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‘She’s a Hall of Fame person. Period.’: Former players reflect on McGraw’s Hall of Fame career, legacy after her 30th season at Notre Dame

| Monday, April 10, 2017

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Full House debuted. Michael Jackson released his follow-up album to Thriller. The New York Giants earned their first Super Bowl rings and Martina Navratilova defeated a young Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon finals.

And a young, inexperienced Muffet McGraw stepped to the helm of the Notre Dame women’s basketball program with fewer than 100 career coaching wins under her belt and a hope — a hope that maybe she would, at some point, be able to turn nothing into a small something.

Thirty years later, McGraw has managed to steer her team through uncharted territory, earning 853 total victories, 24 NCAA tournament bids, 15 Sweet 16 appearances, seven trips to the Final Four and one ever-elusive national title.

And, on April 1, McGraw reached the pinnacle of the sport. A spot alongside the all-time greats — male and female, professional and collegiate, players and coaches. A place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

McGraw’s legacy is undeniable whether inside Purcell Pavilion, on the Notre Dame campus or across the nation. Home crowds, 9,000 strong, all decked out in lime green, rise to their feet, clapping and cheering not just for her players but for the woman behind them and the program she has built.

But in addition to building a program and a legacy, she was shaping and molding hundreds of young women into outstanding athletes, exemplary students and good people.

Irish head coach Muffet McGraw cuts down the net after her team defeated Baylor 77-68 in the Elite Eight on March 29, 2015 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. McGraw has 853 career wins.Observer File Photo
Irish head coach Muffet McGraw cuts down the net after her team defeated Baylor 77-68 in the Elite Eight on March 29, 2015 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. McGraw has 853 career wins.

“There’s this motor that drives her every day.”

McGraw’s will to win, willingness to prepare and competitive drive have, over the years, proven to be a recipe for success.  In the eyes of her players, this drive is what sets her apart and helps her players to excel on the court.

Natalie Achonwa, a member of the Class of 2014 and a former captain and All-American forward under McGraw, said McGraw sets an example in her preparation that she both demands from her players and that her players strive to follow.

“She’s always had that never-quit competitive attitude that she instills in her players and that she demands from her players,” Achonwa said. “That’s always pushed me and always been in the back of my mind.”

Her sentiments were echoed by those of Ruth Riley, the former First Team All-American center who clinched the national title for the Irish in 2001 and currently manages the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars.

“I think her greatest strength is her intelligence and her competitive spirit,” Riley said. “Her ability to come up with a game plan and strategy and the process to achieve that throughout practice, even from the beginning of the season to reach your potential at the end of the season, just her basketball IQ is incredible. But, there’s also this motor that drives her every day that she steps on the court and the competition and desire for all of us to compete to our ability.”

McGraw’s squads take “color tests” to examine the balance of personalities on the team, and according to Achonwa, McGraw is a gold: detail-oriented, efficient and decisive, a realist, firm and a planner. McGraw’s preparation for games, both on and off the court, is notoriously meticulous.

“There is an edge that I think you would understand if you’ve been to Philadelphia [McGraw’s hometown], and that toughness is what it takes in order to succeed and anything that we’ve been able to accomplish,” Riley said. “It’s not easy, and so I think her toughness always guides you in the right direction, but it’s always accompanied by the opportunity to perform, the opportunity to reach your potential, the encouragement, the belief the confidence and, so I think it’s a perfect balance.”

McGraw’s work ethic is something that stays with her players, even after graduation. Former Irish guard, two-time captain and 2016 graduate Michaela Mabrey says that that work ethic is the most important lesson she learned from her former coach.

“[She taught me that] nothing is ever given,” Mabrey said. “You know, obviously our program is something that, we’ve been to the Final Four [seven] times and we’ve made it far, but she said that this isn’t given. You can’t just walk into a gym and just because you have ‘Notre Dame’ on your chest you win the game. You’ve got to work, you have to continue to work hard all the time and I think that really hit me, and our team.”

“She never gave up on me.”

For many players, even the very best, the transition from high school to college hoops is difficult. Every collegiate career has its ups and downs, and for many, those low points wear down self-esteem and confidence.

Unless you have Muffet McGraw in your corner.

This was especially true for Kayla McBride, a 2014 graduate and former All-American guard who helped McGraw lead the team to four consecutive Final Four appearances and three national title games.

“We used to have these meetings once a week, usually,” McBride explained. “She just wanted us to pop in, check in, things like that. And at the end of every meeting, she’d just always tell me that I was the best player in the country. Especially during my senior year, she was always continuing to instill this confidence in me. I could have the worst day of my career and I could have the best game of my career, and she always had this undeniable confidence in me and I just remember the way that she looked at me, with those piercing eyes, and that honesty. I still carry that with me today.

