Legendary coach Muffet McGraw on a tenacious mission to close the gender gap

Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw. (Michael Wagstaffe, Yahoo Sports)

With Notre Dame women’s basketball tipping off this week, coach Muffet McGraw is a busy woman. Though when it comes to discussing the future of women’s basketball and the state of women coaches, she makes time.

McGraw ignited a national conversation in May 2019 when she spoke eloquently about the need for women coaches in women’s basketball, and publicly vowed to only hire women to her staff in the future to help close the gender gap.

Those were more than just words to McGraw. In an interview with Yahoo Sports, she revealed that they’re part of her philosophy on coaching and life.

McGraw practices what she preaches

McGraw knows that it’s important to give opportunities to women in her sport, but it doesn’t stop there. They have to be supported in order to survive and thrive. She believes that work-life balance is “a key piece to keeping women in our game,” a concept that is anathema to the work-until-you-drop culture that dominates coaching and many other professions.

“We’re worried about the retention rate we have right now, and how can we help them,” McGraw said. “I have two assistants who have kids and they have to be able to be flexible. There’s times when they’re going to have doctor’s appointments, or the kids get sick, and things happen. We can’t spring something on them at the last minute and say ‘I need you to go recruiting today.’ I think you have to be understanding.”

It goes beyond flexibility and understanding, though. It’s about living what she preaches on and off the court.

“You can’t talk to recruits and you can’t talk to your team and say ‘family’s important, we’re a family’ and then you get into the office and you act differently,” McGraw said. “I think it is important that you have that work-life balance.”

Family support helped McGraw thrive

McGraw’s 37 year coaching career (with 32 at Notre Dame) didn’t happen without help. She credits her husband, Matt, for recognizing her passion and making sacrifices for her — sacrifices that most men didn’t make in the late 1980s.

“I was real fortunate to meet a guy who was so supportive of women,” McGraw told Yahoo Sports. “I think that he is a feminist, before I knew what a feminist was. He was somebody who said ‘Hey, you do what you want to do, we’ll figure it out.’ And so I started coaching high school ... and then I was an assistant at St. Joe’s, and then when I got my start at Lehigh, that’s when it became real. I was traveling and recruiting and doing a lot of things, and then of course coming to Notre Dame, Matt had to give up his job, and I think a lot of people back in 1987 were just shocked that he would give up his job so that his wife could take a job. That was the stereotype back then. You had to hope you had a partner that was going to be very supportive of what you were doing, and he has always been that for me.”

Muffet McGraw is grateful that her husband, Matt, left his job in 1987 to allow her to take the head coaching job at Notre Dame. (Getty Images)

Matt’s sacrifice and support allowed McGraw to do what she was born to do. She’s made her mark on college basketball, racking up an overall record of 923–274. Those 923 wins put her at 7th on the all-time wins list for women’s college basketball coaches. She’s been named Conference Coach of the Year seven times. She’s won the AP College Basketball Coach of the Year award four times, most recently in 2018, and the Naismith Coach of the Year award three times. She’s taken Notre Dame to nine Final Fours and won two NCAA championships. All of these accomplishments have earned her a permanent place in basketball history: she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, and into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.

Societal expectations still limit women on the court

Work-life balance is only part of the battle for female coaches and assistants, but that’s something that McGraw can control for the women on her staff. How women are perceived on the court is out of her control. She’s seen referees treat women coaches differently, be condescending to them and allowing them to get away with far less than their male counterparts. The societal expectations of women to be kind, giving and motherly work against women all the time, but especially on the basketball court.

“We have to walk a tightrope and figure out how can we be aggressive, assertive, competitive, driven, how can we be all those things that typically, people assign to men,” McGraw said. “How can we be those things and still get people to look at us in the same way? ... We need women to step out, to step up, use their voice and talk about things. We’re going to be different, we can’t be expected to be the same as the guys, but we don’t have to always be the one that’s compassionate and empathetic and caring. We can sometimes be the one that’s driven to compete.”

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wants women to be able to be as competitive and driven as men are, both on the court and off. (Getty Images)

Looking forward to the new season, which starts Tuesday night with a game against Fordham, McGraw is obviously optimistic. But her thoughts for the future go beyond her own team. When she thinks about the future of women’s college basketball, and how it can reach the level of respect and excitement given to the men’s game, she’s pinpointed the one thing that can make a difference.

McGraw: Women vastly overlooked by media

“I think that media attention is the thing we probably lack the most,” McGraw said. “When you look at who’s being covered, I think we’re at four percent of media attention. So we’re not getting the same attention. When the men’s and women’s Final Four is on the same weekend, all we hear about is the men’s Final Four. When you turn on the TV and look at the guide to see where the game is on, you see ‘The NCAA tournament’ and then ‘The Women’s NCAA tournament.’ It’s not the men’s tournament, it’s just the tournament. It’s a lot of little things like that.”

In her perfect world, women’s basketball would have parity with men’s. She wants to “turn on ‘SportsCenter’ and you see women’s college basketball in the top 10. You see women’s college basketball being talked about on all these talk shows. You see women’s basketball, even if it’s the WNBA. None of us are getting the support from the media that the men get.”

The only way to change that is to keep going, keep pushing for what they deserve. McGraw will continue to be a loud and proud advocate of women’s basketball in the hopes that when her assistants are accomplished coaches in 30 years, they don’t have to fight as hard for equality.

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