SOUTH BEND, INDIANA — Muffet McGraw will never forget the first time she called a timeout.
It was 1977. Her team, St. Joseph’s, was playing in a big tournament game. They’d just given up six unanswered points, the players were blowing assignments, missing shots, not even trying to grab rebounds. Something had to be done.
So, McGraw — then Muffet O’Brien — got the referee’s attention and called for play to stop.
The only problem? She was just a player at the time.
Her coach was not impressed with his point guard’s initiative. “He was livid,” McGraw recalled, laughing hysterically as she thinks back to her coach’s exasperated reaction. “I was like, I thought we needed it!”
McGraw, now the head coach of Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team, no longer gets questioned about her timeout choices — not with two national championships and 920 career wins to her name. Now, when McGraw tells you to huddle up, no one second-guesses her.
It’s a blustery mid-February morning in South Bend. As always, there’s a lot on McGraw’s mind. The Duke Blue Devils are headed into town the following day. Jackie Young, her standout junior forward, hasn’t been shooting 3s lately; the race for the ACC regular season title is too close to call; her team’s defense is still a mess; and the madness of March is fast approaching.
For just the second time in her career, McGraw’s Fighting Irish will be the defending champions in the NCAA tournament. She’s under a lot of pressure.
But she doesn’t want to talk about that. Huddled on a couch in her office, she speaks with great urgency about something else in women’s basketball that has been bothering her more and more lately: “People are hiring too many men.”
In last year’s Final Four, McGraw was the only female head coach. For the past 40 years, as women’s basketball has grown in popularity and prestige, she’s seen white men enter the sport and immediately grab prominent positions while women struggle to get their feet in the door for an interview.
She’s watched those who are hired deal with both systemic and targeted discrimination and harassment. She’s seen how, when women get fired, second chances are hard to come by. And she knows firsthand what it’s like to deal with a level of scrutiny that their male counterparts could never imagine — from focus on their looks, to a policing of their anger. Unparalleled success isn’t enough to stave off the never-ending questioning of their priorities and vision.
Moreover, McGraw knows that the decline in the percentage of women head coaches is a complicated matter. She also knows that it has nothing to do with a lack of interest in the sport, as her rival, University of Connecticut women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma, once suggested.
She’s had enough. For the last seven years, she has had an all-female coaching staff. “Women need the opportunity. They deserve the opportunity,” she says.
Asked whether she plans to ever hire a male coach again, she doesn’t hesitate: “No.”
Before Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in education, men’s and women’s athletics programs were more or less separate. Women’s sports were, for the most part, run by women. After Title IX was introduced, most athletic departments merged, and male athletic directors took over. The women were kept around as secretaries.
This had an immediate and long-lasting impact on who got hired to coach women’s sports.
When Title IX was enacted in 1972, 90 percent of the coaches of women’s college sports were women. These days, it’s about 41.5 percent. The numbers are slightly better for women’s basketball, the most popular women’s collegiate sport. Last year, 59.3 percent of women’s college basketball teams were coached by women, down from 79.4 percent in 1977.
The opportunity gap is magnified by the fact that the number of women coaching in men’s college sports has remained below 3.5 percent since before Title IX. Currently, there is only one female assistant coach in all of NCAA men’s college basketball — Edniesha Curry of the University of Maine. Compared to men’s college basketball, the NFL and the NBA look like bastions of inclusion.
Altogether, women only hold one out of every 4.5 head coaching jobs in collegiate athletics. And that’s at a time when there are more girls playing sports than ever before.
“Sport traditionally has been for men, run by men, and male dominated and male centered,” said Nicole M. LaVoi, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. “And that certainly is true for positions of power in women’s sport in the recent 20 years.”
Up until seven years ago, McGraw always had one male assistant on her staff. At the time, it felt obligatory: The AAU basketball ranks were filled with male coaches, and the scouting services were run by men. In order to have ready access to that network, McGraw figured that she’d better have a man on her staff.
And for a time, she admits, she found the optics appealing. “I kind of liked the idea that a woman was in charge,” McGraw said. “My team could see that like, I’m the boss. Yeah, he’s working for me.”
