Noie: Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw takes rightful place among basketball's best
Stepping through the doors of Archbishop Carroll (Pa.) High School to begin her coaching career four decades ago, Muffet McGraw had no plans of ever leaving.
How could life be any better? McGraw was working in Philadelphia near her hometown of West Chester, Pa. She was close to family and doing what she loved — coaching basketball.
“That was it,” McGraw said from her corner office at the University of Notre Dame’s Joyce Center. “That was all I wanted.”
Two years in, McGraw wondered. If she could coach high school, what about college? She returned to her alma mater — Saint Joseph’s (Pa.) University — where she worked as an assistant two more years for Jim Foster, one of her mentors who went on to great success in women’s college basketball.
Being an assistant wasn’t for McGraw. She needed to run her own program her own way.
McGraw was handed the head-coaching keys at Lehigh in 1982. Five seasons and 88 victories later, it was on to her next and last stop — Notre Dame.
The wins piled up, eventually eclipsing 800, as Notre Dame found its niche in the Big East Conference and flourished. That success carried over to the Atlantic Coast Conference beginning in 2013.
Since McGraw’s arrival, the Irish are NCAA Tournament regulars, qualifying 22 straight times. They’ve advanced to 14 Sweet 16s, eight Elite Eights, seven Final Fours and five championship games. Notre Dame beat Purdue for the NCAA title in 2001.
The longer McGraw has stayed, the bigger her name has grown in the game. At times, that’s been uncomfortable.
“It’s never been about me,” she said.
It was in March. The 61-year-old McGraw got the call that she was one of 11 people elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. She will be enshrined today in the birthplace of basketball — Springfield, Mass.
Not bad for someone who aspired only to tutor teenagers.
“It was something I always wanted to do long-term (but) whether or not it would work out was the question,” McGraw said of a career that now includes a staggering 853 victories. “I’ve just met so many great people and had so many great experiences that I just never thought was possible.”
McGraw often makes it look easy as her Irish teams run off on long regular-season win streaks, usually by lopsided scores. But there have been times when it was anything but.
Hired at Notre Dame on May 19, 1987 by athletic director Gene Corrigan, McGraw promptly won 20 games that first year. Seasons of 21, 23 and 23 wins followed. Twenty-win seasons were going to be the baseline expectation for a program still years away from being a national power. The 1991-92 season allowed McGraw to understand how everything that could seem so right can go so wrong.
The Irish lost five of their first six. Fifteen games in, they were 4-11. After four years of being really good, Notre Dame really wasn’t.
On the evening of Feb. 11, 1992 following a five-point loss to DePaul at the old Joyce Center, McGraw walked out into the winter’s night wondering if she was near the end of her coaching career. When she took the job, McGraw hoped to be good to enough to stay five years.
Maybe five was all she had to give.
“That was probably the lowest point of my career,” McGraw said.
Notre Dame finished 14-17, the only time McGraw has had a losing record. Still, the Irish managed to earn their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid after winning the long-since-gone Midwestern Collegiate Conference.
McGraw learned that year that talent wasn’t the only factor vital in building a roster. The players also needed to fit the fabric and framework of the university.
“We had a group of people that year that just didn’t fit,” McGraw said. “The chemistry was not good.”
Winning wasn’t a problem in the decades that followed. The success allowed McGraw to put a lot of distance between her and 1991-92.
Along the way, she seldom forgets a name. She knows basically everybody in the women’s game, and treats everyone the same. Could be weeks or months or years since their paths have crossed, but it doesn’t matter. McGraw remembers.
“She’s phenomenal,” said Valparaiso coach Tracey Dorow, whose teams are winless in three games against the Irish. “She represents the sport with the utmost class. She’s an unparalleled role model for women in our sport.”
When McGraw walks onstage Friday at Symphony Hall she has 300 seconds to deliver words to describe a lifetime in the game.
“You can’t get it all in in five minutes because it’s all about the people,” she said. “You want to talk about so many different people and you just can’t.”
One has been there from the start — McGraw’s husband of 40 years, Matt. Had it not been for him, she likely would never have left Lehigh. She was happy. Then Matt read that Notre Dame had parted ways with former coach Mary DiStanislao. He suggested that McGraw mail a résumé.
“He was like, ‘It’s Notre Dame!’” McGraw said. “I was like, ‘What the heck, I’ll apply but I’ll never get it …’’
Just the memory of that moment stirred McGraw’s emotions. So did the thought of her speech. Same when she mentioned her husband.
Five minutes Friday night could feel like five days. She’s never going to get through that speech. She’s sure of it, even though she’s practiced it many times.
“If I say it over and over and over again, maybe I won’t cry,” she said. “But as soon as I look at the people that I’m talking about, that will be hard.
“I just want to get it over with.”
Sitting alongside McGraw will be her two sisters, Matt and her son, Murphy.
Standing near McGraw will be her presenter, fellow Hall of Fame member Ann Meyers. Each inductee must select a current member of the Basketball Hall to present them. For McGraw, it was Meyers, a pioneer and the only woman to sign an NBA training camp contract.
Now a vice president with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, Meyers laughed when she learned that McGraw struggled even at a practice run with her words. She’s been there.
“I try to remember my speech, but I don‘t ever know what I said and why I said it,” Meyers said. “It’s so overwhelming to think that you’ve got to talk about how you got there.”
In the five months since she was notified, McGraw has occasionally carved out time to think about enshrinement. Waiting at the end of the seemingly never-ending to-do list is the game’s highest honor. It’s not something McGraw ever dreamed of earning. It was all about teaching and being a good coach. The best part of her day is practice. It’s really what drives her. Not the games or the honors. It’s the alone time in the gym with just her and her team.
“It’s hard to describe,” said former Irish point guard Melissa Lechlitner, who graduated in 2010. “For someone who loves the game and has such a passion for it, it’s never a day at the office for her. She wants to be there. It’s not always about wins and losses; it’s about seeing her players grow.”
Every afternoon with McGraw is about opportunity. To get better. To be perfect. Or chase it.
“It was a privilege to play for her in every sense of the word,” said assistant coach Beth Cunningham, who graduated in 1997 and ranks second on the school’s all-time scoring list with 2,322 points. “She loves the game. She loves the X’s and O’s.”
McGraw is one of four women’s coaches in NCAA Division I history with at least 800 wins, seven Final Four Fours runs and five NCAA title game appearances.
“She’s been as important to the women’s game as Pat Summit and Tara VanDerveer or Geno Auriemma,” Meyers said. “What she’s done as a coach and as a wife and mother, to be in the Hall of Fame is the highest compliment you can receive in this world.
“She certainly deserves it.”
And embraces it, albeit a bit reluctantly.
“This is it,” McGraw said. “This is the pinnacle.”
A look back at Notre Dame women’s head basketball Coach Muffet McGraw’s career leading the Fighting Irish:
• May 18, 1987 — Muffet McGraw named head coach at Notre Dame after five seasons at Lehigh, where she went 88-41 (.682).
• Nov. 1, 1987 — First Notre Dame victory, 67-61, at Loyola (Ill.).
• March 17, 1997 — An 86-83 victory at Texas sends Notre Dame to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 for the first time under McGraw. The Irish have been to the Sweet 16 15 times during her tenure.
• March 24, 1997 — Notre Dame beats George Washington, 62-52, in Columbia, S.C., to advance to the Final Four for the first time in program history. McGraw has taken the Irish to seven Final Fours.
• Jan, 15, 2001 — First-ever victory over a No. 1 team (Connecticut), 92-76. Notre Dame has four wins over top-ranked teams — all against Connecticut.
• Jan. 24, 2001 — McGraw’s first victory as coach of a No. 1 team, 87-64, at West Virginia.
• April 1, 2001 — Notre Dame beats Purdue, 68-66, at the Savvis Center, now Scottrade Center, in St. Louis for the school’s first national championship.
• July 10, 2010 — Inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame
• Dec. 21, 2012 — McGraw registers 600th victory at Notre Dame with 83-74 win over Texas A&M.
• Feb. 5, 2013 — Wins 700th career game over Villanova.
• March 12, 2013 — Notre Dame captures its first Big East tournament championship with a 61-59 victory at Connecticut.
• March 9, 2014 — Notre Dame wins its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship with a 69-53 victory over Duke. The Irish have won ACC tournament titles in each of their first four years in the league.
• March 2014 — McGraw earns her third national coach of the year honor in a season that saw the Irish go 37-1 and advance to the national championship game.
• Jan. 3, 2016 — Career victory No. 800, 65-55 at Pittsburgh
• April 1, 2017 — One of 11 individuals named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2017
• Sept. 8, 2017 — McGraw is enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., with a career record of 853-268 (.761) and 765-227 (.771) at Notre Dame.