In­ter­view ‘We are still a nov­elty – we need to be­come the norm’

Muf­fet McGraw broke new ground as a top-flight woman bas­ket­ball coach and tells Molly McEl­wee why so much re­mains to be done

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

‘There are so many qual­i­fied women in our game, but we’re just not pre­par­ing them to be head coaches’

Muf­fet McGraw is the kind of coach you wish you could sit through a team talk with.

Dur­ing her 33 years as head of women’s bas­ket­ball at the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame she made more than 1,000 of those in the locker room, and sim­ply speak­ing to her over video call for 30 min­utes is con­fi­dence-in­duc­ing enough.

A glimpse of her pow­ers of ora­tion can be found through a sim­ple in­ter­net search of her 2019 NCAA Fi­nal Four press con­fer­ence, which went vi­ral to mil­lions of peo­ple the world over. Choos­ing the plat­form of col­lege bas­ket­ball’s high­est-pro­file week­end, McGraw made a state­ment on the im­por­tance of fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

“We don’t have enough fe­male role mod­els,” she said, star­ing down a room of mainly male jour­nal­ists, one of whom asked her why she had an all-fe­male coach­ing staff. “Men run the world. All these mil­lions of girls who play sports across the coun­try, we’re teach­ing them great things about life skills – but wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead?”

Frown­ing at her dumb­founded au­di­ence, McGraw ex­hib­ited un­apolo­getic im­pa­tience and summed up the strug­gle of many women in male-dom­i­nated in­dus­tries in that two-minute clip. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, a fan of col­lege bas­ket­ball and not a bad or­a­tor him­self, retweeted McGraw’s speech, call­ing hers “a voice every­body should hear”.

Born in the small city of Pottsville in Penn­syl­va­nia, McGraw, who legally changed her name from Ann to her nick­name Muf­fet while a teenager, played col­lege bas­ket­ball her­self and briefly as a pro­fes­sional, be­fore tak­ing her first coach­ing job at a high school in 1977.

She got her first head coach­ing job at the age of 27 at Le­high Col­lege and then moved to Notre Dame five years later in 1987. Be­fore she re­tired in April, she took the Fight­ing Ir­ish to seven NCAA Na­tional Cham­pi­onship fi­nals and two ti­tles. She has more than 900 ca­reer wins.

On a video call from her of­fice at the uni­ver­sity, the back­drop be­hind her is an im­pres­sive tes­ta­ment to her achieve­ments since – tro­phies, pic­tures and signed bas­ket­balls adorn the walls.

But she was one of a dwin­dling num­ber of fe­male col­lege coaches lead­ing the top teams. Ti­tle IX, the fed­eral civil rights law that was passed as part of the Ed­u­ca­tion Amend­ments of 1972, boosted the in­vest­ment in women’s col­lege sport, but the in­creased money meant men were now in­ter­ested in those coach­ing po­si­tions too.

Be­fore then, 90 per cent of coaches in women’s col­lege sports were fe­male. In 2019, only 40 per cent were. McGraw had had enough.

“I was a lit­tle tired of look­ing around and see­ing all the male head coaches,” McGraw says. “And tired of the ques­tion ‘would you ever hire a man?’ I have had men on my staff for my en­tire ca­reer, so of course I would, but I think that it was so im­por­tant that I talked about how im­por­tant it is to hire women.

“Mine was the only all-fe­male staff at the Fi­nal Four that year, and women would say, ‘I’m cheer­ing for you guys be­cause I am pro women’. Af­ter my speech, I no­ticed the NBA started to hire more women as as­sis­tant coaches, and I was hop­ing that it started the con­ver­sa­tion. But it’s still a nov­elty – we need to get to the point where it’s the norm.”

Af­ter guid­ing 20 play­ers to the WNBA and mak­ing it into bas­ket­ball’s Hall of Fame, McGraw, 64, has fin­ished coach­ing. Her for­mer player and as­sis­tant of 12 years, Niele Ivey, has stepped into her shoes, as the first black woman to head up a sports team at the uni­ver­sity.

It is ex­actly the progress McGraw was talk­ing about: “Fi­nally hav­ing an African Amer­i­can head coach at Notre Dame – in the women’s game we don’t have enough di­ver­sity – so I’m thrilled for ev­ery rea­son that she’s here. There are so many qual­i­fied women in our game, we’re just not do­ing a good job of pre­par­ing them to be head coaches.

“And I think it falls on the head coach to do that.”

While McGraw feared that she might lose her plat­form af­ter she had re­tired, her work since then sug­gests oth­er­wise. She just started teach­ing a new sports lead­er­ship class at Notre Dame’s busi­ness school and dur­ing lock­down or­gan­ised food drives to help lo­cal strug­gling fam­i­lies.

She also hosted an on­line Q&A about women in lead­er­ship with Ser­ena Wil­liams. “On the court she is brim­ming with con­fi­dence, but then in meet­ings with her fi­nan­cial peo­ple sud­denly they’re treat­ing her like she’s ‘just a woman’. So it was great for all of the women lis­ten­ing to hear we’re all fight­ing the same bat­tles.

“We have to em­power each other and bring some­body with us when we get a seat at the ta­ble. But we need men to be ad­vo­cates for us and to be hir­ing women.”

McGraw has proven her own com­mit­ment to em­pow­er­ing the women around her.

Last sum­mer she met with the now-WNBA com­mis­sioner, Cathy En­gel­bert, who she coached at Le­high Col­lege in the mid 1980s. Nearly 40 years on, En­gel­bert – now the most pow­er­ful woman in bas­ket­ball – wanted some ad­vice.

“We got to­gether be­fore she ac­cepted the WNBA job. We talked about the of­fer and I said, ‘you’re per­fect for it, this is go­ing to be great’. And we’ve talked since then, just about how we’re do­ing things and how she’s do­ing.”

That sounds a lot like she is still a coach and much less a re­tiree. McGraw laughs. “Yeah, that’s how it is with most of the play­ers. You don’t talk daily or even weekly, but sud­denly there’s some­thing big in their life and that’s when they pick up the phone.

“I en­joy that. It’s all about the re­la­tion­ship and con­nec­tion that you make – that’s re­ally what coach­ing is all about.”

Fight­ing talk: Muf­fet McGraw in her coach­ing hey­day (top) and (above) giv­ing her sem­i­nal Fi­nal Four press con­fer­ence in 2019

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