Feb. 20, 2015
With the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team trailing Butler 66-65 in the 1990 Midwest Collegiate Conference tournament championship game at Dayton, the Fighting Irish looked to their playmaker, Karen Robinson.
“Karen had the single-minded focus … ‘I’ve got to score,'” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said of Robinson. “She made so many big shots for us. She had that special poise late in the game, that you wanted the ball in her hands.”
Notre Dame put the ball in Robinson’s hands with the 1990 MCC championship on the line and the clock ticking down.
Robinson used a screen set by Sara Liebscher to get open for a 15-foot shot on the wing.
Notre Dame 67, Butler 66.
McGraw and the Irish would be cutting down the nets.
Robinson played on McGraw’s first four teams at Notre Dame and helped establish the Irish women’s basketball program as a leader on the national landscape. The Irish earned their first top 20 ranking with Robinson leading the blue and gold.
Since Robinson helped the Irish become a national contender, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team has won a national championship and reached the NCAA Final Four six times under McGraw’s guidance.
Now known as Karen Robinson Keyes, she will be having a hand in helping the Notre Dame women’s basketball team cut down more nets.
Keyes and her husband, Kevin Keyes, recently announced the gift of $5 million to endow the head coaching position for the Notre Dame women’s basketball program. It is the first endowed coaching position in the storied history of Fighting Irish athletics.
“Notre Dame really impacts everything we do in our lives, all of the decisions we make, the values we learned at Notre Dame, not just playing for the basketball team . . . . I think Notre Dame is bigger than any one sport,” Keyes said. “That’s definitely impacted my life and my husband’s life. Notre Dame continues to be a special place to us. We met there, we got married there, and we bring our kids back there for the football games. It’s been great to have that connection, and not just because of Muffet’s success. Notre Dame is like a second home to us. To see the success that she’s had, over the years, has been remarkable.”
McGraw was deeply honored by the gift.
“It’s such a great honor, but the fact that it came from someone who went through the program and cares so much about it makes it more meaningful,” McGraw said of the endowment. “We’re just so thankful, so thankful and so blessed for the generosity they’ve shown our program. Karen was such a great role model for Notre Dame women’s basketball and the University. The values we have–she has all of those.
“It’s humbling to think of the generosity of Karen and Kevin, and what she’s meant to our program. She was in my very first class at Notre Dame. I said, `I’m thankful you were here,’ because I might not still be here if I hadn’t hit the jackpot with her coming in. She was like sunshine every day, coming into practice with a smile on her face, upbeat and positive. I loved coaching her. She was so much fun to be around and she continues to come back.”
McGraw is 688-220 in 28 seasons at Notre Dame and 776-261 in 33 seasons overall. She has been inducted into both the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
Keyes played for the Irish from 1987-91 and she was the program’s leading scorer when she ended her career (she currently ranks ninth). She was the MCC player of the year as a junior and a senior.
Keyes said she and her husband, a Notre Dame graduate who played tennis for the Irish, stayed in close contact with McGraw after graduation.
Margaret Nowlin McCaffery, who played with Keyes at Notre Dame, remembers Keyes as an impact player for the Irish.
“She was tough, and she was really competitive,” McCaffery said of Keyes. “She was somebody who always worked to get better, and she wanted her teammates to work hard to get better, too. She brought a lot of energy and excitement to the program. She was fun to watch. She had this blond, curly hair that bounced all over the place.”
McCaffery, who is married to former Notre Dame men’s basketball assistant coach and current Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, said the gift was a remarkable and important event.
“This speaks to the importance of what Muffet has done at Notre Dame, to build that program,” McCaffery said. “It speaks to the impact she has had on her players and the whole University. It’s incredibly generous. We all were really influenced by our experience of playing for Muffet. We all felt very privileged. Karen and her husband, Kevin, are incredibly generous people. I think they have an appreciation of where they came from. Obviously, Notre Dame is a special place for both of them. It’s a unique experience.
