A look back: Muffet McGraw's road to Basketball Hall of Fame included plenty of twists

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor's note: This story was first published in April 2017, after the announcement that Muffet McGraw was being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

It probably didn’t last long enough to qualify as an epiphany, but Muffet McGraw can still recall when she wanted to save the world.

How exactly that was supposed to look, she had no idea. But the criminal justice/sociology major in college was interning in the juvenile probation office in Philadelphia at the time, back in the late 1970s. And even in that setting, she was nudged toward basketball, helping to run a program for troubled youth as part of the intern experience.

Eventually, the self-proclaimed bossy point guard from West Chester, Pa., took destiny’s cue and gave into a love with absolutely no thought where it might head. Coaching just felt right, even when the spotlight and the paychecks were underwhelming.

Saturday in Glendale, Ariz., the career that grew out of humble beginnings but undeniable passion landed on basketball’s grandest stage. The longtime Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach was named to the 11-member Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2017.

McGraw, former NBA star Tracy McGrady, Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self, former UConn All-American Rebecca Lobo, the late former Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and six others will be formally inducted Sept. 8 in Springfield, Mass., the city where Dr. James Naismith invented the game in 1891.

“I have so many people supporting me and helping me get to this moment,” she said. “Every one of them has a little piece of this award."

So too do the dark moments, and the revelations and reinvention that grew out of them.

So do bursts of innovation that still largely reside in the background of the impressive bottom line: 853 victories (227 losses), a .771 winning percentage, a national title in 2001, seven Final Fours, 15 Sweet 16s and 24 NCAA Tournament berths, including a current streak of 22 straight.

So does the courage and audacity to keep asking questions — even now — which mentors Jim Foster and, yes, Digger Phelps can certainly attest.

Something as simple as integrating motherhood into her coaching career instead of back-burner-ing it perhaps made the difference between goodness and greatness.

So did so many other covert events scattered between the celebrated milestones. Here’s a sampling:

'All about chemistry'

Renowned athletic director Gene Corrigan in 1987 hired McGraw to succeed Mary DiStanislao to take over a national afterthought of a women’s basketball program a little over a year after he lured Lou Holtz to resuscitate the storied football program that had been relegated to a similar stature.

Five seasons in, the 1991-92 campaign, McGraw would suffer the only losing season of her Hall of Fame career. A 1-5 start with four losses to ranked teams mushroomed into a 4-11 midseason nightmare. The season’s 12th loss, a near miss against then-No. 2 Tennessee (85-82) on Jan. 12 helped provide some needed momentum.

Five weeks after surrendering 104 points to Xavier, the Irish upended the Musketeers, 59-54, in the Midwest Collegiate Conference Tourney title game. That launched the Irish into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.

And they did so with a losing record (14-16). Fifth seed UCLA made sure it was an abbreviated stay, defeating the 12 seed, 93-72, in the first round of what was then a 48-team tournament.

The modest step into history wasn’t nearly as valuable to McGraw as the pain that preceded it.

“It was a huge learning experience for the entire season,” she told the Tribune, Saturday in a phone interview. “It taught me a lot about recruiting. It taught me a lot about what it takes to have a winning program. It’s all about chemistry. It’s not about talent.

“Before the season, we would just go out and try to find the best kids. Get this list — let’s take these kids. And I never really thought about how they’d be together, whether they were unselfish and wanted to win.”

Upset of Purdue fuels rise

The first wave of that new way of thinking began to show up prominently four years later during the 1996 season. Two key juniors on that team were a sleeper post player recruit from Mt. Vernon, N.Y., named Katryna Gaither, and the daughter of then-Indiana University baseball coach Bob Morgan, Beth.

The highly touted Beth Morgan, however, was as unselfish in her approach as she was prolific in her scoring. And in February, the duo helped lead the Irish into the national rankings for the first time since the 1991 team spent a stretch in the top 25 for the first time in school history.

The Irish then entered the 1996 NCAA Tournament ranked No. 21 in the AP poll. But the NCAA selection committee didn’t share the same respect for the Irish, seeding them 12th and shipping them off to Lubbock, Texas.

There they were to play a fifth-seeded Purdue program just two years removed from a Final Four and providing the Irish a mental hurdle of having beaten them in all six of the previous meetings.

The resulting 73-60 upset represents Notre Dame’s first NCAA Tourney victory. And although the run ended two days later at the hands of fourth-seeded Texas Tech on its home court, the reverberations still can be felt to this day.