“I can remember her getting on me in practices from the time I was a freshman. Even more so when I was a senior because she always expected so much out of me. But, it was in those meetings that I gained that confidence in her, and so when we got to those big moments, those big games, when we got on the court, it was easy for us to be connected and easy for me to have confidence because I wanted to be so great for her, because I knew she believed in me.”

That belief in her players is evident from the moment McGraw steps on the court, and she is able to communicate it to each and every one of them.

“But she’s always been that way. She still has that confidence in you,” McBride added. “Even when I didn’t have it in myself.”

Struggling with self-confidence is a common theme among the players whose phenomenal careers were accompanied by some dark points. But another common theme is McGraw’s guidance pulling players from frustration to greatness.

“After my freshman year when I didn’t play a lot, I was down on myself and I think she never stopped believing in me, and that’s what I love about her,” Mabrey said. “She never gave up on me.”

“We need you to be a beast.”

McGraw is famous for expecting the very most out of her players, manifested in the success of her teams. But her players say that along with those high expectations, her ability to motivate and a mutual respect she shares with her players that gives them the desire to never let her down.

“It’s like an intimidation factor with that, because, as a player, especially as a player who wants to be great, you always want honesty,” McBride said. “And she’s always going to give you the answer brutally honest, and that was something that I always admired about her.”

In fact, “honest” was the word both McBride and Achonwa used to encapsulate McGraw. She is brutally honest, a quality that adds to the immense respect her players, the Notre Dame community and the general public have for her.

“I’ve had times when I’ve been honest to a fault and she’s just the biggest balance of honesty, never shying away from telling you what you need to hear,” Achonwa said. “I think a big part in society as a whole, actually now, is not only having the conscience to do the right thing, but also having the guts to do and say the right things and I think she has both of those.”

Achonwa recalled this straight-up approach particularly resonating with her in one moment leading up to the 2014 NCAA tournament.

“I’m remembering this one time, we were watching film, and I remember — and it’s something that plays back in my mind once in a while and it has continued throughout my career — but we were watching film and she stopped the film and she, I’m paraphrasing what she said a little bit, but, long story short, she said ‘Ace, you’re an All-American. We need you to be a beast. We need you to be a beast on the block,’” Achonwa said. “And I had been shying away a little bit on the offensive end and she said — this is right before the tournament my senior year, before I injured my knee — and she said ‘You just need to be a beast. We know you can do it. We believe in you and we really just need you to be a beast,’ so, it was kind of more than a challenge than anything. And that’s how I took it. I took it as a challenge.

“And when we chatted about it a little bit more, later on, it was really just her challenging me, and so now if I’m ever doubting, I just think, ‘Be a beast, be a beast.’ And I went on before I got hurt in the tournament, I was averaging 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds], I think, something like that. So, it was a little bit of a kick in the butt, but it’s something that really pushed me. And she always did that throughout my four years and continues to do that. She really challenges players. She’s not going to coddle you, she’s not going to baby you. If you want that, you’ve got to go somewhere else. She’s going to push you to be the best you because she believes in you and she knows you can do it.”

McGraw’s desire for Achonwa to play her best, to lead the team in the tournament, stemmed from a place of trust that Achonwa could handle it. That trust applies to every player and is reciprocated, creating a special bond between the player and coach, Mabrey said.

“I think she just trusted me, I think because she knew I put the work in and I was never slacking and that’s what she loves most about players, the work ethic,” Mabrey said on her relationship with McGraw. “And that’s why she believes in her players. She knows that when she walks into a gym, she’s going to see them in there, shooting, before and after games. She’s going to see them in her office, interacting with them and talking with them.”

She also noted that, although she played alongside her younger sister, current sophomore guard Marina, their coach always treated them as individuals and as equals.

“I don’t think she ever looked at us as sisters at any point when we were playing,” Mabrey said. “You know, Coach would ask me a few things about her, just how to help her in different ways, because obviously, I knew her better, but other than that, she treated us as complete individuals and expected the same things out of us.”

Muffet McGraw smirks during her post-game press conference after Notre Dame defeated Montana 77-43 in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Purcell Pavilion on March 20, 2015.Michael Yu | The Observer
Muffet McGraw smirks during her post-game press conference after Notre Dame defeated Montana 77-43 in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Purcell Pavilion on March 20, 2015.

“She truly, genuinely cared about me as a person.”

What players say truly makes McGraw special, however, is not wins or stats or film; rather, it’s the love and respect she fosters in the locker room.

“I think that was one of the things that drew me to her, is her honesty and how much she cared,” McBride said. “She truly, genuinely cared about me as a person — and that meant more to me than anything she could ever do for me on the basketball court.”

Achonwa said players’ love for McGraw all goes back to her honesty.

