Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is hoping to cut down...

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is hoping to cut down the nets again at the Final Four. Credit: AP/Chuck Burton

TAMPA, Fla. — This is about more than basketball.

That’s the way Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw sees her decision to have an all-women basketball staff. In an impassioned speech at her Women’s Final Four news conference Thursday, McGraw spoke out about the need to be a strong voice for women’s issues.

“We don’t have enough female role models,” McGraw said. “We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.”  

McGraw is making her ninth trip to the Final Four with Notre Dame, which will play rival Connecticut and coach Geno Auriemma on Friday night, with the winner advancing to Sunday’s championship game.

McGraw recently said she will never again hire a man for her coaching staff. On Thursday, she was asked about that comment and whether she now sees herself as the preeminent women’s advocate in the game, taking over for former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who died two years ago.

McGraw gave a nearly two-minute answer that mentioned, among other things, the fact that there are practically no women coaching in the men’s game, the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment hasn’t passed and the fact that less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs.

“Girls are socialized to know . . . gender rules are already set,” she said. “Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the man that is the stronger one.

“When you look at men’s basketball, 99 percent of the jobs go to men. Why shouldn’t 100 or 99 percent of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women? Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. That’s the problem.”

Last season, according to a report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, 40 percent of the head-coaching jobs in Division I women’s sports were held by women and 4 percent of the head-coaching jobs in Division I men’s sports were held by women. The NCAA has reported that 59 percent of Division I women’s basketball coaches are women.

Last year, McGraw was the only female coach at the Final Four. This year she is joined by Baylor’s Kim Mulkey. Auriemma and Oregon’s Kelly Graves are the two male coaches.

This is the 50th meeting between Auriemma and McGraw, and it is fair to say the two are not exactly close.

Defending champion Notre Dame eliminated UConn in a national semifinal game last season, beating the Huskies in overtime on Arike Ogunbowale’s last-second shot. This year, UConn handed the Irish one of their three defeats.

When Auriemma was beginning to build his program at UConn, Summitt’s Tennessee team was his big rival. Now it is Notre Dame. While one always got the feeling that there was an underlying affection between Auriemma and Summitt in their rivalry, there seems to be a simmering tension between Auriemma and McGraw.

When asked about McGraw’s comments Thursday, Auriemma made it clear that he doesn’t think one has to be a woman to help advance women.

“There’s a lot of people out there advancing the game, advancing women,” he said. “ . . . So what are we saying? At Oregon, they weren’t trying to advance women’s basketball or women by hiring Kelly? That was a bad move? They should have just found the best available woman?”

McGraw’s emphasis on women teaching women how to be leaders, however, is appealing to many young players.

“I love how she advocates for women and just the success for women,’’ Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner said. “She could easily not say anything. But being in the position she has, I think it’s exciting she uses her voice that way.”

McGraw, who is in her 32nd season at Notre Dame, used to be more reserved when it came to tackling non-sports subjects. She said recent events have convinced her to do otherwise.

“I think women across the country in the last few years have just said, ‘Enough,’ ” she said. “Time’s up. Time’s up. It is our turn. If it’s going to happen, we have to do something about it.”

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