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
‘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