TAMPA, Fla. — On Sunday night, either Muffet McGraw’s Notre Dame team or Kim Mulkey’s Baylor squad will move into more exclusive company. The two coaches are already at the top of their profession, both as strategists and recruiters, but also as the preeminent women coaches in women’s college basketball.
The Fighting Irish are seeking back-to-back championships, while the Lady Bears look to win it all for the first time since 2012. In both cases, it would be their third NCAA title; only UConn (11) and Tennessee (eight) have more championships in the NCAA era.
No one is confusing three titles with the bigger numbers, but that says more about the absurdly great success of the Huskies and Lady Vols than anything lacking about Notre Dame or Baylor.
Sunday will mark the first time since 2012 — when it was the same two coaches and programs — that the championship game features two women coaches. Overall, since the NCAA tournament began for women in 1982, it’s the 13th title game in which both teams’ head coaches are women.
Notre Dame and Baylor have both regularly been contenders for the Final Four, particularly in the past decade. For the Irish in that stretch: one NCAA title and six other Final Four appearances. For Baylor: one NCAA title and two other Final Four appearances.
Something else happened during that time: Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had to step down in 2012 because of the effects of dementia, and she died in 2016.
“I think when we lost Pat Summitt, we lost an icon,” McGraw said. “We also did lose the spokeswoman for our 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 nobody to fill that spot.
“I think you looked around and wondered who would step up; maybe it would be sort of a point guard by committee kind of thing that you have in your game sometimes.”
But McGraw has taken on the role more than anyone. She has spoken out about her commitment to empowering women and challenging the status quo in regard to women’s opportunities across the board in basketball coaching.
To make passionate and purposeful points about complex issues involving societal and economic factors requires fearlessness, and a willingness to risk that you could be misconstrued or taken out of context. McGraw came to the Final Four to win a national championship just like everybody else. But she has stepped out of what has generally been her comfort zone — basketball, basketball, basketball — to set an example for not just her Irish, but other coaches and players nationwide.
“She helps us a lot to recognize these issues, because she makes us aware of them,” Notre Dame senior guard Marina Mabrey said. “We’re always looking for them now, and we’ll be on the bus talking about it.
“Before I got here, I didn’t realize how unequal things are, and how wrong it is, with the way women sometimes get treated. I feel like she’s helped us have a voice and feel confident enough to speak out about it. She’s created that environment for us.”
Mulkey hasn’t necessarily taken on that same role nationally, although on Saturday, she gave her support to McGraw for speaking out. But Mulkey has been vocal in defending what she thinks are the best aspects of Baylor — specifically the success and good citizenship of her players — during difficult times the school has faced during her 19 seasons there.
Most recently, the sexual assault scandal that led to the ousters of several people at Baylor, including football coach Art Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and president Ken Starr. Mulkey wasn’t involved in any of that, but she got into some controversy herself in 2017. She told the Baylor crowd after a game that if anyone ever told them they wouldn’t send their daughter to Baylor, “You knock them right in the face.”
Mulkey apologized soon after for her choice of words; she regrets that phrase still. She also has criticized the institutional failures at Baylor that made the situation worse for victims. She stands by her overall point that women athletes there shouldn’t feel tarnished by others’ behavior. Whether you agree with how Mulkey has handled that, it’s consistent with her personality.
“I’m very loyal. I really think I’m loyal to a fault,” Mulkey said. “I get into it with some of you when you’re bashing Baylor on other issues, don’t I? Who is the one that usually speaks up. It’s usually me. When Baylor is at its lowest moment, it’s me that defends the university.”
Baylor was a nonentity in women’s basketball before Mulkey arrived in 2000 from her alma mater, Louisiana Tech, where she had been an assistant for 15 years. When asked about both she and McGraw being iconic coaches to their respective schools, Mulkey was, as usual, bluntly honest. She indicated she’s not entirely satisfied the new administration at Baylor feels quite the same loyalty to her. It’s not a salary thing, but an appreciation thing.
“I just want them to be proud of the program,” Mulkey said. “I want them to say, ‘That woman does her job.’ They pay me extremely well. Money has never been an issue with me.
“I think all coaches want a pat on the back. That’s all it takes: a pat on the back, that, ‘Hey, we see you.’ But I could deal with a Calipari contract. Couldn’t y’all?”
She is referring to the “lifetime” deal that John Calipari recently signed with Kentucky that extends his agreement with the school both as its men’s basketball coach and an “ambassador” when his career ends. Mulkey laughed as she mentioned Calipari’s deal, but it’s a notable message women in all professions need to hear: It’s OK to value yourself and to advocate that others do the same.
“It’s meant a lot to me to play for her,” Baylor point guard Chloe Jackson said of Mulkey. “She’s brought out a player in me that I never thought could have been brought out. She’s competitive, passionate about the game, intense.
“We have two women coaches in the championship this year, and that shines a lot on what they mean to the game. They’re great for people to look up to and follow after.”
“We have two women coaches in the championship this year, and that shines a lot on what they mean to the game. They’re great for people to look up to and follow after.” Baylor guard Chloe Jackson
This is McGraw’s 32nd season at Notre Dame, and she said she couldn’t be happier there. But she also felt this was the time to publicly extended herself into topics beyond sports.
“I’ve just felt the need to be able to stand up and express some things that I thought needed to be said,” McGraw said. “I think [Summitt] would have said them or she would have been certainly another voice that would step up and say them.
“I think our game needs somebody that’s willing to step out. Because of the platform that I’ve been lucky to have, I thought it was a great time to say it.”