Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw retires; Niele Ivey returns

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The last line of Muffet McGraw's résumé will forever look like a typo.

Redemption from a 13-18 season will now be in the hands of Niele Ivey, as McGraw, Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach, on Wednesday announced she’ll walk away from a promising rebuild in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic and retire after 33 seasons.

The 42-year-old Ivey, a former Irish All-America point guard and assistant coach both under McGraw, comes back to Notre Dame from the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. Last summer she became the NBA's ninth female coach when she became an assistant for the Grizzlies.

“What sets Niele apart is her ability to connect with all generations — alums, her current team and future student-athletes. She will be a fantastic role model and a leader in the women’s empowerment movement, and she will represent Notre Dame in a way that will make our fans proud,” McGraw said.

The beginning of the end for McGraw started to take shape shortly after the end of the 2019-20 season, which would have concluded without an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in 24 years even if there had been an actual tourney.

The coronavirus pandemic canceled that and, McGraw admitted, helped convince her the timing was right to move on.

“It was a big part of it,” she said Wednesday during a virtual press conference via Zoom. “You don’t want to make a big decision like this coming off of a season whether it’s a high or low point for you, so you want to give it some time to reflect.

“I felt really good about the solitude. And I think people were wondering, ‘Was I climbing the walls? What was I doing at home? Was I driving (husband) Matt crazy?’ We’ve really enjoyed this time, and it gave me a great chance to reflect and see what’s really important."

The 13-18 record this past season — including a 67-65 loss to a 5-26 Pittsburgh team in what turns out to be her final game at ND — becomes the final chapter for McGraw, and the seeming typo on the résumé. But it's hardly a defining one.

What will define the 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee are two national championships (2001 and 2018), nine Final Fours, four Associated Press Coach of the Year awards, a coaching tree with the reach and impact of a sequoia, and a culture that makes a bounce-back season in 2020-21 a likelihood.

The final balance in the record book for the 64-year-old Westchester, Pa., native is 848-253 at Notre Dame, and 936-263 when you add on her first five seasons as a college head coach, at Lehigh.

McGraw’s contract, last extended in 2012, ran through the 2021-22 season. But she said she began to ponder after the 2018 national title, on an annual basis each April, whether it felt right to keep pressing on.

The choice to leave was tempting after the Irish reached the title game again in 2019, before losing to Baylor 82-81. All five starters from that team were drafted into the WNBA, including No. 1 pick Jackie Young, who left for her pro career with a year of college eligibility remaining.

“When I looked ahead to what we had coming back (for 2019-20), I knew that it was going to be a challenging season,” McGraw said. “And I thought, ‘Where’s the honor in that if I leave now?’

“I really wasn’t ready anyway, so I put in for one more year. And now looking ahead to know we have a great recruiting class coming in, we’re ranked in the top 25 in the preseason poll, and I think the program is right where it should be and poised to make another run to the Final Four."

“I feel like I’m leaving the program in a good place and also a chance for me to do something else, turn the page, write a new chapter and look at doing something else.”

Both McGraw and Swarbrick said that “something else” will include a role with the university.

“I plan to be around and help Jack with some special projects, as he would have me serve a little bit more,” McGraw said. “I am excited about the opportunity to continue to promote women’s equality and to speak on behalf of all women all across the country and to use my platform in any way that I can."

Record of success

McGraw is one of just five NCAA Division I men’s or women’s basketball coaches with at least 930 wins, nine Final Fours and multiple titles. The others are Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski.

She coached one women’s basketball Hall of Famer, two Olympians (with new additions expected for the 2021 Olympic Games), 20 WNBA players (10 currently in the league), 22 All-Americans and 36 different players who earned all-conference recognition.

“Muffet McGraw is one of the most iconic figures in the landscape of sport, and one of the greatest influences in my life,” said former All-America center Ruth Riley, a member of the 2001 national championship team. “Muffet is a pioneer, a trailblazer, a fierce competitor, a champion, a leader, and an advocate for women’s empowerment and equality. Her sustained success over decades has etched an incredible legacy in the archives of sport."

