Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has worked hard to turn her players into leaders as well as champions. Now she's using her platform to bring her message of female empowerment to a wider audience
MCGRAW, THE Hall of Fame coach of the women's basketball team at Notre Dame, has to her credit 923 career wins, nine Final Fours and two NCAA titles. And yet none of that, really, is what has made her distinctive name a household one and prompted a tweet from President Obama ("a voice everybody should hear"), a text from Serena Williams and a letter from Hillary Clinton (which is now affixed to McGraw's fridge).
No, it was something she said at a press conference before the Women's Final Four in Tampa. McGraw was asked about an interview in which she said she would never again hire a male assistant. She channeled decades of frustration into a sprawling two-minute answer, which has since been viewed nearly seven million times on Twitter: "We don't have enough visible female leaders. We don't have enough women in power. When you look at men's basketball, 99% of the jobs go to men. Why shouldn't 100 or 99% of the jobs in women's basketball go to women?"
Amidst the currents of #MeToo and the Resistance, a movement had found a messenger.
Though her words had the researched quality of talking points, she was speaking off the cuff, she says now. "I feel like I've been fighting this battle for years, and I just kind of got to a breaking point."
McGraw has coached long enough (and played before that, as a guard at St. Joe's) to have seen women's college basketball be transformed from a resource-starved institutional afterthought into a major sport, with salaries and TV attention to match. When she first landed at Notre Dame, the men's team flew to its road games while the women rode the bus; the men would occupy the gym whenever they wanted to, and the women had to work around their schedule. These days McGraw supervises a staff of six, and the team travels mostly by private plane.
Improvement for women's sports, though, had the unintended consequence of making those coaching jobs appealing to men. Before Title IX became law in 1972 and compelled high schools and universities to work toward gender equity in athletics, more than 90% of women's college teams were coached by women. In 2018 that figure was just 40.8%. "This is the only example in an employment sector where women's job share is declining rather than increasing over time," says Marjorie Snyder, the senior director of research and programs at the Women's Sports Foundation.
The problem, McGraw says, is that most athletic directors are men, and men hire men. "Men network better," she says. "They have people calling on their behalf for every job. Women, we wait for someone to recognize how good we are. And we're incredibly loyal—we're afraid of what happens if we apply for another job and don't get it." Women who have never played for a female coach might not see themselves as leadership material, she adds.
To that end, every year she assigns the team a book; last year's was We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And any time a prominent woman comes to visit the university, McGraw brings her in to speak to the team. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came by; so did Cathy Engelbert, who played for McGraw at Lehigh. Engelbert was then the U.S. CEO of Deloitte—now she's the commissioner of the WNBA.
Since becoming a viral sensation, McGraw has been asked to run for office (she won't) and do more public speaking. She doesn't really have the hang of it yet—"I'd rather talk for five to 10 minutes and then open it up for questions"—but, then again, oratory never was supposed to be her forte. All she ever wanted to do was coach.