She’s pragmatic, focused, structured and disciplined, certain about how well-played basketball should look. Yet there’s still something of the mystical about Muffet McGraw, who stepped down Wednesday after 33 years as Notre Dame’s women’s basketball coach.
As is perhaps required when coaching at a school with a leprechaun mascot, she believed in the concept of luck. She sometimes saw things as signs or omens. It’s the charmingly quirky side to her.
But it wasn’t luck that got McGraw 936 career victories, 842 of them at Notre Dame, where she took over in 1987 after starting her head-coaching career at Lehigh. It was having an analytical mind, a love of solving puzzles, an appreciation for hard work, a belief that there was a right way to do things. And a desire to teach young people that taking shortcuts would hurt them in ways they didn’t realize.
And it was her ability to evolve. She did that as a coach, winning a national championship in 2001, when the WNBA was still a relatively new thing for players to aspire to, and then again in 2018, when players looked to college coaches to get them ready for the next level. McGraw showed she could do that.
She also evolved as a spokeswoman — not just for women’s basketball, but for women in coaching and other professional endeavors. It wasn’t so much that she found her voice — she always had that — but that she decided to use it more often. And especially after Tennessee’s Pat Summitt moved into an emeritus role in 2012 and died in 2016 due to early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, McGraw’s voice became especially important.
McGraw is never one for euphemisms. Her postgame news conferences weren’t for chitchat or meandering answers; she got to the point and didn’t waste words. Yet when the time was right for eloquence, it flowed from her. McGraw really showed that at the 2019 Women’s Final Four, when her impassioned remarks on needing more women in leadership struck a chord far beyond the world of basketball.
“We don’t have enough female role models,” McGraw said that day. “We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power. All these millions of girls that play sports across the country, we’re teaching them great things about life skills. But wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead? This is a path for you to take to get to the point where in this country we have 50% of women in power. We have right now less than 5% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
“When you look at men’s basketball, 99% of the jobs go to men. Why shouldn’t 100 or 99% of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women? Maybe it’s because we only have 10% women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. And that’s the problem.”
On Wednesday, McGraw reflected on what she said in 2019.
“I was a little amazed that my speech just kept on going,” McGraw said during a Zoom teleconference. “I don’t really know where it started coming from, but it was something that I think I needed to get out. And I was really happy with the response across the country from women in every profession.
“I’ve heard from so many men with daughters. It really was an important thing for people to hear. I’ve tried to build on that. Just to talk about women’s empowerment, what we can do to help women lead. What better way to start that than in sports? Now that I’m transitioning over, I hope I can continue that in every facet.”
That doesn’t include running for political office, though. McGraw said she is looking forward to expanding her role as an activist, but, “I think I’m a little too honest for politics.”
“I think Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Do what you want, because you’re going to be criticized anyway.’ You want to stay the course, even when things get a little rocky. You have to be that voice and that one constant in a player’s life.”
McGraw was born in December 1955 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, one of eight children. She was part of the first generation of post-Title IX women’s college basketball players, competing at Saint Joseph’s from 1973 to 1977. She stayed in Philadelphia to begin her coaching career, first at the high school level and then as an assistant at Saint Joe’s, where future rival Geno Auriemma also was on head coach Jim Foster’s staff.
She met her husband, Matt McGraw, while she was still a player at Saint Joe’s. She joked in a 2011 interview that he knew what he was in for because she went to a coaching clinic the day before their wedding. They’ve been an inseparable team ever since.
From 1982 to 1987, she was head coach at Lehigh, where one of her players was current WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Then she went to Notre Dame — the perfect fit of coach and program — in 1987. In 1997, the Fighting Irish — as a No. 6 seed — made the program’s first Women’s Final Four.
The next year, Notre Dame pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history with the help of then-freshman Ruth Riley. As a No. 9 seed, the Irish beat No. 1 seed Texas Tech in Lubbock in the second round, preventing the Lady Raiders from playing in a regional they were hosting.
