A clear vision for Muffet McGraw as she ventures into her next chapter

Retired Notre Dame women's basketball coach steps up her activist game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There’s a book with no title and no set release date in the works, but a very firm July deadline, Muffet McGraw points out, for the content to be submitted.

There’s a class she wants to teach at the University of Notre Dame and momentum for it, but without a final green light.

There’s advice she wants to give athletic director Jack Swarbrick about navigating college sports in a pandemic once his calendar opens up a bit, and a growing stockpile of offers to chair this committee or consult with that movement, almost all of which have been deferred.

Recently retired Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw hugs ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick following Notre Dame’s 81-76 win over Connecticut in the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four on April 5, 2019.

The most visible and defined images in the 64-year-old Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach’s encore, barely five weeks into retirement, seemingly are her community food drives that broke into double digits in number in mid-May.

But there is a clear vision where this activist energy is all headed long term in McGraw’s mind, the intended outcome much more than the journey at this point when it comes to clarity.

“The biggest thing I want to do is really continue to work on leadership for women,” she said in a recent Zoom interview with the Tribune.

That mission didn’t start nearly 14 months ago during an unplanned and unscripted, 120-second burst during a NCAA women’s Final Four press conference.

Instead, that’s when it became seismic.

“I wanted to start a conversation,” she said of the impact those words might have and have had once they spilled out onto women’s athletics’ grandest stage.

Muffet McGraw routinely drew a crowd for her remarks on basketball and beyond during the 2019 NCAA women’s basketball Final Four in Tampa, Fla.

“I wanted to spark a conversation, and I did go a little bit overboard on that account. But it was like it was in me and waiting to come out.

“Had I known it was coming that day, I probably would have combed my hair and put on some lipstick, because I looked awful. And then we went from there right on to the practice floor.

“The Final Four is kind of stressful for me, and I was kind of a wreck, but I did not know it was coming out.”

'For good and forever'

In reality, McGraw’s passion to catalyze women’s empowerment in the sports world and beyond had been oozing out consistently, but more covertly, for much of the 33 years she was racking up 842 victories and two national titles during her Notre Dame run.

“Being around her changes your life for good and forever,” said former Notre Dame guard Melissa Lechlitner-Lewis, who grew up in South Bend and played her high school ball at Saint Joseph. “And for me there was one defining moment.”

Lechlitner-Lewis, who married Samantha Lewis and legally hyphenated her name in the past six months, remembers vividly a meeting she had with McGraw in the coach’s office a few weeks before the player was due to graduate in the spring of 2010.

Lechlitner-Lewis hadn’t even begun to think about what life after basketball should look like, and McGraw was ready to suggest that she had the makings of a coaching prodigy.

“I said, ‘I haven’t really thought about it, but I guess I should?’” Lechlitner-Lewis recalled. “‘Basketball is who I am. Maybe I should consider coaching.’

“And immediately she cut me off. And she was like, ‘Basketball is not who you are. You’re so much more than that. It’s just what you’ve done.

Melissa Lechlitner puts up a shot as coach Muffet McGraw looks on during a March practice for the 2010 NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

“‘You can do anything you want to do, basically. So what that message and that empowerment told me is whatever I want to do I’m capable of doing.”

Today Lechlitner-Lewis lives one neighborhood over from McGraw and husband Matt, and she just celebrated her second year on the job as regional director of athletics advancement at ND.

“I probably see (McGraw) more now than when she was coaching, within social distancing of course,” Lechlitner-Lewis said. “I think her message is just so incredibly important, and we’re kind of at that pivotal time for women and hopefully trying to break that glass ceiling and getting more women involved in the workforce and the corporate world.

“To be honest, I don’t care how those details of her new chapter of women’s empowerment get worked out. Just having her out there, delivering that message, with the confidence that she does and being able to impact as many people — young, old, male, female — is so important. And she just does such a great job of it.”

Heather Maxwell got a similar vibe from McGraw when the coach’s platform wasn’t as robust but her passion sure was.

Today Maxwell is a 42-year-old who leads the business intelligence team for Sarezac, a spirits company with brands that include Southern Comfort and Fireball whiskeys.

She lives in Naperville, Ill., west of Chicago, and is a season ticket-holder for ND women’s hoops. Twenty years ago she helped build the platform that eventually gave McGraw and her message national clout at a time when there weren’t any Irish women’s basketball season ticket-holders.

In fact, there wasn't even such a thing as assigned seats or much more than casual interest in a program only a few years removed from its first Final Four, and ascending.

McGraw in 2000 decided against filling a new basketball operations position afforded the program with someone with coaching chops and coaching ambition. Instead she hired an unproven marketing whiz, who had just walked away from coaching, and barely older than then-star point guard Niele Ivey.