“The University does such a good job of helping you form relationships that don’t go away. I have my relationships with my teammates, but I also have roommates, none of whom were athletes, and we still get together on a regular basis. Notre Dame does a wonderful job of helping people form those wonderful bonds.”
Keyes said she and her husband had been looking to give a gift to Notre Dame.
“Notre Dame has impacted our lives in such a positive way,” Keyes said. “Sara Liebscher, who was a teammate of mine and also played for Muffet, works for the University. We worked with her to try and figure out how we could make a gift. The endowment idea came up through Sara and (vice president and athletics director) Jack Swarbrick and Kevin. We thought it would be a good way to honor Muffet and all of the success she’s had at Notre Dame. We were happy to be in a position to do it.”
Keyes said she has great pride in being part of the foundation for McGraw’s program at Notre Dame.
“When I played for Muffet, she knew back then what she wanted to do,” Keyes said. “She always wanted to win a championship. To have a singular focus over all of those years and to continue to maintain such a high level of excellence is so impressive. The fact we’ve been able to stay close to her throughout her entire career made it even more special for us because of our connection and relationship with Muffet.
“When I played we had maybe 1,000 or 2,000 fans at a game. Now, the exposure level the women have–it’s just great on a Saturday to turn on the TV and see lots of women’s games on. When we played that wasn’t the case. The women didn’t have the exposure like that. To see how far Muffet has grown the program has been phenomenal to watch, and it has given us a source of pride.”
McGraw said she has always valued building lasting relationships with her players.
“We have a little different relationship after they graduate,” McGraw said. “We can laugh about how easy practice is now that they’re gone, how soft I’ve gotten now that they’re gone. It just makes me feel so good to know how much they value the experience they had here. I’m so blessed and thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to coach so many great people that I want to continue to have a relationship with them after they graduate.”
McCaffery said McGraw has been a major influence on her players.
“As for Coach McGraw, I think she has done a phenomenal job,” McCaffery said. “She’s a remarkable woman. She was a great role model for us. She cared about us. She was tough on us. While you’re going through it, sometimes, you think it was tough, but when you look back on it, you think, `What a great experience that was, what a phenomenal opportunity to go to a great school,’ and you’re very appreciative of it. Any time you have an opportunity to spend that much time with a group of women, or a team, you have a bond with those people that doesn’t ever really go away.”
Keyes coached with McGraw after her playing career ended. She served as a graduate assistant for the Irish from 1993-95.
McGraw first saw Keyes when she was playing high school basketball. McGraw was at Lehigh at the time, and she was recruiting one of Keyes’ teammates. Keyes committed to Notre Dame to play for Irish coach Mary DiStanislao. After Keyes’ senior season, DiStanislao left Notre Dame and McGraw was hired to be the Fighting Irish coach.
“Muffet’s first year was my first year at Notre Dame,” Keyes said. “She was a point guard, I was a point guard. We always had a great relationship. We had a connection in our personalities.”
Keyes said she has been around sports all of her life. She did broadcast reporting for the New York Jets, and she currently is the girls basketball coach at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey. She and her husband, Kevin, have three children, Cassie, Katie, and John.
McGraw said Keyes represents the standards represented by Notre Dame women’s basketball.
“Our program is more than basketball,” McGraw said of Keyes. “This is a historic event for every woman who ever played at Notre Dame, just to know that at such a male-dominated school it’s great to have the first endowment (of a head coaching position) be for the women. The reaction has been positive everywhere. There’s a lot of buzz about this.
“It’s important to me that we build strong confident women. We want women who can go out into the world and make a difference. We want them to feel that way when they’re here, that they have made a difference. We want them to continue to do that through the alumni association, in their communities, wherever they go.”
Keyes said she hopes the gift will have impact for women’s sports beyond Notre Dame.
“I know some other schools have endowments for their coaches,” Keyes said. “I’m hoping it will spark some support on the women’s side. Notre Dame does a great job of supporting the women. That’s why Muffet has been able to have the success she’s had at Notre Dame.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent