Here are two takes on a meeting that took place in July on the college women’s basketball recruiting trail:
First, Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen: She was watching a game when Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw came up to her and started asking questions. How did your first season as a head coach go? How do things look for this year?
Whalen, frankly, was a bit shy. McGraw has 900-plus NCAA wins, nine Final Fours trips, two NCAA titles and 24 consecutive tournament appearances. Her starting five from last season’s team that went to the NCAA title game were all drafted into the WNBA.
Whalen can remember, as a freshman coming off an 8-20 season with the Gophers (better things were ahead), watching the 2001 women’s championship on TV as Ruth Riley led the Irish to the title.
“I was a little star-struck,” Whalen said. “It was like the first time I tried out for USA Basketball, and I talked to Geno [Auriemma]. It was the first time we’d talked. It took me a little while to be able to respond to questions.”
McGraw? She just figured Whalen was quiet because they hadn’t met before.
“I thought she was just taken aback,” McGraw said.
But, eventually, they talked for a half-hour. Whalen wants to get her team to where Notre Dame is. McGraw’s burning desire is to get more women like Whalen into college coaching.
The two will meet again Wednesday when the 5-1 Gophers visit a 5-4 Notre Dame team that is a bit of a rebuilding mode. It doesn’t figure to last long. McGraw landed a 2020 recruiting class ranked No. 3 by ESPN that includes four players ranked in the top 50.
But the Gophers have reason for optimism, too. Whalen landed a three-player class that ESPN ranked 20th in the country, one that includes Ohio guard Alexia Smith, ranked 46th in the class, Wisconsin post player Erin Hedman, ranked 75th, and Wisconsin guard Caroline Strande, ranked by ESPN as the 29th guard in the class. And the Gophers will get Kadiatou Sissoko next season. Sissoko, the 11th-ranked player in the 2018 class, is a transfer from Syracuse who will have three years of eligibility. So the two teams could meet in the NCAA tournament down the road.
McGraw would love it.
“I want to do more to help these coaches,” she said. “I want to help players coming from the WNBA. Any way I can be a resource for them, that’s what I want to do.”
As the women’s game continues to grow, something of a second generation is coming into college basketball. Women are finishing their careers in the WNBA and looking to get into coaching. Dawn Staley already has won a national title at South Carolina. Tina Thompson is in her second season coaching at Virginia. These are just a few examples. Whalen is seeing more and more former fellow league players at coaching conventions.
And she is keen to learn. When she was becoming aware of the college game, coaches such as McGraw, Auriemma, Pat Summitt at Tennessee and Tara VanDerveer at Stanford were the game’s titans.
“Those four are the ones you saw on TV,” Whalen said. “Those were the programs that set the standard. To get to coach against her is an unbelievable opportunity. It’s really cool.”
McGraw agrees. And she’d like it to happen more often.
“Some people say, ‘They don’t have coaching experience.’ But when you’ve had a playing career like Lindsay did, in college and in the pros, that can transfer,” McGraw said. “It’s great for her players, playing for someone who did what they want to do. I don’t see a downside at all. I want to be a mentor to these women, do anything I can.”
Indeed, McGraw looks ahead 10, 15 years and this is what she sees:
“I’d like to see 90 percent of coaches in college women’s basketball are women,” she said. Last season 63% of head coaches were female.
But back to that meeting. Whalen and McGraw didn’t talk X’s or O’s. Don’t get too high or to low, McGraw said. Set standards for your program. Maybe years from now Whalen will be saying the same things to someone else.
“You want to keep growing the game,” Whalen said. “That’s what it’s all about.”