach of the Year award.
Still, many Baylor fans had never heard of her before she was unveiled as the school's newest coach Sunday.
"So you don't know who Nicki Collen is," she said. "I get it. I haven't had the same trajectory as a lot of people in this profession. I've been all over the country and it doesn't look like anyone else's path. But I wouldn't have it any other way because it got me here."
Collen says her love of the game started in fifth grade basketball.
"I hit a game-winning shot, and my dad was coaching," she said. "We were Pizza Hut, and we were playing against American Family Insurance."
From there, she began a decades-long career as a player, assistant coach, broadcaster, stay-at-home mom and head coach. However, this will be her first experience as a head coach at the college level.
"The people at Baylor believed I was the person right now, so I'm gonna be Nicki Collen," she said. "I'm gonna be authentically me."
As she follows in the footsteps of one of women's college basketball's greatest coaches, she hopes to build her own culture and history.
She believes her WNBA experience will help her develop a plethora of professional athletes during her time in the Green and Gold.
"Obviously you're gonna say Kim Mulkey's name when you say Baylor. Hopefully in 10 years, you'll say my name too."
Her first challenge is to "re-recruit" the current players on the Baylor roster, all of whom committed to play for Mulkey when they came out of high school or decided to transfer to Baylor.
Last week, Baylor freshman Hannah Gusters announced plans to transfer to LSU to play under Mulkey. With the NCAA's new one-time transfer rule in place, more could potentially leave the program in the week's to come.
"It's an individual choice from each of them," Collen said. "I chose Baylor. I want them to re-choose me, and I want them to re-choose Baylor."
As for the players who decide to stay, Collen says she believes she can help mold them into future stars and champions.
"I'm gonna love on these guys," she said. "I'm gonna make em compete. I'm gonna make them accountable. The expectations haven't changed. Maybe how we do it has changed, but the expectations haven't changed."
As for her coaching style, Collen says, "winning is all about people," adding that she believes solid relationships between coaches, support staff and players are key to developing the culture she desires.
On the court, her teams will likely continue the tradition of high-intensity defense which dominated the Mulkey Era.
In three years as a head coach in the WNBA, her team never finished higher than No. 10 in offensive rating, out of 12 teams. During her most successful season, the Dream led the league in defensive rating.
As a college assistant, Collen largely took over defensive responsibilities. During her introductory press conference, she described the role as a "defensive coordinator." At Arkansas, she helped improved the Razorbacks from 86th in scoring defense to 10th in the nation.
"I promise you'll love how we play," she told Baylor fans. "I promise I'll carry on the transition well. We're gonna play the right way. We're gonna compete hard. We're gonna respect our opponents. We're gonna dive on loose balls and you will have fun watching us play."
Several times during her opening statement, Collen looked up to the championship banners hanging from the rafters.
"My goal is to make you the best players you can be," she said. "My goal is hang more championships in here."