Oct. 6, 2011
By Craig Chval
When Beth Cunningham – then known as Beth Morgan – arrived at Notre Dame, the Irish women’s basketball team had never won an NCAA tournament game, losing its only appearance by 21 points in 1992.
A heavily-recruited high school star in Bloomington, Ind., Cunningham considered traditional national powers, including Stanford and Vanderbilt. But the opportunity to take Notre Dame to that level intrigued Cunningham.
“At the time, Notre Dame women’s basketball didn’t have the history of tradition or success that it has now,” explains Cunningham. “I felt like if I went to Notre Dame I could really go there and make a difference.”
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw shared and encouraged that idea.
“We both talked about it as `being the one,'” recalls McGraw, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this past summer. “I told her, `You could be the one who really makes a big impact on our program, the one who really puts our program on a national level.'”
And that’s exactly what Cunningham did, leading Notre Dame to its first-ever Final Four appearance as a senior in 1997. Her 36 points in the regional semifinal still stands as the East Regional single-game record. Perhaps even more than what Cunningham contributed to the box score, McGraw appreciates the other things she brought to the fledgling program.
“My first recollection of her was during a home visit and walking in the house and asking her, `Where are all your trophies?’ and she says, `They’re probably in a box up in the attic somewhere.’
“And I thought, `That’s the kind of player that I want.’ I want somebody that plays for the love of the game and is an incredibly hard worker,” says McGraw. “She was a phenomenal leader for our program, a great captain, handled adversity and put the team on her back and didn’t let anything stop her from achieving her goals.
“That was quite an accomplishment and one that since then we have really built on, and mostly thanks to her,” says McGraw, whose Irish captured the 2001 national championship.
As her professional playing career wound down, Cunningham traveled to St. Louis to cheer on the Irish in the ’01 Final Four, and to explore possibilities for her post-playing career. During the weekend, Virginia Commonwealth head coach David Glass, who had helped recruit Cunningham to Notre Dame, offered Cunningham a position on his VCU staff.
“It was right place, right time, right opportunity, and I jumped at it,” says Cunningham. “Looking back now, it seems like a no-brainer, but at the time it wasn’t a no-brainer by any means.”
Cunningham’s decision was complicated by the fact that she – and her husband Dan, also a Notre Dame graduate – had plenty of options.
“My husband had a great job with a company in Chicago and here I am proposing to potentially move to Richmond to become an assistant coach for what, $30,000? But he was willing to do whatever I wanted to do,” says Cunningham.
Of course, Cunningham also sought the counsel of McGraw and her mother and father, Bob and Bridget Morgan. At the time, Bob Morgan was in the midst of a 22-year run as the head baseball coach at Indiana University.
“They helped encourage and support me and said if that’s what I wanted to do, to go for it,” Cunningham relates.
McGraw wasn’t the least bit surprised when she learned that Cunningham was weighing the offer to join Glass’ coaching staff.
“I thought it was a great move for her because when you watch different players you always sense some of them are going to be great coaches,” she says.
“She worked on her game, she had great skills and she was in the gym all the time,” remembers McGraw. “So as a coach, you understand what that’s like and you know how to be successful because you have a great foundation.
“Her dad was such a big influence in her life and he was a very good coach and you could tell that she was a coach’s kid,” says McGraw. “All of those traits that you would expect a coach to instill in his kids were there.
“She could have gone into a lot of different things and been successful, but you could tell that working with kids was something that she loved – she loved working camp and being around kids and I think that’s what she wanted to do.”
Indeed, Cunningham proved her mettle so quickly that when Glass resigned during her second year at VCU, Cunningham was named as his replacement. The brand-new head coach found herself with a mission similar to the one she had relished at Notre Dame.
“VCU and Notre Dame are very different, but at the same time, VCU had very little success in women’s basketball when I got here,” says Cunningham. “So when I took over here at VCU I likened it very much to the challenge I had at Notre Dame.”
The Rams hadn’t made a postseason appearance since the 1994-95 season, but currently own a string of four straight postseason invitations under Cunningham, including the program’s first-ever NCAA bid in 2008-09. Still one of the youngest head coaches in the country, Cunningham is VCU’s all-time winningest women’s basketball coach with a 148-100 record.
“Understanding the different path you have to take in order to become an elite program and really compete on more of a national scale, those are things I learned playing at Notre Dame,” says Cunningham, whose Rams posted a 16-0 home record in 2008-09. “And I think those are experiences that have certainly helped me in coaching and in being a leader for the VCU women’s basketball program and establishing our own tradition and success here.”
For Cunningham, a big part of doing that is continuing to do things she has always done.
“I was always around my dad and always listening to him, not just on the field but at home, when he’d make calls to recruits,” remembers Cunningham. “And not only him, it was also the opportunity to be around other coaches. You grow up watching those coaches and seeing how they do things – I probably just took all that in.
“And we talk about a lot of that stuff now,” she says. “His perspective is, once a coach, always a coach.”
Cunningham also credits her opportunities to be around some of the greatest coaches in women’s basketball, as a player on U.S. national teams and currently on the selection committee for U.S.A. Basketball.
“So again, it’s just a situation where I was able to sit back and watch, take things in and try to ask a lot of questions to better myself, better our team and better our program,” she says.
Predictably, Cunningham draws heavily on her Notre Dame heritage.
“Notre Dame has been my foundation,” says Cunningham, who remains Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer. “When push comes to shove, those are the things you rely on. It’s amazing how much the University has influenced my life in so many ways.
“In my mind, Coach McGraw and her staff have set the standard,” she says. “And that’s something we strive to do the best we can to emulate.”
McGraw has taken notice of how Cunningham has, once again, helped a program make giant strides.
“She has done such a remarkable job to build that program and take that program to places they’ve never been before,” says McGraw, who led the Irish to their third Final Four appearance along with a national runner-up finish in 2011.
“She is one of the best young coaches in the country.”
Cunningham and McGraw both chuckle when considering the possibility of going head-to-head for a recruit.
“You know it would be honest – and a fight,” says McGraw.
“If we were able to get to the point where we’re going against Notre Dame for a kid,” says Cunningham, “that would mean we’re doing some pretty good things.”
Cunningham, who became a mother for the first time with the birth of her daughter Margaret on August 24, better stay on her toes, because McGraw, who boasts the most victories of any Notre Dame basketball coach in history – women’s or men’s – never misses a trick.
“I’ve got the scholarship papers ready,” laughs McGraw. “That’s where the fight’s going to be, when we’re both going after her daughter.”