March 23, 2021

Muffet McGraw — Head Coach, Notre Dame Women’s Basketball & 2x National Champion

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #29

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Muffet McGraw. Coach McGraw spent 33 years as the head coach of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, and by the time she retired last Spring McGraw finished her career with a 936-292 record, nine Final Four appearances, seven championship game appearances, and two NCAA championships in 2001 and 2018. Coach McGraw’s resume includes 31 seasons with 20 wins or more, 67 NCAA tournament wins, 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and three National Coach of the Year awards. Over the past three decades, Notre Dame and Muffet have become synonymous. Her impressive coaching tree includes a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, multiple Olympians,  and many more who went on to hit the main stage in the WNBA. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Muffet and Sam talked about the progress we’re making in women’s equality on and off the court, what it actually means to be a successful coach, what it means to be a team, and how we can continue to change the narrative about women in sports and leadership.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 4 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Muffet McGraw shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “It’s all about the culture that you build in your organization.”
  • “When your kids are out there playing soccer when they’re 5 or 6 years old, who are they playing for? It’s always somebody’s dad. Why can’t it be somebody’s mom?”
  • “Nobody cares about your career as much as you do. You’ve got to go out of your way and say, how am I going to get here? Who’s going to help me? And how’s that going to happen?”
  • “If you want to have a championship culture, you’re going to have some conflict.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: One of the first things I wanted to open up with is your legendary coaching career. What’s the journey been like? 

McGraw: It’s interesting because my leadership style has evolved tremendously. I started coaching back in the ‘80s, the late ‘80s when coaches were like, “it’s my way or the highway. This is where we’re going.” Being from Indiana, this is Bobby Knight territory. So I’ve really evolved into a much more empathetic and compassionate leader. It’s been interesting to see the women’s game,e and in women’s basketball particularly getting that national attention that we really didn’t have in the beginning.

Sam: How has coaching changed?

McGraw:  It used to be 90% about X’s and O’s, it was all about the offensive defense. What are you running? Now it’s 90% psychology. It is all about relating to the players. How do you motivate individuals? One size fits all doesn’t always work. Everybody can’t be yelled at. Everybody needs a little bit of a different touch. Trying to learn different personalities and how you get that together as a coach I think is really interesting, because I used to joke with my point guard. She said, “why are you yelling at me so much?” I said, “because I can’t yell at everybody else, and I need to yell at somebody right now. So you’re going to be the one, because some kids are just tougher.” That’s the thing with this generation; I’ve found that they are not quite as tough. They don’t have that mental toughness, the grit. I think that people used to talk about how the parents have kind of plowed the way and have done everything for them. So now they’re facing adversity, and here we are in a pandemic and your parents can’t fix it. It’s up to you. I think we’re seeing mental health issues really off the charts because kids are really struggling with how to deal with where they are. 

Sam: You mentioned toughness. How does that change? How does that change the way you coach or has it?  

McGraw: I don’t think it really did. I think that I know my former players come back and say how soft I’ve gotten and how different things are now, but really, I think that those core values stay the same. Really, it’s all about the culture that you build in your organization and on your team. For me, honesty was always number one. I think that the change I’ve made; I’ve gone from brutal honesty to just being honest and there’s some good things here too. Accountability is so important to me. You have to be willing to admit when you make a mistake, and you have to figure out how to fix it. I think that as a leader, you have to be the one to sometimes stand up and say it was my fault and be willing to get more opinions. I used to be autocratic. I was in charge. I’ve kind of gone more democratic now. I say “what do you think?” quite a bit more than I ever used to, even with the players who are obviously a lot younger and not as experienced. Certainly not with the freshmen, but with the upperclassmen, I say “what do you think about this? How did you like the way we did this today? Would you have done anything else?” So really looking for their opinion which I never would have done before. I just told them, “this is what we’re doing. This is what you do, and here’s how it’s going to be.” I actually liked it a little bit more because there’s a bit more of a relationship that way. Honesty, accountability, trust, they are so important. Because if you want to have a championship culture, you’re going to have some conflict, and you have to be able to trust that people are going to be honest with you, and you have to be able to take it. There’s a lot of back and forth; somebody might be saying something you don’t like to hear, but you have to go back and say, “I know that’s coming from a place where she wants me to be better. so I think I can do that.” I think that’s the biggest difference to me in the championship culture and one that’s kind of comfortable.

Sam: You’ve had a lot of players you’ve coached go on to coach as well, which is pretty cool. We have so many people who are listening that are managers or coaching the next manager coming up behind them or C-level executives coaching up their managers. What type of advice do you have for how to get the best out of your coaches right now?

McGraw: I think it’s so important that you have a list of expectations. Everybody has to know: this is my job. This is my role. This is what is expected of me. Every single day, this is what I’m bringing. I have to be able to count on that. Then we’re going to evaluate that at the end of the day. We evaluate: how was the scouting report? How did we prepare? How did we play? You need that feedback. I think that’s the piece that we’re missing today with managers, especially people who work for you and are doing a good job. I think we’re more complimentary than critiquing what they could do better. I think it’s so important that you know if you have aspirations of being in my job, a head coach, or if you want to do this, I’m going to let you know how you have to get there, but there’s going to be some things that you really need to work on.

