Muffet McGraw to go into Notre Dame's Ring of Honor. A conversation with the coaching icon.

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — If Notre Dame had captured a second consecutive women’s basketball national title in 2019, Muffet McGraw would’ve bid farewell to coaching a year sooner than she did. The Irish missed by one basket.

And if we’re ever again going to see McGraw working a sideline anywhere — hey, she could still earn that 1,000th win after going 986-296 between Philadelphia’s Archbishop Carroll High, Lehigh University and ND — then it will probably mean we’re taking in some elementary ball, and even that’s not a given.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw waves to fans as she is recognized on stage during the team's arrival on campus Monday, April 2, 2018, following their win in the NCAA National Championship game on Sunday. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

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Those were a couple items that emerged during a catch-up conversation with McGraw this week as Notre Dame gets set to induct its beloved coaching icon into its Ring of Honor before Sunday’s home game against Purdue Fort Wayne.

A brief ceremony is planned for 1:30 p.m.; the game tips at 2:02.

When McGraw did retire from coaching in April 2020, she hardly retired from activity.

Instead, she spearheaded local food drives in the thick of the pandemic, began teaching a sports leadership class at Notre Dame and took on a studio analyst role for the ESPN-owned ACC Network.

Last season, the Naismith Hall of Famer made those TV appearances remotely, but now she’s making trips to Bristol, Conn., where she will be a Thursday regular during the conference season.

Here’s Muffet McGraw on that and more:

Question: First off, any truth to the rumor — which I’m starting — that you’re the individual responsible for finally brokering the deal between ACC Network and Comcast?

McGraw: “(Laughing) Man, it’s about time. Oh, my goodness. It’ll be great for us here, and for Philly (her native area). They don’t have it in Philly, either, which I hear about, so it’s perfect.”

Question: Any insight on when it will be?

McGraw: “I think by the end of the year. That’s the plan. I hope that’s not confidential, but that’s what I heard (the ACC’s announcement on Nov. 30 mentioned that it would be “in the coming weeks.”).”

Question: Just how busy is your schedule in so-called retirement between volunteer work, TV and the class you teach?

McGraw: “The class is just once a week, but the problem with Connecticut is it’s hard to get there. I have to leave Wednesdays at 5 (p.m.) to get there for a Thursday night show. There’s one flight out in the morning, and if I miss the connection, I don’t get there, and I get back Friday at 1, so it’s Wednesday, Thursday, Friday for one night’s work.”

Question: The irony of you working in Connecticut of all places, I take it that’s not lost on you?

McGraw: “(Laughing) Yeah, every time I walk through the airport and see all the Connecticut flags and stuff, I just wear all my Notre Dame stuff. I’m piling it on.”

Question: When we talked Nov. 1 after the Ring honor was announced, you mentioned needing to get started on your speech and that you might need tissues. How’s it coming along?

McGraw: “It’s like three minutes, so I’m just gonna kind of wing it, which is unusual for me, but I can’t see me looking down at a paper other than maybe some names I don’t want to forget, but it’s going to be emotional, I think, by the end for sure.”

Question: What about coaching are you not missing at all?

McGraw: “Oh gosh, I don’t miss the stress. Really, that’s the thing I’m so relieved about, especially game day.”

Assistant coach Michaela Mabrey takes a selfie with coaches, including Muffet McGraw  during the Notre Dame women’s basketball media day Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 in the Rolfs practice facility at Notre Dame.

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Question: What are you missing most?

McGraw: “Just the camaraderie with the players and coaches. I loved practice, I loved being around them on and off the court.”

Question: Keeping never say never in mind, is there a circumstance in which you could return to coaching?

McGraw: “No. Absolutely not. I mean maybe if (son) Murph ever has kids, I’ll coach their fifth-grade team, but that’s so far away, I’ll be too old by then.”

Question: With so many to choose from, do you have a favorite memory looking back at your coaching career?