"It was the beginning of everything,” McGraw said. “The next year we went to our first Final Four with the same group. Not only was it huge to have that kind of experience in the tourney, it’s when we really started to believe that we could play at that level.”

The Irish were underseeded again in 1997, tagged a 6 seed after finishing the season ranked in the top 15. Morgan, now Beth Cunningham and an assistant coach to McGraw, and Gaither stand Nos. 2 and 3 on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list, behind only Skylar Diggins.

Helping hand from men

It was during that 1997 season that McGraw invited males on campus to try out to be part of a walk-on practice squad for her team.

The concept wasn’t unique, but it was rare at the time. And McGraw still employs it today.

“I think the greatest thing about having the guy practice players is, first of all, they’re very good,” she said. “So they challenge us every day. They’re bigger. They’re stronger. They’re faster. They can take a lot of abuse. We can beat up on them and it helps out chemistry.

“I could play my top seven or eight players and rotate them in and out, instead of having the girls go against each other — which is good for competition. You can figure out what kind of combinations you can use. They really, really helped our program.”

Relating to players

During the national championship season of 2001, McGraw drove her then-fifth-grade son, Murphy, to school every day that she wasn’t on the road.

And in her office that season hung a sign that she now has in her Granger home:

“P R I O R I T I E S”

"A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the kind of car I drove. ... But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child."

And that child made a difference in unexpected ways for his mom.

“I think Murph’ changed the way I coached,” she said. “I would go to his basketball practices and his games, and I would watch how coaches would interact with him. And I would think, ‘How would parents think about the way I’m interacting with their daughters?’

“So it made me more mindful of the relationships I’m having with my players. That was when we started to get a lot better, when we could have better relationships with the team and with the girls. It just felt like the girls thought I’d be easier on them when he was in the room.

“They used to love when he came to practice. And I think it was great for him, because he got to see all these strong, confident women and grew up with a real appreciation and respect for women.”

Getting started

McGraw’s first coaching job was at Archbishop Carroll High School in Philadelphia in 1977, fresh out of college. Her first taste of college coaching came as an assistant at alma mater St. Joseph’s (Pa.), followed by her first head coaching gig, at Lehigh.

The five-year stint at Lehigh (1983-87) preceded her run at Notre Dame, a job for which husband Matt had to coax her to apply. But in between Carroll and St. Joe, McGraw was a professional basketball player for a season (1979-80), well almost a season.

The Women’s (Pro) Basketball League, the first women’s pro league in the U.S., pulled McGraw away from coaching. The California Dreams signed McGraw to an $11,000 contract, most of which she didn’t realize.

The team went 11-18, splitting its home games between the Long Beach Arena and Anaheim Convention Center before folding prior to season’s end.

“It was a great experience until you got to the game, where you could count the number of people there during the National Anthem.” McGraw said. “And the team had financial problems, so we hardly got paid.

“It was always a race to the bank to see whose check was going to cash. Even with all that, it kind of felt like a dream.”

Until she walked back into coaching for good. At St. Joe, she was hired by Jim Foster, perhaps the most profound influence on McGraw’s career, even though they spent only two seasons together.

Currently the coach at Chattanooga, Foster is probably one of the few people who could get away with calling the woman born Ann O’Brien by her birth name.

“My mom was appalled, because we put ‘Muffet’ in our wedding invitations,” she said. “And she didn’t see them until they were already printed and couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Nobody knows me as Ann. Everybody knows me as Muffet.''

And now everyone will know here as a Hall-of-Famer, and one with no regrets about taking the fork in the road that pushed aside her criminal justice education and ambition.

“I guess I didn’t change the world,” she said. “But I’d like to think, in my little corner of it, I’ve impacted some lives in a positive way.”

Class of 2017

The following are the 11 members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2017 to be inducted Sept. 8 in Springfield, Mass.:

• Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw

• Basketball pioneer Zack Clayton of the Black Fives Era

• Greek hoops legend Nikos Galis

• High school coaching legend Robert Hughes

• Harlem Globetrotters owner Mannie Jackson

• NCAA administrator and "Father of the Final Four" Tom Jernstedt

• The late Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause

• UConn All-America player Rebecca Lobo

• NBA and ABA star George McGinnis

• NBA star Tracy McGrady

• Kansas men's basketball coach Bill Self

Notre Dame's head coach Muffet McGraw will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., on Sept. 8. (AP Photo/MIC SMITH)