But in 2012, when her former assistant coach Jonathan Tsipis departed Notre Dame to become the head coach at George Washington, Beth Morgan Cunningham — a former Notre Dame superstar who had spent the past nine years as the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University — gave her a call.
Cunningham began the conversation with a caveat: “Look, I know you always like having a guy on your staff, but … ”
McGraw wasn’t a hard sell. She instantly realized Cunningham would be a perfect fit for her coaching staff. Cunningham was experienced, possessed institutional knowledge, and had the even-keeled temperament needed to balance out McGraw’s intensity.
“At that point I said, ‘Why didn’t I do this before? What took me so long?’” McGraw said.
In the seven years since McGraw assembled her first all-female coaching staff, Notre Dame has made four Final Four appearances, three national championship games, and last year overcame the loss of four players to season-ending knee injuries to win the national championship game on back-to-back buzzer beaters by Arike Ogunbowale. In this year’s NCAA tournament, her team is once again a No. 1 seed — and slightly favored to repeat as national champions.
McGraw is not the only coach to find success with all-female staffs. Leading the way is Tara VanDerveer, the head coach of the No. 2-seeded Stanford Cardinal. She has never had a man on her coaching staff since she was hired back in 1985.
She tells ThinkProgress that it’s no accident. “I actually think that all basketball staffs, male and female, would benefit from having both men and women on them, but because we’re not included in men’s basketball, I feel a responsibility to help develop women in women’s basketball,” VanDerveer said.
Many other women in the industry feel that sense of obligation, too. But most are not willing to talk in absolutes. Stephanie Gaitley, the head coach of Fordham, won’t rule out hiring a man in the future, but has a motto when it comes to evaluating credentials: “If it’s equal, it’s going to be a woman.”
Katrina Merriweather, the head coach of Wright State University — and one of only six black female head coaches in the NCAA tournament — says that while she currently has an all-female staff and believes this is an important time for female empowerment, “I would never say that I would never hire a man.”
LaVoi says that the only sure-fire way to reverse the trend is for women with hiring power to hire and mentor other women. Still, she understands why so few are comfortable making absolute commitments to the cause in the same way McGraw does.
“She can be that unapologetic and intentional because she wins,” LaVoi said. “Muffet is a white, married, heterosexual, highly successful coach. So she can say those things, whereas I would argue not many other women could get away with that.
“She has a lot of privilege. And she’s using it.”
Back in Notre Dame’s athletic facility, practice is not going well. Point guard Marina Mabrey finds Jackie Young at the top of the key, who hits Arike Ogunbowale with a bounce pass. Ogunbowale drives to the basket, misses the layup, gets her own rebound, comes back outside, tries to hit Jessica Shepherd with a bounce pass, only to turn over the ball.
“Do we need to wake up?” McGraw quips, her arms folded across her chest.
McGraw might not seem happy but there’s nowhere she’d rather be.
“From my first practice, I was like, ‘Oh yeah. I’ve found it. I’ve found what I want to do.’ I just love the game,” she said. “I love puzzles, so I love trying to figure out the offense and what we’re going to do, looking at the team and trying to fit them into what we’re going to do.“
But not every aspect of the job came as naturally. She was particularly inept at advocating for herself. When she got her first college head coaching job at Lehigh University in 1982, she was so excited that she forgot to ask what the salary was. (For the record, it was $18,000 per year.) When the Notre Dame job opened up, she didn’t even consider applying at first. Her husband pestered her daily until she finally mailed in her resume.
Given her history, it’s understandable that when McGraw begins to talk about solutions to the inclusion problem in college basketball, she focuses on the difference between the way men and women network.
“When I had guys on my staff, and they applied for a job, I mean, they’d be in here like, ‘You need, you need to call this guy and this guy, I’m going to get [Notre Dame men’s basketball head coach Mike Brey] to call this guy, I know this guy at Iowa, I’m going to ask him to call this guy.’ And they have so many people calling for them! And then if I had a woman on the staff who was going for a job, they come in and say like,” — she lowers her voice to a whisper — “‘Think you can make a call for me?’ And that would be it. I’d be like, the only person calling,” she said.
“And that happens when I have jobs open — I had a video coordinator job open, I must have had 10 phone calls about this guy, and I was like, ‘Damn, he must be pretty good.’ And he wasn’t.”
She wants to do what her husband did for her, and encourage more women to apply for jobs, to network, and to stop waiting to be asked to take the next step in their careers.
Of course, that’s only a part of the solution. “I think the person doing the hiring is generally a white man, right?” she said. “We need more diversity in our athletic directors.”
Any conversation about women’s sports — especially women’s basketball — has to be viewed through an intersectional lens. There were only nine black head coaches in the 64-team field of the women’s NCAA tournament, six women, and three men.
Two of McGraw’s assistants — associate head coaches Niele Ivey and Carol Owens — are black women. Ivey, a former Notre Dame point guard and WNBA star who has been on McGraw’s staff since 2007, is widely considered to be a top-shelf head coaching candidate when she decides to take that step. McGraw hired her when she was very young; Ivey says she’s lucky, and hasn’t faced much direct racism in her career.
Owens, who was just inducted into the inaugural class of the Assistant Coaches Hall of Fame has had more experience. She first joined McGraw’s staff in 1995, where she coached both Cunningham and Ivey when they were players. But in 2005, she left Notre Dame to become the head coach for her alma mater, Northern Illinois University. The program was idling in mediocrity, and she was hired to return it to glory. But in 2008, Jim Phillips, the athletic director who hired her, got a new job. Without going into detail, she said things changed after that. In 2010, McGraw convinced her to come back to Notre Dame.
The industry is just exceedingly unforgiving to black women, she says.
“If you get a job that’s already established, I mean that is unheard of, but most of the jobs we’re going to get are in the pits,” Owens said. “They’re in the pits, and as soon as we pile up the pit to start the build is when they fire us, and I really don’t think that’s fair.”
With men, Owens lamented, job struggles will often be boiled down to, “It just wasn’t a good fit.” But when it comes to women — especially black women — the reaction is often, “She’s a terrible coach, she don’t know what she’s doing.”
It is more difficult for black women to get second chances in this industry, as Buffalo’s Felicia Legette-Jack — who struggled to even get a volunteer position after being fired from Indiana — emphasized last year during the Sweet 16.
“I know that the majority of women basketball players look like me. I think that these young women, if we really care about them as people, that they will have role models that look like them,” Legette-Jack said at a press conference.
“The fight isn’t going to be easy,” she added. “The fight is necessary.”
Visibility is an important part of the equation; it’s crucial for black women to see other black women in leadership positions, and to see black female head coaches like South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley thriving and winning national championships.
When it comes to the LGBTQ community, visibility in the coaching ranks is still sorely lacking. There are only three out lesbian female coaches in all of Division I women’s basketball: Stephanie White at Vanderbilt, Colleen Mullen at the University of Albany, and Allison Guth at Yale. A couple of years ago, South Carolina assistant coach Melanie Balcomb said that homophobia was still the “elephant in the room” in women’s basketball.
“The issue is heavily nuanced but unfortunately, lesbian coaches often have to choose between their family and their sport when it comes to self-disclosing during the hiring process,” said Nevin Caple, an inclusion consultant and educator with SportSafe Inclusion. “Out lesbian coaches may have support at their current institution but when it comes to finding another job, many coaches have no idea whether or not an athletic director would hire an out lesbian coach to lead their program.”
McGraw — who does not have an openly LGBTQ member of her coaching staff — emphasized the importance of hiring a diverse slate of coaches, and said she does think things are getting better and more tolerant. Still, she admitted, there’s a long way to go.
“There’s just so many women that are living, like, a secret life,” she said. “I just wish it could be more open.”
McGraw vividly remembers the first time she sold out the Joyce Center at Notre Dame. It was Martin Luther King Day, January 15, 2001 — that night, the Irish got their first win over their Big East rivals, the University of Connecticut Huskies. At the time, UConn was the defending national champion and a budding dynasty under head coach Geno Auriemma.