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 preceded her run at Notre Dame, a job for which husband Matt had to coax her to apply.

The late Gene Corrigan conducted the Notre Dame search that landed McGraw in 1987 to succeed Mary DiStanislao and take over a national afterthought of a women's basketball program. That was a little over a year after he lured Lou Holtz to resuscitate the storied football program that had been relegated to a similar stature.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity Gene gave me when he hired me and his support for women’s athletics,” McGraw said upon Corrigan’s passing in late January at the age of 91. “He was so highly admired in all of sport and he always inspired people to be their best. He’s a great role model for coaches to look up to.”

Five seasons in, the 1991-92 campaign, McGraw would suffer her only previous losing season of her career (14-16). But 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.

A 1996 upset of then perennial national power Purdue in the NCAA Tournament helped push the Notre Dame program toward an elite level.

Led by center Katryna Gaither and current Irish assistant Beth Cunningham (then Beth Morgan), the 73-60 upset of the Boilermakers in Lubbock, Texas helped catalyze an unlikely Final Four run the next season as a No. 6 seed.

"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."

Then came the 2001 championship, followed by years of NCAA Tourney appearances and featuring the star run of South Bend native Skylar Diggins (2009-2013). A second national championship came in 2018, and in improbable fashion, with Arike Ogunbowale hitting game-winning baskets in the final two tournament games.

“The greatest Final Four ever,” McGraw would later say. “In any sport. Ever.”

Matt and later son Murphy would become integral to her success.

“I’ll tell you in a job like this there’s no way you can do it without a great partner, and that is something I have been so blessed to have Matt by my side through this entire process,” the coach said. “All these years with him at my side, I feel like I’ve been able to do so much more.

“When Murph came along, we had to make some decisions. And Matt decided he would change jobs. He’d work out of the house. He’d always be there for Murph. And there were so many lessons in that, but Murph got to see our partnership and how much of a team we were."

Moving forward

Earlier this year, it probably felt like starting all over again for McGraw in some respects. Just before social distancing guidelines went into effect, McGraw and her staff gathered in the women’s basketball offices in mid-March to address what went wrong in 2019-20 and what they could do about it.

“This year was an anomaly, obviously, and I’m not an excuse-maker,” McGraw told the Tribune March 24 of a stunning step backward magnified by a deluge of transfers and injuries. “We talked as a staff about that, you know, ‘How’d we get here? How do we make sure this isn’t going to happen again? What do we need to do in recruiting? What kids did we pass on that would have been doing a lot for us right now?’"

And now Ivey will pick up the baton and look to coax things forward.

Ivey, a teammate of Riley’s on the 2001 title team, was part of all nine of the program’s Final Four appearances, two as a player and seven as an assistant coach. She has spent 17 seasons on Notre Dame’s campus combined as coach and player.

"I am so honored to be able to follow in the legacy that coach McGraw built here at Notre Dame,” Ivey said in a statement. “My love and appreciation for coach McGraw is beyond anything I can express. She’s more than a mentor, more than a friend, she’s one of the most influential people in my life."

Swarbrick said continuity was the No. 1 factor when he began to consider McGraw’s replacement over the past few weeks.

“This program is in such a great position,” he said. “And it’s not just the competitive success — although 936 wins and two national championships and on and on and on — it’s what the program does, contributes to the institution and the impact of the young women that Muffet has educated.

“And it’s where we want the program to be, so finding someone who understood it, who we felt had the ability to build on what we have, led us to where we are.”

McGraw will be able to pass on several lessons to her successor — and one in particular jumps out.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned: Never be too high or too low,” McGraw said. “Just take it one day at a time. You can’t look ahead, and you just have to appreciate the moment. It’s so important to just enjoy the present.”

Muffet McGraw celebrates after the Notre Dame women’s basketball team defeated Mississippi State and won an NCAA championship on April 1, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio.