Female assistant coaches have big presence in Final Four

All-female coaching staff leads Notre Dame to championship game (0:15)

Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw is proud of having a coaching staff made up entirely of women. (0:15)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The moment that coaching went from job to career for Niele Ivey came when Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw handed her youngest assistant an assignment to produce the lead scouting report for Tennessee in a 2011 regional final. Notre Dame hadn't been to a Final Four since Ivey's playing days a decade earlier. And no team, even UConn, was a bigger bugaboo for the Fighting Irish than Pat Summitt's Lady Vols.

The adrenaline rush when she saw hours of work pay off on the court in Dayton, Ohio, a win that propelled Notre Dame to the first of six Final Fours in eight years, lingers even to this day.

"I can really do this," recalled Ivey, now Notre Dame associate head coach. "I was already invested, but that took me to the next phase of my career."

Dionnah Jackson-Durrett arrived at that moment sooner, roughly the time she first put on an Oklahoma Sooners uniform. Now in her second season as an assistant coach at Mississippi State, she helped the Sooners to their first Final Four in 2002. Even back then she wanted to give others what Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale offered her from the moment the coach promised the recruit nothing in the way of minutes and plenty in the way of work.

"She just communicated so well with me and talked to me about everything," Jackson-Durrett said. "She prepared me every day, and it was hard some days. I didn't want to do it some days -- not practicing, but being a point guard. The mental part of it, I didn't think I had it. She instilled some confidence in me. That's the kind of impact I wanted to have.

"So from the first year at Oklahoma, I knew this is what I want to do."

Both are proof of what strong female role models and mentors can do. Both already coached in national championship games. Both sacrificed sleep this week to do everything possible to prepare their respective teams to earn another title shot, Mississippi State against Louisville (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) and Notre Dame against UConn (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) on Friday.

It should go without saying that both could soon enough be head coaches. It should, but it doesn't.

As high profile as the head coaches are in Columbus, a quartet that includes two Hall of Famers and 13 Final Fours before even starting to count UConn coach Geno Auriemma's 19 appearances, the coaching staffs at their disposal are no less impressive. The 12 assistant coaches have a combined 116 seasons of experience at their current schools. Four of them played in the Final Four. And for the second year in a row, 11 of them are women.

This Final Four was a Notre Dame regional final loss away from featuring four male head coaches for the second time in three years. It hasn't featured four female coaches in more than a decade. Granted, Connecticut's presence skews the numbers. It made every Final Four in the intervening years, so there had to be at least one male coach, even when Auriemma was the only one. But the recent anecdotal examples, four male coaches in 2016 and three this year, are in line with data that the overall number of Division I female head coaches is declining.

"I would love to see more female head coaches," said McGraw, the lone female coach for the first time in eight Final Four trips. "I would also love to see a little more diversity, especially African-American women as head coaches."

The seats next to the head coaches in this Final Four show how complicated it is to understand, let alone fix.

Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said earlier this week that he wouldn't have taken that job and left his own assistant's gig working for Gary Blair at Texas A&M if Johnnie Harris hadn't agreed to come with him from College Station to Starkville. Recently named national assistant coach of the year by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, Harris is the one Schaefer trusts as associate head coach the same way Blair trusted him. When need arises, she runs practice. She produces the scouting report. She does just about everything.

Thursday morning she went to bed around 4:45 a.m. The wake-up call was for 7:30 a.m. She isn't a coffee drinker, but she said she had a cup that morning.

Not counting time as a graduate assistant, this is her 15th season as a Division I assistant. It is the same number of seasons as Schaefer before he was hired by Mississippi State, at which time he was often accurately described as a "long-time" assistant (Schaefer was also a head coach at Sam Houston State before embarking on that long run as an assistant). Harris said there has been interest over the years, but moving on hadn't been her priority.

"Coaches want an opportunity, but I don't think we have to just take a job to take a job," Harris said. "I'm speaking for me, I don't have to take a job just to take a job. I feel like I'm ready -- I feel like I want to be ready when I step out there. But I'm not in so big of a hurry to just take a job."

That continuity is another trend among the coaching staffs in this year's Final Four. UConn's Chris Dailey has been alongside Geno Auriemma for each of his 33 seasons. Harris and Schaefer have worked together in some capacity for more than a decade. Jeff Walz hasn't coached a day at Louisville without associate coach Stephanie Norman.

"I'm not foolish enough to think that Steph could not go get a job whenever she wanted to," Walz said this week. "She's one of the best recruiters in the business. She's excellent with X's and O's. She's had some opportunities. Some people have called her."