That was the first of 51 sell-outs — and counting — for the women’s team on campus. The Purcell Pavilion, the Joyce Center’s main arena, is practically a shrine to women’s basketball. McGraw is so beloved and respected in the community that when travelers arrive at South Bend International Airport, her voice is the first one they hear. “Don’t leave your bags unattended,” she booms over the loudspeaker. “That would be a technical foul.” She is, quite literally, the town’s welcoming committee.
When McGraw arrived on campus back in 1987, this was all unfathomable. Back then, men’s basketball and football were the only things that mattered, and the administration let her know it.
“There were a lot of Title IX issues. [Digger Phelps, the former Notre Dame men’s head basketball coach] was here, they were flying to a game, we’re taking a bus. They’re eating out at some big place, we’re going to McDonalds.”
Title IX wasn’t just supposed to create an equal number of opportunities for women in athletics, it was supposed to provide equitable ones — the same quality of training facilities, practice availability, and travel accommodations as men’s teams. In reality, that’s hardly the case. And when female coaches speak up about these discrepancies, they’re often punished for doing so.
“I think I tried to pick my battles,” McGraw said. “You know, you don’t want to bitch about everything. I think I started with my staff, I said, we need to pay them more, and we need somebody to do marketing.”
Even today, there’s evidence of discrimination everywhere. In 2016, the Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting reported on the trend of Title IX retaliation lawsuits, noting that from 2006 to 2016, at least 29 female coaches and eight female sports administrators have filed retaliation lawsuits against their universities. When Cunningham resigned from VCU in 2012, the university paid her $125,000 to settle a Title IX complaint related to inequitable treatment of the women’s basketball program. Just this week, former Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach MaChelle Joseph filed a lawsuit alleging that after she formally complained about the lack of resources provided to the women’s basketball program, the school fired her.
According to LaVoi, this is all too common; the public lawsuits are only the tip of the iceberg.
“We heard about them, but we don’t hear about the hundreds of other women who experienced exactly what they experienced or worse, because they don’t have the courage — for a good reason — or the money or the resources or the time to fight it,” LaVoi said.
“And many of them that do never get another job in coaching,” she added.
Women also have to deal with the pressures of motherhood. Last month, University of Georgia head coach Joni Taylor returned to the sidelines a mere two days after giving birth. Some hailed her as a superhero; others questioned her commitment as a parent. A week later, a former assistant coach of Georgia’s women’s equestrian team filed a discrimination lawsuit saying she was fired because she was pregnant.
McGraw had her son, Murphy, just a few years into her time at Notre Dame. Throughout his childhood, Murphy was a staple at practices, games, and on road trips. These days, McGraw empowers her staff to go home at a reasonable hour and eat dinner with their families; to bring their kids on the road if need be; to take time off for that emergency doctor appointment. She encourages them to have a work-life balance. Ivey, a single mother, says this makes all the difference.
“I’m blessed to have a boss like her,” Ivey said. It turns out, if you have the support, you can do both.
“I think keeping women in the game is hard,” McGraw said. “Because we have to make choices, and men don’t have to make choices.”
On game days, McGraw avoids coming to the arena until a couple of hours before tip-off, the better to manage her anxiety. Her associate head coaches run shoot-around. Owens works with the post players; Ivey with the guards; Cunningham with the wings. It is a well-oiled machine.
She spends a considerable amount of time figuring out what to wear on the sidelines. Her outfits are always feminine and polished. She’s not afraid of colors. Or patterns. Or even leopard print. She’s nailed the ability to squat courtside and give her players the death stare while wearing high-heels and an above-the-knees skirt.
It’s just one more thing her male counterparts don’t have to worry about. They’ll never catch a question about coaching couture during a press conference — and McGraw gets visibly riled up discussing this double standard.
“The way that players look at men as the head coach. Geno can say a lot of stuff to his players that I could not get away with saying to my players, because they expect a man to be, you know, not nice, not compassionate, not sympathetic, not any of those things, and they expect women to be different. And that’s, that’s where the problem is, is the way people expect us to be a certain way,” she said.
“And, you know, I feel like we should just — it’s just basketball, right? That’s what they talk about. But it’s not. The refs treat women differently. It’s just, we’re just perceived differently. I mean, look at Serena, when she yelled at the refs. Why can’t she be mad? You know, we’re not allowed to be angry.”
Anger is a part of coaching, and McGraw isn’t shy about showing it. She’ll stalk the sidelines, screaming at the refs, and when her players make mistakes — how did something they executed so perfectly in practice go so wrong during the game? — she’ll loudly call them out. She pushes her team to the limit, and for some, it can be jarring to watch.
“There is not a question of a doubt that when women act aggressively or loud or are taking control or are demanding respect, or are marching up and down the sideline, meaning they’re stereotypically acting like men — meaning they’re coaching — they’re sanctioned for it,” LaVoi said. “It’s classic gender stereotyping. And I think with basketball more so because it’s one of the few sports we actually see women on TV, on the sidelines.”
McGraw doesn’t cower in the press, either. When she feels disrespected or wronged, she will say so. Back in 2014, UConn and Notre Dame were both undefeated heading into the national championship game. That generated headlines, but so did the trash talk between Auriemma and McGraw.
“We don’t have a relationship. I think that got lost,” McGraw told reporters at the time. When asked about whether it would be possible to return a modicum of civility to the rivalry, McGraw retorted, “I think we’re past that point.”
Sure enough, this season’s meeting between the two teams in South Bend became so heated that both McGraw and Ogunbowale felt compelled to issue apologies to Notre Dame fans for their lack of composure. Pointedly, neither apology mentioned Auriemma or Connecticut. The following day, former UConn star and reigning WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart tweeted out a screenshot, showing that McGraw blocked her on Twitter. It was widely shared, used as proof of McGraw’s pettiness.
McGraw insists she has no idea how Stewart ended up on her blocked list. She said once she was alerted to the issue, she made sure she was unblocked. “I don’t care if she follows me,” McGraw said. “I didn’t know she wanted to follow me.”
The dust-ups revealed a different side of McGraw, one that LaVoi says is vitally important.
“When the most successful female coaches stand up and say, I’m not being respected, you can one hundred percent guarantee that every female coach that’s not as prominent as Muffet has also experienced that,” LaVoi said.
McGraw still finds the endless comparisons to Auriemma to be exhausting and unfair. “Yeah, you know, I just, you get tired of it,” McGraw said. “You just get tired of it. He can say whatever he wants, and I can’t say anything.”
On Thursday, February 20, Notre Dame defeated Duke 89-62 in front of thousands of their rowdy fans. Adding to the occasion was a bit of history: Arike Ogunbowale passed Skylar Diggins-Smith to become the leading scorer in Notre Dame history.
McGraw was thrilled for Ogunbowale. But she wasn’t satisfied. “I’m always disappointed,” she told the press. “I’m always looking for perfection, and we’re so far away from it that it’s hard for me to see the good things right now.”
This is who she is — relentless both on and off the court. Her first head coaching job at Archbishop Catholic High School paid $1,000. She waitressed on the side to make ends meet and drove the students to and from the games in a giant van. Now, she earns well over $1 million annually and coaches a perennial title contender. But she won’t be content until equality is achieved. This is bigger than her, bigger than women’s basketball, even bigger than women’s sports as a whole.
And so, here at the height of her career, McGraw is going to keep using her platform to push her industry forward. Yes, there are great men in women’s basketball who have helped grow the sport; and yes, she’s appreciative of it. She knows that her decision to never hire a male coach again might not be popular.
Thankfully, she stopped worrying about blowback years ago.
“I got to the point where I didn’t care anymore what people thought,” she said. “And that’s like a giant, life changing thing.”
CORRECTION: The story originally said that there were only two out female head coaches in Division I women’s basketball. It has been updated to include one more, Colleen Mullen at the University of Albany.