Heather Maxwell (left) who once helped Notre Dame women’s basketball triple its attendance, is now a season ticket-holder. She and daughter Avery (center) stay in regular contact with recently retired coach Muffet McGraw.

The formula in tripling attendance, eventually producing the program’s first sellout and continued growth under Maxwell’s successor, Stephanie Menio, was multi-tiered. But the secret sauce was building a sense of community, making the program more visible outside of the Joyce Center, and honoring McGraw’s unrelenting belief that they didn’t need to compromise big dreams for the program, on or off the court.

“I was in my first eight months on the job,” said Maxwell, who worked at ND from 2000 to 2005. “I’m sitting across from Coach at her desk, and she said she was thinking about a building that might be only for volleyball and women’s basketball. She wanted to know what I thought about that.

“I knew this was a bigger question than what she was asking me. I wasn’t that dumb. And, so I said, ‘How many would it hold?’

“She’s like, ‘Well, less than what it does now.’

“I said, ‘Well, Nebraska has less and it’s super loud in there, so it could be an advantage that way. Wouldn’t make as much money, maybe. So there’s a lot to consider. We could really make it loud. We could fill it faster. Yes’

“And she looked at me and said, ‘Wrong answer. We’re going to sell out the Joyce Center.’ She didn’t say it mad. Just, ‘Wrong answer.’

“And I said, ‘Coach we’re going to sell out the Joyce Center,’ and I left. We never talked about it again ‘til we filled out the Joyce Center.”

Sellouts eventually became a regular occurrence and ND evolved into a perennial top 10 team in terms of attendance. The big leap on the court is when the program went to five straight Final Fours in the early 2010s. McGraw’s stature was burgeoning even if her message was more internal than for public consumption.

“She was always about having an opinion, having a voice,” Maxwell said. “That was always there. That was always part of coach. That was part of standing up for something.

“But when she took it to the next level with her platform in that Final Four press conference, that was a little surprising for me. I always felt like when you were a big Hall of Fame, powerful coach — especially in women’s sports — you were just supposed to be thankful for what you were getting.

“So I was really proud of her for taking that risk, and I feel like there’s been more of that type of risk-taking across industries with female leaders. Now, it’s not just Coach. I feel like it’s bigger.”

'A life of its own'

McGraw doesn’t tempt herself with what-ifs. Like what if she had pushed ahead with something in her criminology/sociology major — beyond meeting her husband and fellow criminology major during an internship in suburban Philadelphia in the late 1970s.

Or what if her pro basketball career with the Women’s Basketball League’s California Dream hadn’t folded 29 games into her rookie season.

Muffet McGraw celebrates the Notre Dame’s 2001 national title in women’s basketball with star guard Niele Ivey (center), now McGraw’s successor as Irish coach.

“That was a point in my life when I wasn’t thinking about women’s empowerment or the disparity in resources in the men’s and women’s game,” McGraw said. “I didn’t even give it a second thought.

“All I thought was, ‘I’m playing professional basketball for $11,000. Wow. What are we going to do with all that money?’ But when the checks came, they didn’t always cash. Still, it was amazing, just to know that you’re doing something that you love.”

And now her love is empowering women, more staunchly and passionately than ever before.

“After that press conference kind of took on a life of its own, I heard from so many people in so many different industries,” McGraw said. “But more than anything I heard from dads with daughters, because they were thinking, ‘You were right. It wasn’t like this for me or my son, but for my daughter. Things are completely different.’

“So that probably was the most rewarding part.”

The rewards — and the inevitable struggle — still await her, as do the structure and detail of how this all gets put into motion.

“Whatever it looks like, she’s always looking for the next challenge,” Maxwell said. “Whether it’s a crossword puzzle — good Lord — or a board game — she’s super competitive. I don’t know, I just look forward to the next chapter.

“I just think of boards that she can be on. I think of so many people that she could leverage with her experience, kind of help them see more critically and accelerate their impact more broadly, because I think she’s good at bringing out the best in people, even when they might not see it in themselves.

“One thing about chemistry that I learned from her: It’s easy to look at rankings of players. I think the part that she was special about was seeing just a little something in someone that someone else didn’t see.

“If she takes that into whatever she does next, I can only imagine how powerful that will be.”

Recently retired Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw and husband Matt are looking forward to her next chapter.

The following is a portion of Muffet McGraw's impassioned answer at a Final Four press conference in April of 2019:

"How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power. Girls are socialized to know when they come out, gender roles are already set."

"Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the men that is the stronger one. And when these girls are coming up, who are they looking up to to tell them that that’s not the way it has to be? And where better to do that than sports?"