ND Women’s Basketball
Insider: Nothing but the best
Mary Green | Friday, March 18, 2016
The procession starts the same way before each and every game at Purcell Pavilion.
Before introductions and starting lineups, while the players are still wearing their warmups and taking last-minute shots and fans are getting settled in their seats, the video is cued.
Images and sounds from Notre Dame’s biggest moments flash across the screen, proud moments for the Irish faithful and admonitions to visiting teams, reminders of the five Final Four trips in the last five years, of legends of years past — Riley, Ivey, Diggins, et al. — and, of course, of the 2001 championship.
Like clockwork, the legions of fans inside Purcell hear the background anthem — technically called “Heroes of War,” but more aptly understood as the Entrance Song — and look to the screen, waiting for the time when they rise to their feet in a standing ovation as she steps out from the tunnel and walks around the perimeter of the court, with her assistants following her, step by step, to the home bench.
No matter how many All-Americans are in her lineup, she’s the one to always receive the loudest, most thunderous applause right before tipoff, the type of applause 29 years of fruitful leadership will bring.
Make no mistake about it: Muffet McGraw is the face, heart and soul of this Notre Dame program, and this is where she rules.
If nothing else, Muffet McGraw demands respect.
Her careers stats alone are enough to tell you that: She’s one of five coaches in the history of college basketball, women’s and men’s, to have at least seven trips to the Final Four, five championship game appearances and 800 wins under her belt.
The others? Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Dean Smith — legends, all five of them, to say the least.
McGraw joined that club Jan. 3 of this year, when she collected win No. 800 against Pittsburgh, and she enters the NCAA tournament with that tally now up to 818 and counting.
She’s a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2011 and the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2014 and was named a first-time finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in February.
McGraw has 12 major national coach of the year awards on her shelf, having swept all four majors in two of the past three seasons, and was most recently announced as a finalist for the Naismith College Coach of the Year Award on Wednesday.
Her head coaching position was the first in Notre Dame athletics history to be endowed — yes, even before football — when Karen and Kevin Keyes, one of McGraw’s former point guards and her husband, gifted the University with $5 million last year.
But numbers and accolades alone don’t speak to who McGraw is.
Fearless. Demanding. Intense. It’s how her players, past and present, describe the Philadelphian.
Count them on the long and growing list of her many admirers.
“She’s so detail-oriented,” Irish associate coach Niele Ivey said. “She works so hard, and she’s such a perfectionist, so I think that’s probably the most challenging and the most rewarding part. It’s the same thing because you have to make sure, scouting-wise, you know everything, and you’re preparing her. I learned right from the beginning.
“I’ve learned so much from her, just being a perfectionist. So I guess that’s the best of both worlds, to be so detail-oriented like she is. That’s been the most challenging part, but I think that’s the part I’ve learned so much of from her about it. She works so hard, it makes you want to work hard.”
Ivey and associate coach Beth Cunningham both played under McGraw — Ivey from 1996 to 2001 and Cunningham, the former Beth Morgan, from 1993 to 1997 — before returning to South Bend to coach alongside her.
The two former players are part of a strong coaching tree McGraw has cultivated in her time at Notre Dame, a group that includes current head coaches Kevin McGuff of Ohio State, George Washington’s Jonathan Tsipis, Bill Fennelly of Iowa State and Penn State’s Coquese Washington, another former player at Notre Dame. Added to that is current Irish associate head coach Carol Owens, who has been at McGraw’s side for 16 total seasons.
Ivey said she was flattered when McGraw called her to ask about returning to South Bend.
“It was an honor, and my kind of livelihood just shifted to being a coach, and I thought that the best opportunity I could ever have would be to work under her back at my alma mater for my first job,” she said.
Ivey added she gained even more respect for her former coach when she joined McGraw’s staff in 2007.
“I just saw a whole different side because as a player, you don’t really realize how much goes into coaching: the behind-the-scenes, the scouting, the recruiting, so much time. I had so much respect,” she said. “I called and thanked all my coaches because I know how much goes into that.
“She’s basically the same. She’s so intense. I think she does a fantastic job of basically kind of changing the way she coaches with the generation of kids because the generation back when I was playing is totally different from this generation, so I think she does an amazing job of adapting to the different types of kids she recruits.”