McGraw: “I have a few. The one is 2001 coming back from St. Louis that night (after winning the program’s first national title), driving up Notre Dame Avenue and having about 3,000 people meet us in the quad at 2 a.m. That was the most amazing thing to see the support of all the people that had been with us for so long. To see that No. 1 sign light up, and then 2018 (the other title year) when all the former players, I think there was about 40 of them, gathered on the court after the game, on the stage with the trophy, took a picture, and I have that picture because it wasn’t just the team that won it, it was the teams that built it, and that was those women.”

Question: Any regrets that linger?

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, center, holds up the National Championship trophy after Notre Dame defeated Purdue 68-66 for the 2001 Women's Final Four  Championship in St. Louis, Sunday,  April 1, 2001. At left is Imani Dunbar and Ruth Riley is at right. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

McGraw: “Well, I did think we would win in 2019, and then I would retire with back-to-back championships, but I really don’t have any regrets. There’s certainly things along the way you wish you did differently or turned out differently, but I really don’t have any regrets. I think I gave it everything I had, and I look back with pride in everything we accomplished.”

Question: You definitely would have retired if you’d won in 2019?

McGraw: “I would have. That was the goal.”

Question: Other than not winning the title, what led you to return then?

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw celebrates after defeating Mississippi State in the final of the women's NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament, Sunday, April 1, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. Notre Dame won 61-58. Notre Dame won 61-58. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

McGraw: “Sam (Brunelle) and Anaya (Peoples). I mean, I’d sat in their living rooms and convinced them to come to Notre Dame and build something with us, and just the fact that all five (starters) left for the WNBA, I felt like, wow, I can’t leave now. Everybody’s leaving. It just didn’t seem fair. I wanted to put the program back on its feet again.”

Question: Speaking of leaving, a popular topic lately in another sport, what’s the closest you ever came to doing so for another coaching job?

McGraw: “Oh, never. When I’d get calls, I just told them right up front, no. I think in ’97, I actually went somewhere to interview, but that’s the only time, and I remember looking at (husband) Matt and saying, ‘Why would I ever want to wear that school across my chest when I could be wearing Notre Dame?’ and that’s the last time I looked anywhere.”

Muffet McGraw speaks during her enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, in Springfield, Mass. As the coach of Notre Dame women's basketball since 1987, McGraw has led her team to the NCAA Tournament 23 times, including 13 NCAA Sweet Sixteens, seven NCAA Elite Eights and seven NCAA Final Fours with one National Championship in 2001. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Question: You just turned 66 this week. Happy birthday, are you going to cut back at all on what you’re doing or are you as energized as ever?

McGraw: “Oh yeah, I have to keep busy. I can’t see myself doing nothing. I’m really enjoying everything I’m doing. I can’t really choose one over the other. It’s nice to have so many different things and it’s not just all one thing.”

Question: Is there a work or leisure-related adventure you haven’t done that you have in mind?

McGraw: “You know, we were going to go to Ireland when football was going (in 2020, before the game against Navy was canceled due to the pandemic), and I was going to do a couple clinics over there and meet some of the coaches, and I was really looking forward to that. They did reach out again to see if I wanted to. Now that I’m teaching, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that. We really thought we would travel more, but the teaching kind of keeps me here, as well as the ESPN stuff, so maybe in the summer.”

Question: Have you thought about politics given how you’ve championed causes?

McGraw: “You know, no. I would love to help make change, locally for a start, but I couldn’t do it. I think I’d be too frustrated, because I get frustrated when I watch politicians, so I can’t imagine being in the same room with them and not being frustrated.”

Question: Besides the Ring of Honor, the Teddy Bear Toss (an annual initiative to collect new stuffed animals for children) is Sunday. Have you ever seen it, or were you always in the locker room, because it’s quite the cool visual?

McGraw: “No, I never have. Oh, wow. It’s good to know, I didn’t even know that, so thank you. I’ll be bringing a teddy bear to toss. I don’t think I’ve even seen it on film.”