Sept. 1, 2011
By Denise Skwarcan
“I think I would like to be remembered as somebody who was a Notre Dame person…somebody who was a great representative of Notre Dame.”
– Irish women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw
As a graduate of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa., Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw is, technically, an “outsider.” But few, if any, would disagree that during the course of her 25-year career in South Bend she has become not only a great representative of Notre Dame, but an exemplary one. She took a team and built it into a program, one that is now considered among the country’s elite.
Along the way, McGraw has reached the Final Four three times (1997, 2001 and 2011) and won it all once (’01). She has graduated 100 percent of her players, many of who have gone on to coach teams of their own.
This past July, her efforts and accomplishments were recognized when she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame…an adopted daughter anyone would be proud to call their own.
“I still think Notre Dame is the greatest place in the world and to walk across campus…I still feel like I did 25 years ago,” said the West Chester, Pa., native. “I’m just so lucky to be here.”
And McGraw means it when she says she feels lucky. A quarter of a century ago, she was working as a head coach at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., after stints as a head coach at Philadelphia’s Archbishop Carroll High School and as an assistant at her alma mater. She only submitted her resume when the Irish gig opened up because her husband Matt kept nagging her to do it…not because she thought she could get the job. But then she received what she refers to as the “miracle call,” which promptly changed the course of the young coach’s life in ways she might never have imagined.
“Not even close,” McGraw remarks when asked if she envisioned a job at a Division I school followed by a championship. “I never really was the type of person who looked ahead and thought this is where I want to be in five years. I was enjoying what I was doing. I loved being at the high school level. Then I was an assistant at St. Joe’s, and one thing I knew was that I didn’t like being an assistant. That was the one thing I knew. I wanted to be in control.
“Then I got the job at Lehigh and that was a great place. I loved it there. I loved the people; we had a little bit of success. They didn’t have automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament back then, so we never went. But at year’s end when you’re watching the tournament and you start to think, `Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if I could be in a place that could play in the postseason or maybe Lehigh would get good enough that we could play in the postseason?’ Then the Notre Dame job opened up…”
McGraw admits she was somewhat overwhelmed when she first arrived at Notre Dame, but that in some ways her job was much easier. At Lehigh with three graduate assistants, McGraw did most of the work whereas now she had assistants to ease the load. Her time with the players was limited to “really just a during-the-season kind of thing,” and the talent level was much higher than she had worked with before. Regardless, McGraw was certain that coaching was the job for her.
“I don’t remember my first game as a head coach…I probably just blocked it out of my mind,” McGraw says laughing. “I remember my first game at Notre Dame, and I was paralyzed with fear. My assistant at the time told me it’s just like Archbishop Carroll High School. Coaching’s the same everywhere. So I took a deep breath and that was it…we won.
“But I always thought I made the right decision because I loved it. I just had such an incredible passion for it. So I never doubted that I was doing what I really wanted to do.”
She might have thought otherwise a few short years later when the lowest point of McGraw’s career reared its ugly head during the 1991-92 campaign when her squad posted a 14-17 overall record. It was – and still is – the only losing season during her Irish career, and McGraw actually contemplated quitting. Instead, she chose to learn from the experience, which, ultimately, is where the team’s turnaround began.
“I thought we had a pretty good team that year, but we just never really got the chemistry together,” McGraw comments. “I learned a lot from that season. Sometimes I think you learn more from losing than you do from winning. And that’s when I learned how important chemistry was because we had good players. It’s just that some of them didn’t gel well together.
“I thought that was going to be my last year in coaching for a while. That wasn’t what I wanted, and I just wasn’t going to be happy with that. But we got through it and three or four years later we went to the Final Four. So I was glad I didn’t quit.”
It was actually five years later, during the 1996-97 season, that McGraw and Co. made their first-ever Final Four appearance. The journey began a year earlier when Notre Dame became a conference member of the BIG EAST. Almost overnight it gave the Irish more credibility due to more exposure and tougher opponents. Not only did it lead to the Final Four in ’97, but a plethora of highs that continued right through this past season.
“That first trip to the Final Four was pretty amazing,” McGraw said. “We had a great group who played well together, and we certainly weren’t the most talented team…I think we were a six seed going into the tournament. But you walk out of the locker room, look around and just say, ‘Wow!’ It’s the kind of accomplishment you don’t even appreciate while you’re going through it.
“Then, obviously, the championship (in 2001) was the biggest moment. Coming back to Notre Dame that night and being greeted by all those people in the main circle…that’s my favorite memory of Notre Dame, with everybody out there and the band. Then another great moment this year (with a trip to the national title game). So we’ve had some really fun, exciting moments.”
It’s hard to talk about any of those great moments without mentioning her husband, who encouraged her to apply for Notre Dame job in the first place. When McGraw first gave him her number, Matt thought she had given him a fake name. Really, who’s named Muffet? But McGraw had, indeed, legally changed her name prior to college, and when he called she agreed to a date. To this day, Matt is happy to linger in the background out of McGraw’s spotlight…although you usually can’t miss him. Normal attire tends to include a bright green plastic bowler hat and matching socks.
“You know, he just does so many things like that,” McGraw laughed. “First of all they just make me laugh. But he just wants to be a part of it and show everybody his support for the team. He loves it.
“He’s been a great partner in every way. He has done so much with (our son), Murphy (a senior at Indiana), because it’s hard to be a mom and travel as much as we have to do. And to be able to come home and share all the good times and all the bad times, to have somebody there to lighten your load when things aren’t going well, to keep believing in you, to keep supporting you through all that and to be the guy who’s not in the spotlight as much and to handle that, which a lot of men probably couldn’t do…I couldn’t have done it without him. There’s no question in my mind. He’s just the best possible person for me. He’s my soul mate. He’s my rock.”
While Matt has been steady, the world of collegiate women’s basketball has evolved and changed…and McGraw right along with it. Now considered a “soft touch” by many of her former players, McGraw admits there were times when she yelled a little bit more than she wanted and then dwelled on it. She knows one of the hardest things “is looking in the mirror and knowing I could’ve been a little bit better.”
But at the end of the day, McGraw’s proud of the players she and her staffs have produced, and knows that through their coaching the young women who play for her are learning life lessons. It’s still as much of a passion today as it was back in the beginning.
“People ask me what I’m going to do when I retire, but I can’t see myself doing anything else and certainly not enjoying it as much as I do this,” McGraw said. “I’m just taking it one year at a time, and as long as I continue to enjoy it I’m going to stay.”