By Riley’s senior season of 2001, Notre Dame was a No. 1 seed itself. After losing the Big East tournament final to UConn on Sue Bird’s shot at the buzzer, the Irish beat the Huskies — after trailing by as much as 15 — in the national semifinals. In an all-Indiana final, Notre Dame prevailed over Purdue.
But 2001 also was the year McGraw made a seemingly mundane change of plans that ended up saving her life.
While out on the recruiting trail, McGraw originally had a seat booked for Sept. 11 on United Flight 175, which was bound from Boston to Los Angeles before being hijacked by terrorists and deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. McGraw’s then-assistant Kevin McGuff, now head coach at Ohio State, convinced her to instead take his flight leaving out of Rhode Island so they could compare notes.
McGraw said later she was obsessed for a time about how such a random decision had life-altering consequences. But then she let it go and rarely spoke of it. That year, she decided, luck had simply been with her.
Notre Dame continued to have good teams, but the recruitment of South Bend’s Skylar Diggins-Smith in 2009 really moved the program to the next level. Between 2011 and 2019, Notre Dame went to the Women’s Final Four seven times, making the final in six of those years.
During that stretch, the matchups with UConn really heated up, as did the coaching rivalry between McGraw and the Huskies’ Auriemma. It made for some intriguing news conferences. And while McGraw didn’t relish the verbal sparring the way Auriemma did, she also didn’t back down from it.
Nothing was going to intimidate her, and the Irish fed off of that. Notre Dame had been a good program for a long time, and in the past decade, it became one of the best.
But even the best can use a good omen now and then. For McGraw, that came when she got the number “201” from a coat check clerk in Columbus, Ohio, on the eve of the 2018 Women’s Final Four. This is a good sign, she thought, because 201 was close enough to 2001, her very lucky year.
A stretch, perhaps? Sure, but after a season in which the Irish had lost four players to ACL injuries, McGraw thought fortune might smile on them at the best possible time. It did: Two legendary game-winning shots from Arike Ogunbowale helped give Notre Dame and McGraw a second NCAA title.
The luck went the other way in 2019, when Ogunbowale missed a late free throw that could have sent the national championship game versus Baylor into overtime, and Notre Dame lost 82-81. With the Irish losing all five starters to the WNBA draft, it understandably might have been a good time for McGraw to retire.
But she asked herself, “Where’s the honor in that?”
This past season was one of the toughest she had faced at 13-18, and at times the toll it took showed. But McGraw kept teaching. Then with time to reflect during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, she realized she was ready to step away. Her former player and longtime assistant Niele Ivey was prepared to return to Notre Dame and take over. The Irish are ready to rebound from last season, and McGraw is ready to move on to a different chapter of her life.
She was lighthearted and jovial during her Zoom teleconference. She readily acknowledged she would miss things such as the intensity of games versus UConn.
“I love that rivalry,” she said. “When we came into the Big East years ago, Connecticut was the measuring stick. And now to be a team that — people know that we’re going to give them a great game. It’s going to be a terrific, hard-fought battle. I loved all those moments.”
She also joked about what she would not miss.
“I think those in-game interviews,” she said, grinning. “It’s the third quarter of the national championship, Mississippi State just went on a 10-0 run, and now is a great time to talk to me on the sideline about what I’m thinking about the rest of the game. Holly Rowe … gotta say, I’m not going to miss it.”
McGraw sounded at peace with her coaching career and what’s next for her, which will include teaching, mentoring, public speaking and activism. Might she coach in the WNBA? She said no, that coaching is over. There’s plenty else to do.
Asked the advice she would give Ivey, McGraw had a ready response.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself,” McGraw said. “I think Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Do what you want, because you’re going to be criticized anyway.’ You want to stay the course, even when things get a little rocky. You have to be that voice and that one constant in a player’s life.”
McGraw has been that for decades. Now, she can have an impact on even more lives.
“I’m ready to move away from basketball,” she said. “I’ve done it for over 40 years, and I’m looking forward to doing something else. I’m open to so many things. Anything that helps women, I’m going to be there. “