The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, April 29, 2020

Muffet McGraw in perspective — Interview with Jessica Shepard — Must-click women's basketball links

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Muffet McGraw in perspective

The journey of Muffet McGraw, which entered a new phase last week when McGraw announced she was stepping down as Notre Dame head coach after 33 years, has never been about Muffet McGraw.

This was clear in ways large and small. There was perhaps no greater example of it than in her interactions with the press.

Muffet McGraw would answer questions from us, let’s be clear about that. She never ducked. But she was never going to make it easy on you. Women’s sports is filled with part-timers (largely because outlets don’t make coverage a full-time priority), and that often meant, especially in a football-crazed market, McGraw had to answer poorly-informed queries from folks who would rather have been at spring practice than covering the revolutionary program McGraw built at Notre Dame in women’s basketball. If you came with an ill-informed question, she’d correct you, and then she wouldn’t give you much in the way of a quote. She expected excellence from all people just as she did her team, and most of all, in herself.

And even the glory brought out the understated in McGraw. One of my favorite Muffet stats: at her Naismith Hall of Fame induction, she spoke for less than seven minutes.

The adjustment many other epochal figures have made in this sport is to go above and beyond to get the team maximal press. Geno Auriemma holds a press conference after his postgame press conferences. Dawn Staley loves to talk to one and all about her Gamecocks, her Eagles, her Philly history and the future of women’s basketball.

Muffet McGraw just wanted to go mold hundreds of young women into remarkable members of society (seriously, spend some time with any of her players, it shows) and win a ton of basketball games. (Which approach is best, specifically in this time for women’s sports, is a conversation for a different day.)

The net result has been a clear, and to my mind, persistent gap between McGraw’s achievements and the amount of accolades she’s received over the decades. I think that’s something we see across all industries — the self-promoters get more of the spoils — but it is exacerbated in women’s sports, where it is necessary to shout day and night just to be heard occasionally. The quiet, well-crafted statement isn’t likely to be heard at all.

All of which made her late-career foray into pushing for equality more forcefully and publicly so welcome. It didn’t just change the conversation on hiring, though it did that. And let’s not skip over it — McGraw said she’d hire only women to her staff, and the usual hue and cry of reverse sexism was raised, as if the efforts of all of us, aiming to undo the entrenched and overwhelming male centers of power, would achieve anything like the banishment of men from the coaching space. Indeed, wind at our backs, aiming to fix this, it’ll take decades just to reach parity.

But it did something else: it elevated McGraw herself. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I saw her making the rounds at SportsCenter and countless other outlets this past week, if her career, indisputably deserving of it, would have received such a loud public round of applause if not for her comments on equality giving her a new, wider platform in her final few seasons.

McGraw clearly made her peace with the idea that she can utilize her success for a cause greater than herself, and that permits her to talk about herself. It is the difference between how quickly she shut off when any conversation about her legacy came up in the moments following what is a legacy-definer by any measure — her 2018 championship — and in her retirement press conference, when she had fully formed her evolution on the subject of raising her voice.

The thing is: that was always true. Listen to Jessica Shepard below talk about their monthly phone calls. My favorite memory is watching McGraw file into Madison Square Garden quietly a few years ago, take her seat for a weekday morning game in which Liberty point guard Lindsay Allen debuted after a stellar career at Notre Dame. It wasn’t for recruiting, or for show. It was for Allen, and the joy I saw in her as she jumped out of her seat when Allen made her first basket remains etched in my mind to this day.

Even the end reflects her selfless nature: many a legend wouldn’t want to leave after a losing season, would have bowed out once the national championship was secured, or held on further to get one more shot at glory. McGraw joked about the losses in her final presser, even as she revealed publicly how much they hurt earlier this season, and turned over a stacked young Notre Dame team to her long-groomed successor.

Muffet McGraw has always been about making the lives of women better. And amid a moment that feels like so much is lost, it is a gratifying signal that this was enough for her to be honored, celebrated, as her career came to a close on her own terms.

This week in women’s basketball

Mike Jensen puts Muffet McGraw’s tenure in a larger, Philadelphia context.

Mitchell Northam looks back at Muffet McGraw’s career.

Graham Hays tells you what you need to know about Niele Ivey.

Arike Ogunbowale details what the moment was like for Notre Dame alums.

Ben Clemens takes a deeper look at Nikki McCray’s fit at Mississippi State.

Here’s HerHoopStats highlighting freshmen and honoring Mel Greenberg at the same time. Well done.

Adam Baum looks at where Xavier women’s basketball goes from here.

Around The Rim featured C. Vivian Stringer, Carolyn Peck and Dawn Staley this week.

Justin Carter breaks down film on the trio of new Dallas Wings.

David Hale looked at the unceremonious ending to a trio of great NC State players.

Sabreena Merchant looks into Seimone Augustus’ shock move to L.A.

Lindsay Gibbs compared the media coverage of the NFL and WNBA Drafts.

Longtime NBA exec Rachel Jacobson is now president of the Drone Racing League.

Russ Steinberg spoke with Charlotte Smith about The Shot.

Mike Dougherty caught up with Sonia Citron after she committed to Notre Dame.

John Cohen has a podcast, and spoke to Nikki McCray-Penson on it.

Shannon Ryan profiles Loyola coach Kate Achter and her new baby.

Astounding how productive Lauren Jackson was while going through all of this.

Great Bob Rathbun interview with Dawn Staley.

Alexa Philippou catches up with Meriden, CT’s own Kiah Gillespie.

Jenn Hatfield compared sisters Erica McCall and DeWanna Bonner.

Bria Felicien helps us with our women’s basketball withdrawal.

Charlie Creme’s 2021 Bracketology is here.

Megan Gauer crowns the most efficient WNBA contracts.

Just Women’s Sports caught up with Chelsea Gray.

Love how Bill Laimbeer makes sure every interview is a chance to talk about the Aces.

Tweet of the week

Five at The IX: Jessica Shepard

I spoke with Jess just after word went public about Muffet McGraw’s retirement. Click on her picture to listen.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon  Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala,@ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.