Growing up, who were Muffet McGraw’s female role models? Talking on the phone this week, McGraw didn’t pause to think about it.
“It was all men," said the just-retired Notre Dame women’s basketball coach. “I’d watch the NBA, go out in the driveway, try to emulate them. You couldn’t just go on social media and find people.”
- Muffet McGraw retires as women’s basketball coach at Notre Dame, and the whole sport seems smaller | Mike Jensen
- Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun is busier than ever, as chair of NCAA Division I council | Mike Jensen
- Kris Jenkins and Quinton Rose are expert witnesses on NCAA name, likeness, image changes | Mike Jensen
When McGraw lived on Dean Street in West Chester, just finishing up high school at Bishop Shanahan, she could walk over to see West Chester State and also the Mighty Macs of nearby Immaculata -- that storybook dynasty unfolding just as McGraw was nearing the end of high school. Before that, the barnstorming All-American Red Heads showing up at West Chester was the best chance, McGraw said, to see live women’s hoops.
But as a 12-year-old? It was men. To play live hoops, other than behind her house, “you had to go down to Everhart Park where the guys were," McGraw said.
Female role models outside of basketball?
“Was there life outside basketball?" McGraw quipped.
This woman wasn’t just on the vanguard of generational change. After her wild success as Notre Dame’s coach, winning two NCAA titles, getting Notre Dame to the Final Four nine times, McGraw, at the very end of her tenure, also found a platform to speak on women’s leadership, starting within her sport, but with a message that resonated in society. Pat Summit down at Tennessee was a real role model to McGraw, but McGraw was already coaching by then.
“We don’t have enough female role models," McGraw said from the podium at a 2019 Final Four press conference. “We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power. Men run the world. Girls are socialized to know that when they come out, gender roles are already set. Men run the world. Men have the power.”
She was explaining why her own staff was all-female.
“It got over seven millions views," McGraw said of the video of that answer. “It was overwhelming. So many letters were from dads with daughters. I got letters from men who would say, ‘I work in a male-dominated business.’ I thought, ‘Don’t we all.’ "
Strangers who had been in her business poured their heart out to her, McGraw said, many saying, “You spoke to me, and you spoke for all of us.”
Reaching that moment, McGraw made clear, was an organic process. She’d had men on her staff, and liked the dynamic. When her staff was all women for the first time, more by happenstance, she started to get questions about it.
“I wasn’t thinking like that," McGraw said. “I was trying to win.”
But she found she also liked the dynamic of an all-female Notre Dame staff. She kept winning, even more. Her two NCAA titles came years apart, in 2001 and 2018. She thought back to her first college job, hired by Jim Foster to be an assistant at her alma mater at St. Joseph’s after a successful run at Archbishop Carroll. It wasn’t exactly an intense interview, McGraw said.
“What do you think about joining my staff?”
“I’d love to.”
Her own on-court battles with male coaches were exemplified by that guy up at UConn who also grew up outside Philadelphia. This week, McGraw tweeted a letter she’d gotten from a boy named Luke who had to write about his hero for a second-grade assignment. He’d chosen her, he wrote, partly because, “You’re the only coach in college basketball who knows how to beat UConn.”
Luke wrote UConn exactly like that, upper case U and C, lower case o-n-n. That rivalry was real in Irish country. Luke also noted, “I loved going to your summer camp and learning from the best.”
At age 64, McGraw is pretty sure she is done coaching, unless future grandchildren need a youth coach. There’s a possibility of a book, and there will be speaking appearances, and she’ll sign on for special projects at Notre Dame.
“The speech at the Final Four gave me the opportunity to see there’s a whole new world that opened for me," McGraw said.
She explained her mindset on retirement. She’d been game-planning it. After winning in 2018, “we had a great team coming back," McGraw said. “If we could win two in a row, I thought I would retire.”
They got back to the title game, McGraw’s seventh time coaching in it, but lost an 82-81 thriller to Baylor. McGraw noted how five of her players were drafted by the WNBA. Leaving on that note wouldn’t be fair to a successor, she decided. Sure enough, this past season was rough, the Irish 13-18, only her second losing season among 33 in South Bend, the other in 1992.
McGraw decided this was the right time because she had a top-three recruiting class coming in, and the Irish were projected to be preseason top 20. A good time for her successor to start building again.
When society was shut down by the coronavirus, McGraw took that as a test run before the official decision.
“I had three weeks to live with it -- let’s see what life without basketball is going to look like," McGraw said. “I enjoyed it. Stress-free. Wasn’t worried about recruiting, or who is in the transfer portal.”
That feeling, she said, has stayed with her since making the decision official. Her successor, Niele Ivey, couldn’t be a bigger symbol of how the world has changed. Ivey had played and coached under McGraw for 17 seasons at Notre Dame before serving as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies this past season.
So McGraw’s work is done? Hardly. That was her point talking last year, how 99 percent of the men’s jobs go to men, while half the women’s jobs also go to men. Up the leadership chain, the percentages increase. She found her voice on this, and found a receptive audience.