I’m disappointed sometimes that people are reluctant to tell them, “here’s what you need to work on.” Now, if you don’t ask for that feedback, you may never get it. I think being in charge of yourself and saying, “does my boss even know that I want to get a different job? Do they know I want to be promoted?” Nobody cares about your career as much as you do. You’ve got to go out of your way and say, how am I going to get here? Who’s going to help me? And how’s that going to happen? 

Sam: I was listening to an interview you had on another show a few months ago, and you were talking about how you enjoy and value practice so much more than the game. Can you tell us about that? 

McGraw: I love practice. That was always my favorite part of coaching. I was the type that I’d be watching the game and I’d be scribbling something down on a piece of paper. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and have a notebook by my bed and I’d be scribbling things down. I’d go into practice and think this is going to be great. You know, we put this in and if it worked, it was just amazing. I think when the game is played the way it’s supposed to be, it’s like poetry. I love seeing the working together, the teamwork, the unselfishness; just giving up something you could do for somebody else that maybe has a better shot at it. I love seeing that all come to fruition. I love to see a team become a team. A group of individuals, all with different strengths, and suddenly we’re melding together and everybody’s cheering for you. 

Sam: We’re living in interesting times around diversity, equity and inclusion. They’re being talked about a lot more. We see a lot of companies—not just hiring roles—but spending money on consulting and training and services to make sure they’re delivering diversity and equity inclusion programming better than they were in the past. As someone who’s fought so much for women leaders, what advice do you have for  business leaders out there about what they should be doing when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion?

McGraw: I think it’s really hard, because everybody wants to say the right thing. They’re going to put out a statement, and they’re going to put something on social media that says, “this is what we believe.” But really, it starts with when you’re born. We’re kind of stereotyped. We are raised a certain way, and we learn all these things at home, and we can’t expect that suddenly we’re going to be in the working world and change everything. I think we have to make some big changes at home first, because I think you learn things at home. I think in terms of leadership for women, I always say when your kids are gone out there and playing soccer, when they’re five and six years old, who are they playing for? It’s always somebody’s dad; why can’t it be somebody’s mom? We have to make those changes when kids are young, because sports is a great place for us to really showcase diversity. All these different people are coming together, and we’re forming a team, and we’re successful, and we should be a microcosm of society. How we’re doing it in coaching is how we need to do it in the world. I think first it takes awareness.  The Black Lives Matter movement, it was great, but this should’ve been happening years and years and years ago. So how do we fix it now? Is it hiring? Certainly, that’s a big part of it. Is it recruiting? That’s a huge part of it. I think sometimes we are reluctant to go the extra mile when you’re hiring women. It’s a little different than hiring men. When you’re looking for certain types of people, I think you have to sometimes look in different places, and you have to have that shortlist going the whole time that you’re working and seeing. When you look around your board and you say, “we’ve got a bunch of old white men, it’s time for a change.” I think that understanding and that awareness of what we need to do to go forward is the first step; then you have to hire, I think that’s the biggest thing. 

Sam: You have to be purposeful in pursuing it. I hired a recruiting firm a few years ago, and one of our mandates was we were looking for when to make certain hires. If you’re not purposeful about it and know what you’re looking for it doesn’t happen. That was one of the learnings I had. 

McGraw: You can’t sit back and wait to see who applies. Women are so reluctant to apply for jobs, because we’re so busy checking off those boxes of what we can’t do, instead of thinking, “oh, I can do that.” Men are a little more, “well, I can learn that. So I think I will apply.”

Sam:  I have a 4-year-old daughter at home; her name is Nico. My wife played college soccer. So as you can imagine, we have a soccer net every six feet inside of the house. She’s got a lot of energy because of COVID. Any advice for me as a parent on what I can do?

McGraw: The most letters I got were from fathers with daughters, because they had sons where they grew up a certain way and they said, “oh my gosh, I didn’t realize how inequitable things were for girls.” I used to say: “you should treat them just like your sons. You should treat them exactly the same, and don’t compliment them all the time on how cute they are and how pretty they are. We should be telling them how smart they are and encouraging them to get into math and science and different things.” Because I think girls are reluctant to get into those because there’s no encouragement and they’re saying, “maybe you’d be better off over here.” We always tell them, “oh, isn’t it great. You get along so well. Oh, I love how you just make things easy and everything’s great.” Then the boys are out wrestling and running around and aggressive and we’re complimenting them for being boys. I think it’s so important that we just get rid of those stereotypes. Treat them all the same.

Sam: Last question, coach. There’s a lot of athletes out there where this last year has been really tough with not being able to be in the same environment. Any advice to young athletes out there right now as they try to navigate 2021?

McGraw: I know how difficult it’s been—but believe me, this is going to help you down the road so much because what you’re learning right now is how to handle adversity. That is the most important thing for us to get through the rest of our lives. We are hitting some bumps in the road right now. They seem like mountains. We have never been in this situation before. And so next year, when things get a little bit tough, you’re going to say, “wow, this is so easy,” because of what you learned this year. I think we have to give ourselves some grace and pat ourselves on the back a little bit. Look how far we’ve come. You look back at when this started, and now here we are. We’ve come through it. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. So all the work we’ve put in, it’s just going to make us appreciate what we have more. It’s given us more family time to see what the value in that is. I think going forward handling adversity, we are going to be champions at that.

Topics discussed: leadership, coaching, empowerment, DEI, adversity

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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