A conversation with Muffet McGraw as she approaches win No. 900

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — When Muffet McGraw aims for her 900th women’s college basketball head coaching victory Sunday, she’ll do so in a first-ever matchup against the school with which she gathered the first 88 of those wins.

McGraw and No. 2-ranked Notre Dame (11-1) host Lehigh (8-2) at 1 p.m.

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame last year, the queen of timing punctuated earning her sport’s premier individual honor by adding her second national title last spring.

Over a 37-year collegiate career, McGraw has compiled a record of 899-272. That includes 88-41 in five years at Lehigh and 811-231 in 32 years with the Irish.

After starring as a player at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, McGraw guided Philly’s Archbishop Carroll High to 22-3 and 28-0 marks over two seasons, played pro ball briefly, then assisted for two years back at Saint Joe.

McGraw was named head coach at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. — about 75 miles from her native West Chester — in 1982. She steered the Engineers (they’re now the Mountain Hawks) to an unprecedented string of success that included a 24-4 season.

McGraw was named head coach at Notre Dame on May 18, 1987.

Since then, while crafting a perennial national power, she’s racked up seemingly countless recognitions, been involved in seemingly countless charitable endeavors and coached 20 All-Americans.

At the start of the 2017-18 season, at least 18 of her former players and/or assistants were active as college coaches, including five as Division I head coaches.

McGraw is one of just five NCAA Division I coaches ever — men’s or women’s — to win at least 875 games, make eight Final Four appearances and capture multiple national titles. The others are Pat Summitt, Dean Smith, Geno Auriemma and Mike Krzyzewski.

She’s set to become the fourth-fastest coach ever to achieve 900 wins, following Auriemma (1,034 games), Summitt (1,072) and Tara VanDerveer (1,104).

McGraw, 63, and husband Matt have been married 41 years. Their 28-year-old son, Murphy, is a 2012 Indiana University graduate who married last spring.

As she closed in on No. 900, McGraw sat down Friday with the South Bend Tribune for some one-on-one. Here is some of that conversation:

Q With Lehigh coming in Sunday, what are your prevailing sentiments when you hear mention of that school?

McGraw: “I really enjoyed my experience there. I think it prepared me for here. I look back on it with a lot of fond memories. The people were tremendous. I really lucked into a great freshman class. I didn’t recruit them, but I came in with them, and they were really good. It was a great chance for me to start honing my skills and figure out what this head-coaching thing was gonna be like in relative obscurity, I guess, without too much attention, no spotlight on me, so it was just a great start to my career.”

Q You’ve said your husband’s the one who coaxed you to apply at Notre Dame, but wouldn’t you have applied even if he hadn’t?

McGraw: “No.”

Q Why not?

McGraw: “I was comfortable. Being from Philly, the East Coast people kind of stay in the East Coast. All my friends and family are still in Philly, so being at Lehigh was like going away. I was just so comfortable there, liked it there, things were good. (But) every now and then when the NCAA Tournament came around, I would kind of go, ‘Dang, will I ever get a chance to coach in the NCAA Tournament?’ So, the job opened, and you know there’s always rumors, and this guy was gonna get it or that girl was gonna get it, and so, I was kind of like, ‘Gosh, it’s such a big move.’ To move, Matt would have to change jobs. It was a lot, so having his support was really big. I mean, back then, women weren’t the ones to move the family.”

Q You recently reached the moment where you’ve spent more than half your life as Notre Dame women’s basketball coach. Were you aware, and what does that make you think?

McGraw: “No (laughing), I was not. God … I’m old. That’s what I keep thinking every time something else comes up. You know, we’ve lived in the Midwest longer than we’ve lived in Philly, because I love the Midwest. So, I feel like I’ve spent my whole life here, really. I don’t remember much of my life before here, so what a blessing to still be here.”

Q OK, the most cut-to-the-chase question. How long do you intend to coach and what factors will go into making that decision?

McGraw: “I love practice. I’ve always loved practice, and I love coaching, and obviously I love being at Notre Dame. I’ve had some amazing players and I love coming to work every day because of my staff. I think, and I’ve told (athletic director) Jack Swarbrick this when he asked that same kind of question, I think I’m just gonna wake up one day and go, it’s time for something new.”

Q You don’t have a minimum or maximum number of years in mind?

McGraw: “No … but I don’t think I want to be coaching when I’m 70.”

Q As much as you downplay milestone win numbers, this will be 900. Is 1,000 at least something that tickles your fancy a little bit?

McGraw: “Not at all.”

Q Four digits is remarkable and nobody’s getting to five. Why is that not something that strikes you?

McGraw: “I don’t know. I’ve never really looked at my career that way, in terms of numbers. I mean, it’s an amazing feat for the people that are accomplishing it, but it speaks to longevity more than anything.”

Q You’ve said that when you started here you could count the number of fans in the stands during the anthem. Could you have imagined, realistically, how popular women’s basketball has become here?

McGraw: “I don’t think so. I remember really early on here, I was at a chamber of commerce luncheon or something and talking about how my dream would be to see the Joyce Center filled one day. That’s what I hoped would happen, and it was kind of a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream at the time. We weren’t drawing anything at that point. There was even talk of building a smaller gym for volleyball and basketball. I was opposed to that, because I kept thinking, ‘Some day, some day, it’ll happen.’ It took a little longer, probably, than I hoped, but to see it now, with the whole community walking around town, seeing the green shirts, and people taking bus trips to games, I don’t think my imagination went quite that far (laughing). I thought, one game, we’d have one of those big-crowd days and we’d have a sellout and that would be it. (ND has had 53 women’s basketball sellouts, the first in 2001).”

Q Who or what is most responsible for the increase in popularity here, and nationally?

McGraw: “I think the 2001 championship, that year definitely brought a lot of fans, and then later Skylar (Diggins-Smith) being a local girl brought ’em in. I think Heather Maxwell was in charge of marketing for us in the 2001 era, and then Stephanie Menio after that, and they got it going. But to have a team and players that people wanted to watch and could get behind, and because we don’t have pro sports here, I think they were always looking for something, especially in the winter in South Bend, something to do. Then the fact that we have the (older fans) following us, we marketed to them, and that was a smart thing to do. I think across the board in women’s basketball, pretty much wherever we go, it’s a pretty senior-dominated crowd. You’re not worried about student sections. They’re very small. Then, I think the game has grown and changed and really gotten so much better that it’s really fun to watch.”

Q An irony in women’s basketball being popular among that senior set is they grew up in an era when it wasn’t popular. Why do you think it’s so popular among them?

McGraw: “I know people have compared it to the old NBA This generation watched that old NBA So they need to see some similarities in the way the game is played. It’s below the rim, and it’s about strategy and skill, more so than just power and athletic ability.”

Q You personally, you’re not just popular among the fans. You’re adored. You mingle with them, get on fan buses, hand-deliver some of the season tickets. How has that connection evolved?

McGraw: “I just appreciate them so much. I appreciate how they make our court a real home-court advantage, how they know exactly when we need them to stand up and cheer. We really rely on them, draw energy from them, so I want to give something back to them, because I’m a member of this community. Like I was saying, I’m kind of from the Midwest now, so I love being out in the community seeing our fans and interacting with them. I think we owe it to them.”

Q What would you change about how NCAA women’s basketball is legislated or administered?

McGraw: “I think the season’s too long. We’re playing year-round now. The kids don’t have a break. They go home in May for maybe a month, which is great, but you can’t get out of shape, you gotta keep playing. Then they come back from summer school, and now we get four hours a week to play. Then practice is starting like September 28th or 29th. It’s just too long. It’s not fair to them. It’s too hard on their bodies. I think you’re seeing more and more injuries every year because of the wear and tear. … I would definitely cut down on the length of the season. I think we play too many games, and we need to start later. Let’s just start October 15th and have our first game closer to Thanksgiving. Then, we’re trying to walk back recruiting. It’s too much. We gotta try to condense it a little bit more. Kids making decisions when they’re offered in eighth grade, it’s ridiculous. You’re going to change so much between eighth grade and senior in high school. There should be something we could do that would postpone the offers.”

Q What are you most proud of — the opportunities you’ve created for women, the mentoring, the championships, something else — among everything you’ve done in the game?

McGraw: “I would say the relationships, when (ex-program members) come back. That’s always my favorite part, to see them come back for Final Fours, come back for a game and stop in, and I think empowering women. To look at what they’ve become and to think I had maybe a small part in helping them grow into these strong, confident women.”

Q (Lehigh assistant) Ariel Braker said last night that you still do end-of-season reviews with her. You’ve got a lot of ex-players now coaching. Do you do that with all of them?

McGraw: (Laughing) I mean, I like to just make sure I’m doing everything I can to help them, because there just aren’t enough women out there doing that. Like, these are my kids, so I want to make sure they’re happy. I want to see if I can help them when it’s time to change jobs or move on, continue to move up. How can I help them? I love getting calls from them whether they’re in business or it’s about something else, like changing jobs, getting married, whatever. It’s just great to be part of that.”

Q Do you have anything you wish you’d done differently in your career, any regrets?

McGraw: “Yeah, I do. I feel like when I first started, way back, coaching was different. It was all about coaching. It was X’s and O’s, and it was, ‘Here’s what you’re doing, this is what I want you to do, go do it and don’t ask me any questions.’ You know, that carried through for a long time. When I came out here, Bobby Knight, he was the man in Indiana, and that’s kind of the way that you coached, and I wish that I would’ve had time for better relationships with the players back then, because it was very coach-player. It just wasn’t the same, which is interesting, because I do have a pretty good relationship with a lot of them from the early days, but it was different. I didn’t feel like it was my job to help them grow as women. That came later, so I wish I would’ve done a lot more for them off the court than I did.”

Q Was that change gradual?

McGraw: “It was pretty gradual. I remember in the (2001) championship season, in a game on the bench, being about to yell, and kind of going, ‘This team doesn’t need that right now. This team needs something else,’ and I think that’s when it started to change, and it was when the generations started changing. You know, we were just OK after the championship for a while, didn’t have a lot of great success, and that transition period was hard, because I was still stuck in the coach mode and trying to figure out how to bridge the gap, and recruiting was different. Maybe we didn’t get all the right kids at that time.”

Q: What do you like least about your job?

McGraw: “You know, I don’t mind recruiting — I love going out and seeing kids play and I love just watching them — but I think it’s the whole actual selling, the whole getting on the phone with these young kids and trying to talk them into something, and I usually tell them right at the beginning, ‘I’m not going to talk you into Notre Dame, I want you to choose it,’ and some kids, especially now, they really want a lot of attention, and I don’t think that’s healthy, so I would say that’s my least favorite part.”

Q You’re well over 1,000 games and you’ve said a number of times you still get really nervous on game days …

McGraw: “Oh, I hate game day. Hate it.”

Q: So is that going to accompany you to your very last game?

McGraw: “Apparently, yeah (laughing). I remember I saw Homer Drew in the hallway when we were at Valpo — he was not coaching anymore — and I just said, ‘My God, I’m a wreck. Does this ever change?’ He said, ‘If it does you probably ought to quit.’ Because you probably don’t care. But, really, it’s a long, long day. I’d really love to play every game at noon. You get up and play and get done. I like the game part. It’s just the whole day leading up to it.”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw waves to the crowd after a win over Toledo on Dec. 8 in Toledo, Ohio.

WHO: Lehigh (8-2) vs. No. 2 Notre Dame (11-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

TV/WEB: ACC Network Extra.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Lehigh and Notre Dame have played one common opponent. The Mountain Hawks beat host Binghamton 65-55 on Nov. 21, while the Irish trounced the visiting Bearcats 103-53 on Dec. 16. … Lehigh’s led by 6-1 junior and former Penn High star Camryn Buhr at 13.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Seven other players, with just one senior among them, are averaging 4.4 to 8.3 points each, including 6-3 freshman Emma Grothaus at 7.8 points and 6.5 boards. … The Hawks have a net effective field goal percentage of 45.4 percent while allowing opponents just 39.3 percent. ND counters at a net EFG of 54.5 to rank among the nation’s elite, while allowing 41.9. … Irish leaders are reigning ACC Player of the Week Arike Ogunbowale (23.1 ppg, 3.7 assists per game), Jackie Young (16.1 ppg, 5.2 apg), Jessica Shepard (16.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Marina Mabrey (13.3 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Brianna Turner (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.0 blocks). … Ogunbowale (2,054) needs 19 points to pass Ruth Riley for No. 4 on ND’s career scoring chart. Young, a junior, needs 16 to become the 40th player in program history with 1,000. … ND opens ACC play Thursday when Pittsburgh visits. The Irish play three of their first four league contests at home, highlighted by No. 3 Louisville coming to town Jan. 10.

QUOTING: “She’s been a really big part of my life, helping me grow as a person. She saw how immature I was my freshman year, and then by my senior year, I was a little more mature, but not mature enough yet. She helped me get this job. At the end of each season I’ve coached, kind of like she does with players, we’ve done an end-of-year review meeting, and it helps.” — Lehigh assistant and ex-ND player Ariel Braker on Irish coach Muffet McGraw.