From legendary coach to rookie professor, Muffet McGraw keeps sharing her wisdom

Inside the activities that are keeping McGraw 'busier than I ever thought I would be' in retirement

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During her Hall-of-Fame coaching career at Lehigh and Notre Dame, Muffet McGraw won over 930 games, took home two national championships and made 26 NCAA Tournament appearances. Nineteen of her former players were drafted into the WNBA, including 10 first-round picks. And beyond her success on the court, McGraw unapologetically championed gender equality, famously stating in 2019 that she would never again hire a male coach because “women need the opportunity.”

Yet even someone as successful and outspoken as McGraw has moments of self-doubt.

After McGraw retired from coaching in April 2020, she said in an interview that she would love to teach one day. Wendy Angst, an assistant department chair in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, came across the interview and reached out to discuss McGraw teaching a new class on sports leadership.

“Initially, I think I was even a little like, ‘Ooh, gosh, am I really qualified for this?’ ” McGraw told The Next. “I’m looking at all these professors who have doctorates and all these degrees and have written all these books and I’m going, ‘I’ve just been coaching for 40 years.’ ”

But with Angst’s encouragement, McGraw pushed forward, and to her surprise, she had a blank slate to design the course. “I said, ‘Oh, Wendy, I would love to teach that class! Send me the syllabus so I can see what I have to do,’ ” McGraw recalled. “And she said, ‘Oh, no, you write the syllabus.’ ” McGraw reached out to professors at Stanford and Temple about their sports leadership syllabi, but she found that there was little precedent for what she had in mind.

For starters, many sports leadership programs are master’s degree programs, whereas McGraw’s course enrolls a roughly equal proportion of undergraduate and graduate students. And McGraw’s course is much more applied than academic, based on her own experience rather than on scholarly theories of how to develop leaders.

Without much of a template to build off, McGraw said, “I just thought back to coaching and thought, These are things that I want these kids to learn about being on a team and being a leader. And, of course, there’s a pretty good emphasis on being a female leader.” She finalized the course content in time for the fall 2020 semester and taught the class again this spring.

The class is called “Sports Leadership: How Leaders Help Teams Flourish,” and it meets weekly for just over an hour. McGraw originally envisioned it having just 10 students, but it grew to about 25 this spring. She generally eschews lectures, preferring to spend class time on discussions (or “jump balls,” as McGraw calls them) and research-based group projects. 

The “jump balls” are contemporary and thought-provoking, ranging from why there aren’t more female coaches across all sports to how the NCAA should have handled the COVID-19 pandemic and whether teams should be competing. Gender equality and social justice are frequently discussed, just as they were in McGraw’s locker rooms and press conferences as a coach.

For Sam Brunelle, a rising junior on the Notre Dame women’s basketball team who took McGraw’s class this spring, her favorite group project hit close to home. “We had to compare a sport from the men's and the women's side,” she told The Next, “and my group actually did college basketball, which was really interesting considering [the inequities] this past year with the NCAA Tournaments … So that was kind of a passion project for me.”

Although McGraw only coached Brunelle for one season, Brunelle said she learned about leadership even as a high school recruit by watching McGraw coach and talking with her on the phone. So it’s hardly surprising that there were “definitely moments” in class where Brunelle thought, Wow, this is déjà vu. She said that Professor McGraw was similar to the Coach McGraw she had played for, with one notable exception: Because there were no games, there was no upset coach after a loss.

McGraw agreed that her teaching style matches her coaching style, with the caveat that the latter evolved considerably over nearly four decades as a head coach.

“My leadership style is the same in class as it was at the end of my coaching career, but it's a complete 180 from the beginning of my career,” she said. “… When I started coaching, everybody was Bobby Knight: my way or the highway, get on the bus, don't ask me any questions, this is what we're doing. And I changed to match the generation of, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and giving them more buy-in and realizing along the way that the relationships were so much more important. And it gave us better chemistry on the court … [Now] I like to ask a lot of questions, and that's definitely how I teach.”

Because the course is uniquely based on McGraw’s experience, there is no textbook, though there are assigned books, articles and podcasts. Guest speakers such as Notre Dame women’s basketball legend Ruth Riley, Indiana Fever president and chief operating officer Allison Barber and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert also shared their leadership experiences with the class over Zoom. (It’s intentional that nearly every guest speaker, save for Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, is a woman, McGraw said.)

“You start out thinking, I don't think I'm going to have enough material for 14 weeks, and then in week 10 you're going, I'm not going to fit this all in in 14 weeks!” McGraw said. But she doesn’t overload her students: Brunelle, a dedicated student who took 17 credits this spring, said she spent about one and a half to two hours per week outside of class on McGraw’s course.

The first lesson that McGraw teaches each semester is self-awareness, which she believes is a critical skill that today’s college-age population generally lacks. She asks students to complete a personality test and get a mix of people in their lives to describe them in one word. The course description also mentions empathy and perspective taking, relationship building and communication as other essential leadership skills that students will learn.

That begs the question: Given the subjectivity of these skills—and of leadership itself—how does McGraw assess whether a student has become a better leader over the course of the semester?

“You can’t really grade them on that [directly],” McGraw said. But she approximates it as best she can by assessing students on several factors. Attendance and participation make up nearly a third of students’ overall grade, followed closely by a final exam on the course materials and group projects. Students present their group projects to the rest of the class, and McGraw evaluates the quality of their research as well as peer reviews of how well each student worked within their group.