There are no female head coaches of Division I men's basketball teams. Islands of progress like San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon aside, there are few indications that we are all that much closer to crossing the gender divide. A woman hoping to be a Division I coach has more than 300 possible landing spots, all of which are also available to men. A man hoping to be a Division I coach has more than 600 possible job opportunities (just last week, Auriemma had to yet again squash suggestions the UConn men's program should hire him).

Against that rather bleak math, and with some programs still offering minimal support for women's basketball -- be it in salary for coach and staff or other available resources -- there can be a choice to make between autonomy and quality of life.

"I have felt my whole tenure that I want to be somewhere that makes me happy," Norman said. "Winning makes me happy. And to me, personally, it doesn't really affect me whether I'm head coach, assistant coach, manager on down, as long as you feel like you are valued, you contribute, have a voice and are happy and have good cohorts to work with."

So, yes, there have been head coaching offers. Offers she might yet consider in the future. But not to date to the extent that she doesn't even have an agent who could get her name out there during hiring season.

"I would have made different decisions for my career had I been single and not had children than being married and having kids," said Norman, who has a son and daughter. "I've made other decisions because of that. Sometimes I get uncomfortable talking about it because I don't want to put my situation on anybody else's situation.

"What I represent is my choice, not because I've ever felt like there is not an opportunity for me."

Jackson-Durrett had her first child three months ago. Her husband and mom are in Columbus for the Final Four, but while watching Louisville video with Harris and fellow assistant Carly Thibault-DuDonis this week, she took breaks to go feed her daughter. Ivey has a teenage son. Jaden's growth over the years was easy to track as he shot baskets before or after games.

"It's hard to have relationships sometimes," Jackson-Durrett said. "But this is what I love. My husband is here with me now, but he understands this is my job and my passion. So he's a great support. But you give up some things."

Walz has young children, too. Schaefer's daughter plays for him. Alyssa Auriemma writes eloquently about growing up with a famous coach for a dad. Those relationships somehow aren't treated as quite the same career obstacles -- we somehow accept male coaches putting career first, family somewhere in the background. Women still aren't entirely afforded the same luxury.

"The first couple of years, it was a lot," Ivey said. "I didn't realize all the behind the scenes, all the hours. It was very demanding. But also rewarding. And [McGraw] is a great boss. She allows me to be a mother, she allows me to have a work-life balance. This is a unique situation I'm in, a special place, because of the relationship we have with each other."

That understanding may have more to do with the personal relationship between two humans, McGraw and Ivey, than gender. But it doesn't hurt that there was a woman with the power to do something to help Ivey when she was starting out. Or go back to Walz and Norman. They didn't know each other well when Louisville hired Walz, but you don't work the coaching circuit -- the same high school games and AAU tournaments -- without knowing everyone at least a little. Within the sport, women are less isolated.

Contrast that with what Notre Dame associate head coach Carol Owens encountered every single time, save one, she interviewed for a position: a male administrator. It didn't mean they were chauvinists. It didn't mean gender was the reason she did or didn't get a job. It did mean there wasn't much shared life experience in those conversations.

"I think it's more education from the administrative standpoint of learning what the pool is, understanding who is out there, how they are progressing in their programs," said Owens, who was the head coach at Northern Illinois between stints at Notre Dame. "I appreciate working for Coach McGraw because she's given us a lot of autonomy to really develop our players and give input.

"I want to be optimistic that the opportunities are there for everybody, young coaches like Niele or people that want to continue to get back in and be head coaches, like myself. I hope with all the conversation there becomes another conversation of how can we make this better."

Maybe the last result of this Final Four won't be on the scoreboard Sunday night but how many head coaches it produces. Among the candidates are UConn's Shea Ralph and Marisa Moseley, part of a staff that has now been together in entirety for nine seasons and five national championships.

"We talk a lot about what's in store, what is the future and when is an opportunity the right opportunity," Auriemma said. "Because certainly they are presented with opportunities on a regular basis. I'm one to encourage when the right opportunity comes along to go. Sometimes I might say go and they say no. And sometimes I might say I think you should stay, and I've had coaches go, 'Nope, it's time to go.' So I think each coach is following their own path."

The first offseason coaching vacancy in a major conference was filled by Michelle Clark-Heard, who left the head coaching position at Western Kentucky for the same position at Cincinnati. Jobs are also open at Mississippi, Texas Tech and Virginia, the last a potentially prime spot given the program's history and current good standing before Joanne Boyle resigned as coach for personal reasons related to the adoption of her daughter.

Will one of those schools think someone like Ivey is the right fit? And will she think the same thing?

"If the opportunity presents itself and it's a great situation for myself and my son, then I'm going to transition on," Ivey said. "Right now I'm just enjoying where I am."