A big part of getting those players to go to Notre Dame rests on Ivey’s shoulders as recruiting coordinator, but she said at the end of the day, it’s a pitch that really sells itself.
“Sometimes, I’m like, this is so easy!” Ivey said. “Sometimes I listen to her speeches, and I’m like, I want to come play for her again. What she’s done is so amazing, and the University of Notre Dame just offers student-athletes so much, that, for me, it’s so hard to pass up.”
But once those players get to Notre Dame, it’s up to them to live up to McGraw’s expectations.
“She’s extremely demanding of everybody,” senior guard Michaela Mabrey said. “She tries to get the most out of every single one of her players, and she’s gonna do whatever she has to to get that.”
Those expectations in how players conduct themselves in practice and games have yielded talk that might frighten an occasional freshman.”
“I heard a few stories — I don’t know if we’ll call them horror stories — about Coach McGraw,” junior guard Lindsay Allen said with a laugh. “But you really have to experience it yourself because she knows our personalities, so she’s different to different people, and she really knows how to get the best out of you and what motivates you, so I think she does a really good job in doing that.”
Allen said McGraw’s ability to cater her approach to individual players is one of her strongest features as a coach.
“She’s just a brilliant basketball mind, honestly,” she said. “She’s a hall-of-fame coach, but she’s also really good with handling our personalities and just managing us as young women and making sure we’re striving for any goal that we want to reach, whether it’s on the basketball court or off the basketball court. So I think she has a really good balance of both.”
With those expectations on their backs, McGraw’s teams have earned a berth in the NCAA tournament in each of the past 21 years. For them, the winning culture has become the status quo.
“I think it’s probably a good thing,” McGraw said March 8. “I think it’s a compliment to us and what we’ve done, but I hope people appreciate how hard it is. Winning’s hard; losing is very easy. Winning takes a lot out of you mentally. … We’re supposed to win every game. Every game we go into we’re picked to win, and so we’ve got to be ready because every single team is giving it their best shot every single game.
“It’s the Super Bowl for them, and for us, we’ve just got to take care of business.”
But there’s another side to the intense, businesslike McGraw that not everyone gets to see.
It comes through when a laugh slips out at a joke in practice, when she congratulates someone after making a big play and even in the signature heels and outfits she sports on the sidelines.
“The best part of playing with her — I really love her outfits. She’s very stylish,” sophomore forward Brianna Turner said. Then she added, almost as a side note: “And she’s just such a great coach, of course, a hall-of-fame coach. She’s just accomplished so much.”
Allen said one of her favorite parts of playing under McGraw has when she’s been able to crack her typically serious demeanor.
“I think anytime you can make her laugh, it’s probably a really funny joke because she’s really serious in practice because it’s business and we’re trying to get things done, so any time you can make Coach McGraw laugh, that’s probably the highlight of your whole year,” she said.
Even when McGraw maintains that demeanor, there’s something to be found in those moments.
“She does a lot of funny things on the bench, just watching her when you’re sitting on the bench, just her reactions and her heel stomps and crouch is funny,” sophomore forward Kathryn Westbeld said.
McGraw might appear to rarely be fully satisfied with her team’s performance — after all, it’s a mindset that’s gotten her to seven Final Fours and four straight conference championships — but that’s not always the case for her players.
“Last year, we were playing Georgia Tech here, and I played terrible the first half, and she was getting on me at halftime, and then the second half, we came out and we came on a big run and I hit a bunch of 3s in a row, and she came to halfcourt and met me at halfcourt and hugged me,” Mabrey recalled. “I’ll just never forget that moment.”
Ivey said McGraw has possessed that ability to switch gears since her own playing days.
“Some of my favorite moments are, honestly, when we would be in practice, and her son, Murphy, would come in from grade school,” Ivey said. “He’d come on the court, and she would totally change from being so intense to just being a loving mother, and I used to always love to see her be able to switch and be able to wear both hats, so that’s my favorite moments.”
But from now until the beginning of April, when just one team is left to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, you can count on McGraw wearing one hat — the relentless competitor, never refusing to give up until she and her team reach the top once again.
“It’s a whole new season,” McGraw said. “We’re 0-0, so we’ve got to start over, and we’ve gotta be focused on the first game because once you start looking ahead, I mean, your season could end. You’ve got to be prepared for every single round.”