Dec. 9, 2015

by Denise Skwarcan

It’s been almost 15 years since the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team won its first — and so far only — national championship, and began a journey that has cemented the Irish as one of the most respected programs in the country. The number of All-Americans who don the blue and gold jersey has become constant. Loyal fans still pack into Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center to cheer on their favorite squad. The wins continue to accumulate.

And leading the way is Notre Dame’s Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women’s Basketball Coach Muffet McGraw, who still paces the sideline and stomps her high heels to get her team’s attention during games. But plenty has changed — and some hasn’t — in that decade and a half. Universal changes to women’s basketball itself and personal changes for McGraw that have molded her ability to coach on and off the court.

“I think overall there have been a lot of great changes to women’s basketball, and we’re heading in a really good direction,” McGraw says. “At least here we’re heading in a good direction.”

“Sometimes you learn more from losing than winning. Losing forces you to re-examine.” — Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt

When the Irish opened up the 2015-16 campaign with an 85-54 win over Bucknell on Nov. 15 at Purcell Pavilion, it began McGraw’s 29th season at the helm in South Bend and was her 700th win under the Golden Dome. Her list of accomplishments is extensive, as evidenced by her induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011. She is the second winningest coach regardless of sport in the 128-year history of Notre Dame athletics (trailing only Michael DeCicco, the late men’s/women’s fencing coach). McGraw also has amassed a stellar 707-222 (.761) record at Notre Dame, as well as a 795-263 (.751) overall record (through Dec. 9), but the losses have become more of an anomaly.

Since 2010-11, the Irish have lost just 19 games while racking up 30-plus win seasons and five consecutive trips to the NCAA Final Four. For years, the losses hammered away at McGraw even when success became a cornerstone of the program. Eventually, though, McGraw found a way to effectively manage the defeats.

“When we lose, I feel like I need to know what went wrong and how we fix it,” McGraw explains. “That’s the biggest thing. I’ve got to be able to fix it. And as long as I can come to the team the next day and say, `Here’s what went wrong and this is how we fix it’, I’m ok. So it’s not life or death any more, except for the last game (of the season). That one’s a little harder to get over because you can’t come back (the next day) and fix it, but (losses) are something I’ve really come to grips with.”

Four of Notre Dame’s last five seasons have ended with a loss in the national championship game — tougher losses to swallow then other losses. But instead of inching McGraw one step closer toward retirement, it has the opposite effect. And, while she admits she has achieved all her professional goals, hoisting another trophy would be nice.

“It motivates me to come back even better,” notes McGraw celebrated her 60th birthday on Dec. 5. “The last few years we’ve been so close. We just have to take one more step, and we’d really like to do that again. The whole experience of coming back to campus (after winning the national title in 2001) and driving up Notre Dame Avenue and having 3,000 people waiting for us … just everything about it was phenomenal.”

“A good coach will make his players see what they can be, rather than what they are.” — legendary former Irish football coach Ara Parseghian

Obviously recruiting good players is always at the top of McGraw’s wish list, and the squad’s continued success makes it easier to get into those players’ homes. McGraw believes there are really only one or two game-changing players to be recruited every year, but the talent level of the other players has risen. And, among those players, there has been an evolution.

“You don’t see dominant centers as much anymore,” McGraw notes. “Kids really don’t want to be down on the block. Most big kids want to shoot the three. It’s a faster game, too. In 2001, we played the 2-3 zone for the whole season and you just can’t do that anymore.”

In addition to being good on the court, McGraw also wants players who are a good fit for the University. Recruiting pitches are not just about being basketball players, but also about developing kids into young women over the course of four years. And during the last decade McGraw knows that players aren’t the only ones that have evolved — so has her interaction with them.

“It used to be (for me) that coaching was about offense and defense,” McGraw comments. “Now it’s about the relationship and trying to get to know them a little more off the court. Having that bond makes it more fun for me. I’ve had more fun in the last 6-7 years than I’ve ever had because of that relationship.

“It also helps me coach them with less emotion because I know them better and what they’re trying to do. There’s a lot more dialog back and the forth with the team about what their goals are and what they want. It’s more positive.”

Developments in technology also have given McGraw and her staff the ability to assess whether or not recruits will be a good fit.

“There’s a lot of good stuff you can learn (online),” McGraw states. “It’s a good way for us to read into these recruits and what they’re tweeting. You know, sometimes you don’t recruit a kid because of the way they tweet or how much of it is all about them as opposed to just kid stuff. So it’s been good for us to look at those things.”

Advances in technology have changed McGraw’s recruiting trips as well. Smartphones, internet connections and a huge assortment of other digital devices no longer keep anyone tethered to their desk, which means McGraw often has company when she heads out on the road.

“As long as you have a phone, you’re working!” McGraw says. “So (my husband) Matt and I are definitely able to go out and do more things and spend a little bit more time together. He can go to all the games and he can hop in the car when I go recruiting. That’s our quality time together.”

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” — Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, Inc.

Maybe one of the biggest things that’s changed has been the coach herself. McGraw’s really never been considered the warm-and-fuzzy, Lifetime movie kind of person. However…

“I’m trying to change but it’s hard,” McGraw laughs. “We do all these different personality (tests) and mine are always about the facts and the bottom line. This is what I want and this is what I expect. But I’ve definitely changed. I used to be completely on one side, but now I’m a little bit on the other side too. I think just being a mom helped me with that.”

Mom to Murphy, a 2012 Indiana University graduate, and partner with Matt, who has been with McGraw throughout her entire coaching journey. She’s always quick to point out that she couldn’t have accomplished what she has without Matt, who took on a larger role at home. And, in part, it was the dynamic of her work that helped shape the McGraws’ son.

“Murphy was able to grow up looking at strong female role models, seeing what the girls could do and how successful they were,” McGraw says. “I also think it was great that he grew up knowing he wasn’t the center of the universe. I think that’s a lesson kids need to learn, and he had to fight his own battles. He knows how to handle some adversity. We think he turned out pretty good.”

Along with the unwavering support of her family, McGraw’s game day preparations (“I’m in a bubble. I turn off my phone, I don’t leave the house and I don’t talk to anyone … even Matt leaves me alone.”) and penchant for not whipping up meals in the kitchen haven’t changed (“When I retire, I’m going to take cooking lessons.”). But the self-described introverted homebody has learned how to deal with — and accept — the attention that comes with the position.

“I don’t like being the center of attention or being in big crowds and noisy places,” McGraw says. “But when people recognize me and stop me, it’s never intrusive. The community has been so welcoming and supportive of us, and I think that has probably been the thing I love the most about the success we’ve had.”

“The future depends on what we do in the present.” — Mahatma Gandhi

One thing that won’t change anytime soon is the person patrolling the Irish sideline. Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick saw to that when he signed McGraw to an extension in July 2012 that will keep McGraw in her current position through the 2021-22 campaign. Her place was further cemented in February 2015, when hers became the first coaching position at Notre Dame to be fully endowed, funded by a $5 million gift from one of her former players, 1991 graduate Karen (Robinson) Keyes and her husband, former Irish tennis player, Kevin Keyes.

Yet the goal remains the same from McGraw — to solve the puzzle at the end of the season, albeit with ever-changing pieces.

And it’s the present that consumes most of McGraw’s focus and that of her team’s by treating the next game as the only game. Away from the court, McGraw is the same way. There’s little time to daydream about what could happen when it already is.

“I don’t have a bucket list,” McGraw says. “I’m livin’ the dream.”

— ND —