Noie: Trying times for Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame women's program

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

They still sport those gaudy neon-green T-shirts and wait as the moment and the house music builds with odd anticipation to cheer the initial sight of the Hall of Fame head coach, who emerges from the tunnel four minutes before tip to an unwavering ovation.

But they seem not to notice how the coach breaks for the exit before the last note of the alma mater.

They used to stay until the end to pick up coupons for free hamburgers after another laugher. Now some head for home before the fourth quarter of another loss.

These are odd times around Purcell Pavilion for the Notre Dame women’s basketball program, long a perennial power now stunningly relegated to pedestrian status. Once at the forefront of everything, Notre Dame’s just another program in line. Way back in it.

A lot of teams have been tossed into huge holes in Purcell Pavilion in recent winters. A lot of teams have had their collective spirit sapped in that setting. A lot of teams haven’t been able to look the part of a capable Atlantic Coast Conference outfit.

Seldom has Notre Dame been that team, one that last spring was 1.9 seconds from forcing overtime before possibly repeating as national champions. At 6-11 overall and 1-4 in the ACC, Notre Dame’s now that team.

There likely won’t be a 25th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament at season’s end. No 17th visit to the Sweet 16 or 10th trip to the Elite Eight. Where’s the Final Four this season? Who cares?

If Notre Dame can’t qualify for the NCAA tournament, it would be the third team in Division I history to dive from national runner-up one year to no tournament trip the next.

It’s gone from really good to really bad in a blink.

Explanations for the whys and hows this happened splay every direction. The Irish can’t make enough shots. They can’t get enough stops. They don’t have that solid senior leadership. They have too many inexperienced players. They work for two days guarding the ball screen in practice, then don’t guard the ball screen in games. There have been injuries. There have been transfers. All accurate.

It’s all left Notre Dame with not enough pieces and what pieces there are seemingly don’t fit. The Irish have lost three in a row, four of five and seven of nine. They’ve lost five straight at home, a place where it seldom ever lost. Notre Dame lost a combined seven games the previous two seasons.

Now the person in charge of it all, the one who’s won those four national coach of the year honors and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, directed responsibility for everything in an entirely different but overdue direction after Sunday’s 34-point beatdown by No. 9 North Carolina State.

When it comes to the Mount Rushmore of coaches in the women’s game, Muffet McGraw’s on it. Deservedly so. But when it comes to the losses and this season, she also has to own it.

On Sunday, she owned it.

Asked how difficult the last few days were — after believing she knew what buttons to push after a 10-point loss to Boston College three nights earlier, nothing worked against North Carolina State — McGraw could have danced past the query the way she did that Irish jig in front of TV cameras following last season’s national semifinal win over Connecticut. Dismissed entirely even.

She paused for a few seconds. Sighed. Then another pause. Another sigh. Then the emotions flowed easier than the words. The tears welled. The voice cracked. She was going to go there.

“I just … I gotta do better,” she said. “I feel like I can fix it, but I didn’t. I’m going to find an answer. I’m gonna fix it.”

Another sigh. Even an apology. It was weird. So out of character for the coach. Spill tears of joy after winning or losing a national championship? Absolutely. Tears in mid-January? What does that mean for the rest of the month? For February? For March?

What makes this so hard for McGraw is there is no reference point, nothing in her previous 33 seasons have prepared her to handle season No. 34. This is a hard business, even for someone who has long made it look easy. Nothing now is easy. That’s hard for her.

“That’s one of the things I’m trying to work through,” McGraw said. “This is the first time that this happened, so I’m searching for answers. I’m getting a lot of advice. I really believe that we’re good enough.”

Only they’re not.

It was uncomfortable to watch McGraw struggle for the right words and struggle with her emotion in Sunday’s post-game. The head coach is supposed to be the strong one, the stoic one, the I-can-get-this-all-turned-around one. The one that won’t crack. Over anything.

In some ways, it was refreshing. Like, McGraw’s a real human with real feelings. Not some robot racking up one-sided wins and conference championships and Final Four frequent-flyer mileage. She cares.

Turns out this program this year looks a lot like any other program. It has issues. It has short-comings. It has more losses than wins.

Sometimes a coach just can’t tap into the potential of their team the way they planned. That rarely happened at Notre Dame. It has this season.

McGraw’s emotions underscored a darker and deeper truth for this season — it’s a challenge to find a program that’s fallen so far so fast. It’s not a dip. This is an abyss free-fall.

Long the bully on the ACC women’s basketball block, Notre Dame’s in a tough spot. All those teams that it picked on home and away while running through the league the previous six seasons have lined up for payback. It’s already arrived against Clemson and Syracuse, Boston College and North Carolina State. More schools await their turn. And they’re going to take it.

“It can turn at any moment,” McGraw said. “It’s important for me to remain hopeful.”

Hope floated out into the evening ether Sunday. A top-five recruiting class comes aboard in June. This year’s freshmen will be sophomores. Right now, all of that feels a long way away.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw reacts during last week’s home loss to Boston College. It didn’t get any better for McGraw or the Irish on Sunday against North Carolina State.