Brunelle is considering several career paths, including broadcasting, coaching, sports marketing and sports management, but she believes that McGraw’s class will benefit her in any of those arenas. She also hopes it will pay dividends on the court next year, as the Fighting Irish are just 23-28 in Brunelle’s two seasons and have not made the NCAA Tournament. A major takeaway for her from McGraw’s class was the importance of locker room culture and how leaders on the team can shape that culture.

“The coaches aren’t ever in the locker room, so they don’t know what’s going on in the locker room, what’s being said. … That can negatively impact the team if it’s not positive … so just being able to listen first and then voice what you need to say about whatever’s going on,” Brunelle said. “… Evaluating that and being more aware of that is really important going forward.”

Brunelle is McGraw’s first former player to take the course, but she has gushed about it to her teammates and said that many of them have looked into enrolling in future semesters. “It’s something that everybody's super excited about, getting to see Coach McGraw in a different side of life,” Brunelle said. “… I think [they] also would love to spend more time with her because they came to Notre Dame partly, probably, because of Coach McGraw. I know I did. So being able to … learn more from her, I'm sure, is part of it as well.”

WNBA players who played for McGraw were similarly enthusiastic about the class, and Minnesota Lynx forward Natalie Achonwa seemingly spoke for the group in saying that she would “jump at the chance” to take it. McGraw responded to Achonwa’s comments by saying, “Natalie Achonwa could teach this class; she was one of the best leaders we ever had.”

Dallas Wings guard and 2020 WNBA scoring champion Arike Ogunbowale added, “Of course I would take a class from Coach McGraw. Hopefully she would give me an A, but you never know. She probably would make me earn it. I'd probably get like a B.”

McGraw’s former players shared several lessons they had learned from the Hall of Famer, including accountability, using your voice to advocate for your beliefs, not fearing failure and being a good person. For Dallas Wings guard Marina Mabrey, McGraw’s 2019 statement about hiring only women stands out as an example of how McGraw not only talked about leadership but also demonstrated it through her actions.

“I basically got the course by going and playing at Notre Dame, and if I had the chance to take the course right now, I would,” Mabrey said. “She's one of the greatest leaders ever, and I learned almost all of my leadership skills there at Notre Dame … She teaches everybody how to be a leader and then goes and puts it on display as an example.”

For Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young, the question of whether she would take McGraw’s class was more than a hypothetical. The former No. 1 overall draft pick left Notre Dame after her junior year and needs a few more classes to graduate. “I'm hoping that I'll actually be able to take the class, but we'll see,” she said.

While there is ample interest from women’s basketball players and alumnae, McGraw’s class attracts more than student-athletes. About half of her students so far have been non-athletes, and many of those students are studying management. “As they go out into the business world, everything you do is in the team,” McGraw said. “Everything is, ‘We have this project; here is my team.’ And so … [the class] has a great application for business.”

This year was hopefully the first of many for the class, as Notre Dame is considering adding a sports management major. McGraw was already thinking of ways to improve the class next year as the spring semester wrapped up. Most significantly, she plans to make the group projects less research-based and more about guiding class discussion, so she can see students lead a conversation in real time.

McGraw balanced her teaching commitments with a few other activities this winter, as she joined the ACC Network as a studio analyst for women’s college basketball and published a book, Expect More!: Dare to Stand Up and Stand Out, that is aimed at helping women reach their full potential. The class had the steepest learning curve of the three commitments, McGraw said, and between the prep work required as a professor and broadcaster and all that went into writing a book, she said she has been “busier than I ever thought I would be” in retirement.

That is a positive, according to Brunelle: “If she’s sitting around, it’s not going to be good.”

Mabrey added, “I'm really happy. I like to see [McGraw] out on display and showing her thoughts to the world because when I was at Notre Dame, we were the only lucky ones that got to really hear her and talk with her and get to learn from her. … She's one of the best basketball coaches there is, there was, of all time. So to hear her analyzing, I want to hear what she has to say and the people watching the screen want to hear what Coach McGraw has to say. So I hope she continues to do that and I'll be reading the book and watching her on analyzing the games.”

Mabrey and Ogunbowale visited McGraw after the 2020 WNBA season, just a few months into McGraw’s retirement, and Ogunbowale noticed how relaxed her former coach was. “I think she's a lot more stress-free. I think we stressed her out in all those years she was coaching, but she definitely looks happy,” Ogunbowale said.

Fast forward to the present day, with a year of teaching completed, and McGraw is still thriving. She has thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected turns her career has taken after leaving coaching.

“I was thrilled with the teaching. I love it,” she said, adding that she often goes down Internet rabbit holes looking for more material to show her students. “… I've just been so impressed with the work that they do in the group projects and the discussions that we've had … What makes it fun for me is hearing from them.”

Creating that space for students to learn from their own participation is perhaps the ultimate secret to McGraw’s success as a professor. She is not merely telling her students about leadership, even though she has bona fides to spare. Rather, she is living out the leadership lesson that Brunelle mentioned: listen first, respond second.

As a result—just as she did on the sidelines, in the locker room and on the phone with a young Brunelle—McGraw is preparing dozens of young people to lead not only on the hardwood, but also in hard conversations in any industry, anywhere in the world.