Dec. 13, 2014
Beth Cunningham feels the influence of University of Notre Dame women’s basketball coach and Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw every day–in the huddle, in practice and in scouting sessions.
Cunningham helped McGraw reach her first NCAA Final Four as the Irish coach in 1997 and has been on two Irish Final Four squads the past two seasons as the program’s associate coach.
“Sometimes, I’m about to say something, and Coach McGraw will say the same thing just before me,” Cunningham said. “I’m like, OK, I’m on the right wave length here.”
McGraw’s coaching tree was evident Saturday when the Irish hosted Michigan in a game Notre Dame won by a 70-50 margin.
Cunningham was on the bench, along with Niele Ivey, who was part of two Irish Final Four teams as a player (1997 and 2001) and four as an assistant coach (the past four seasons), and Carol Owens, who has been on McGraw’s staff for all six of its Final Four appearances, including the Irish national championship team in 2001.
Megan Duffy (a 2006 graduate of Notre Dame) sat on the Michigan bench Saturday in her first season as an assistant coach with the Wolverines.
Sitting courtside was Ashley Barlow (a 2010 graduate of Notre Dame), who is an assistant coach at Evansville.
Other members of the Muffet McGraw coaching tree include Ariel Braker (graduate assistant coach, Wayne State), Kristin (Knapp) Cole (assistant coach, Texas-Arlington), Melissa D’Amico (assistant coach, Colgate), Bill Fennelly (head coach, Iowa State), Kevin McGuff (head coach, Ohio State), Jonathan Tsipis (head coach, George Washington), Coquese Washington (head coach, Penn State), and Erica Williamson (director of operations, George Washington).
McGraw’s talents as a teacher have been invaluable to those who have played or coached for her.
“Everybody talks about Coach McGraw’s competitiveness and her desire to win, but at the end of the day you strip down all the hoopla and get everybody out of the stands, and she’s the ultimate teacher,” Duffy said. “She has connected with her players over the years, she understands the little nuances that it takes to win and win a lot of games. As a point guard in her program, I paid attention to that. I tried to be a great listener, because I could see how great of a coach she is.”
Duffy said the sense of service she encountered at Notre Dame, merged with the lessons learned from McGraw, have served her well in coach.
“I think Notre Dame gave me a great foundation of so many life lessons,” Duffy said. “I always wanted to coach. I knew that when I was younger. I feel that my experiences with Coach McGraw, playing at a place like Notre Dame, really solidified my passion and my love for the game of basketball, my passion to help student-athletes. I know, as much as this is my career, it’s another way for me to give back to the people who laid the foundation for me from Day One.”
McGraw said Duffy has the skills to make her mark in a challenging profession.
“Megan is a special person for me,” McGraw said. “I knew she was going to be a great coach, because that’s the way she played the point. She was in charge, she was bossy, and she always knew what was supposed to happen. I’ve been really, really proud of her development as a coach. We talk quite a bit.
“I hope I have a chance to mentor her. I hope she feels that way. She’s really come up the ranks very well. She’s very well respected in the profession. She’s a very good recruiter, and she’s very good with the Xs and Os. She’s going to be a really good head coach one day.”
Cunningham also said the combination of values learned at Notre Dame and the insights of McGraw have helped her find a home in the profession.
“I think the values you learn at Notre Dame are invaluable in coaching,” Cunningham said. “That’s one of the biggest reasons I came here. Obviously, you’re getting a great education, but you’re learning so many life lessons. You apply those life lessons and values daily, how you live your life, how you treat people. It all goes back to when you were an 18-to-22-year-old. Notre Dame is a school that has been so influential in my life.”
Cunningham said McGraw has mastered all of the elements that go into coaching, and as a skilled educator she can pass that knowledge along to others.
“She’s great at everything, that’s why she’s a Hall of Fame coach,” Cunningham said. “That’s why she’s the best in the country, knowing how to motivate people, knowing how to manage an entire program. I think she’s done a phenomenal job of … I don’t know if you would say changing with the times … you have a different type of kid now than when I was playing.
“You look at her longevity here, that just doesn’t happen any more. To see her be successful with a number of different generation of kids is pretty amazing. She’s done a great job of adjusting and changing to help kids be successful. As former players, anybody who comes back says she’s not as hard on them. You see things that are different. But I have a real appreciation of being a head coach, coming back and seeing how she has adjusted to be a better fit for kids today, to get them to be as successful as they can be.”
As the McGraw coaching tree develops, so do the successes.
“Coach McGraw is the key to everyone’s success,” Ivey said. “You learn things here that help you achieve success. She does a great job of allowing her assistant coaches to have freedom within our areas. She makes sure we’re prepared, and that we understand all of the areas, scheduling, recruiting, scouting. She molds every single person who has gone through her program to be successful, so when they become a head coach, they’re prepared, they’ve done everything in all of those different areas.”
Barlow said she went into coaching because of McGraw’s influence.
“I learned a lot from Coach McGraw about working with athletes, paying attention to details, being the person that they are as a player, not trying to do anything that they can’t do,” Barlow said. “I learned a lot about communication and time management and how important they are.”
What has been invaluable to Barlow as she starts her career in coaching is she can call anyone in the McGraw coaching tree for advice.
“One of the things that’s awesome about Notre Dame is the connections that you get,” Barlow said. “After you graduate … the Notre Dame family is there for you. Anytime, I can give Coach McGraw a call and she will answer. They’re all like that, Coach (Jonathan) Tsipis, Coach (Carol) Owens, Coach (Niele) Ivey, Coach (Beth) Cunningham.”
For McGraw, the key to achieving success in coaching is a willingness to work.
“Coaching looks like a lot of fun from the outside, it looks really easy,” McGraw said. “Once (former players) get into it, they usually call back and say, ‘Wow, I had no idea you had to do all this.’ There is so much more than you can see from the players’ perspective. I think the work ethic and all the things we teach our players–accountability, how hard you have to work–are important lessons.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent