Somebody had to speak up.
Two days after igniting a national conversation about the need to have more women in positions of power — both in sports and outside of it — Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw found herself explaining why she felt it was important to use to use her Final Four pulpit to advocate for social change.
“I think when we lost Pat Summitt, we lost an icon and we also did lose a spokeswoman for our game,” McGraw said Saturday as her team prepared to defend its national championship against Baylor on Sunday. “She did so many great things for women, for the women’s game. She was always about what’s best for the game, not what’s best for me. She constantly empowered and promoted women.
“When we lost her, we had a void. There was no one to fill that spot. I think you looked around and wondered who would step up, maybe it would be a point guard by committee . . . I think our game needs somebody that’s willing to step up. Because of the platform that I’ve been lucky to have, I thought it was a great time to say it.”
Sunday’s game between McGraw’s Notre Dame team and Kim Mulkey’s Baylor team will mark the eighth time in the 20 years that there have been two female head coaches in the title game. It is the first time there have been two women coaches since 2012, when it also was McGraw and Mulkey.
On the surface, the two coaches have a lot in common. Both played college basketball, both have teams that regularly end up going deep in the tournament and both have won two national championships. Mulkey beat Michigan State in 2005 and Notre Dame in 2012, and McGraw defeated Purdue in 2001 and Mississippi State last season.
Mulkey, however, is a self-described “country girl from Louisiana” and has been less inclined to comment publicly on the world at large. McGraw made headlines a few days ago by saying she will never hire another man for her staff because there are too few opportunities for women.
“I understand her points, without a doubt. But I’m of the belief [that] I want the best person for the job,” said Mulkey, whose top assistant is a man. “I have a son, and I would be honored if my son wanted to coach next to me. [McGraw] has a son. I think she would be honored if he wanted to coach women’s basketball . . . So I tend to stay away from saying the word ‘never.’ ”
In her news conference Saturday, McGraw explained why she said what she said on Thursday, the day before playing Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut team in a semifinal.
“I think we need more opportunities for women in coaching,” McGraw said. “I just hired a male video coordinator. I have hired a male strength coach. I’m not opposed to hiring men. I just think that women need those opportunities and those opportunities right now are going to men.”
McGraw also seemed to think that her comments might have been misconstrued as a criticism of Auriemma, who has won 11 national titles.
“I think Geno has done a great job,” she said. “He always has an all-female staff. I think that’s a great way to bring more women into the game.”
And so is using your platform to bring attention to the game you love and the causes you believe in. McGraw’s comments — she spoke for more than two minutes on the need for women to have a more equal role in society — had her trending all weekend on Twitter, with even former president Barack Obama weighing in with a tweet saying McGraw was “a voice everybody should hear.”
A number of her players, past and present, also gave a thumbs-up to their coach.
Said Arike Ogunbowale: “She gives us life lessons every day and inspires us to use our platform for good. She tells us to speak up for ourselves. I’m just glad the world finally heard the stuff she’s been saying to us our whole four years.”