“It’s one thing to know to do the right thing, it’s another thing to have the guts to say and do the right thing, and I think that is her in a whole, that honesty right there,” Achonwa said. “Sometimes you don’t want to hear it, but she’s going to tell you.”

Mabrey similarly had nothing but praise and admiration for the character and integrity of her former coach.

“I think Coach McGraw’s character is one of a kind,” Mabrey said. “She really, really deeply cares. … She’s an amazing coach and a better person.”

As a result of the connections McGraw has been able to make with 30 years worth of Notre Dame teams, her former players look back on the time spent with her with fondness and look at her as a person to emulate on the court and in life.

“She expects a lot out of you as a person, as a player and then as woman,” McBride said. “She expects a lot out of you, more than a lot of coaches probably do. But, it’s backed up with this loving, caring, motherly nature. She has us over to her house and into her family and things like that, so it’s backed by this genuine love for her players and wanting to see us be successful, no matter what we do. I think that, accompanied with that fact that she’s so tough and she’s so competitive, it allows her players to grow.”

Achonwa expressed a similar view of McGraw as a real-life role model.

“Coach McGraw has taught me so much as an individual, as a person, not even a basketball player, but as a person as well as a basketball player that I utilize in my entire life,” Achonwa said. “Just from how competitive she is, how alike we think in terms of our bluntness, in how straightforward we are. And also, I learned I learned a lot from her, I think, particularly my senior year, going through some things on how to really be yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to be an individual in a team setting and you have to sacrifice for the team always, for the betterment of the team. So just remembering and reminding yourself that you are you and staying true to yourself in a way that still benefits the team. Because you’re on a team because you make your team better.

“For instance, if you’re talking about Notre Dame, you’re talking about a pro team, you’re talking about in the workforce, you’re on the team for a reason. Yes, you want to make the team better, but remembering and having the confidence to remind yourself that you are you and you are there for a reason…she’s just taught me so much in my life.”

For Riley, McGraw’s character, and the fact that she knew McGraw would both develop her basketball skills and her as a person, was a main selling point as she made her decision as to where to attend school.

“[She is a] legend because of the impact that she’s made, not only at Notre Dame but for the game of women’s basketball and the sports world in general. And also, I think for women and girls’ empowerments, as well,” Riley said. “ … Clearly, she was very instrumental in the decision I made to come to the University of Notre Dame and I think it was a few things. The program that she had built up until that point, following their success and wanting to be a part of that, I really just felt like her personality and what the culture she created within the program, you know, I knew she cared about us as young women, as student athletes. But there was also going to be an incredible opportunity for me to reach my potential and be a part of something great and she’s a leader.”

Riley said the lessons she learned from McGraw have carried over into her life post-Notre Dame, especially as she has taken on the important leadership role as general manager in the San Antonio Stars organization.

“I think, in general, her competitive spirit, her confidence are things that resonate and are things that she encourages in her athletes,” Riley said. “And, for me personally, she’s the most influential coach I’ve ever played for in my basketball journey. It’s beyond basketball for me. It’s also ways in which she’s encouraged me in life, encouraged me to be a leader, now in the role that I am in, and I’m really grateful.”

“I still hear her in the back of my mind.”

For many college athletes, the relationship built with a coach is a four-year commitment. For McGraw’s players, this relationship is a lifelong one. As her players have gone their separate ways, she has stayed fully involved in their lives. This was especially the case for McBride, a current guard for the San Antonio Stars. McBride tore her ACL halfway through the 2016 WNBA season, at which point she was the Stars’ leading scorer and in the middle of a career-best season.

“As soon as I got injured, Coach McGraw was probably one of the first people to text me about the injury,” McBride said. “She knows me, so she knows how competitive I am and how much I hate not playing, so she was one of the first people to tell me that it was going to be okay and that I’m going to be back better than ever and things like that.”

However, it was not just in that time of need that McGraw was there for McBride. McBride attributes much of her professional success to her time playing under McGraw at Notre Dame. She still lives and plays by the mantra “Don’t settle for anything less,” something McGraw preached.

“Because I think there was a point in my career, maybe my sophomore year, I think she kind of could tell that I was settling into a role that wasn’t for me and she always was pushing me to be a little bit more,” McBride said. “… I still hear her in the back of my mind, when I’m working out or in games or things like that. I still feel her on the sideline looking over at me like, ‘Come on, KMac.’”

Mabrey’s Notre Dame career took her in a different direction. The Belmar, New Jersey, native took on the job of coordinator of program and player development for the women’s basketball program at the University of Miami. She said she owes her interest in coaching to McGraw.

“I wasn’t really thinking about [coaching] that much, and I didn’t know if I wanted to play overseas at that point, and she came up to me one day and was just like, ‘If this doesn’t work out, you know you’d be a really good coach,’” Mabrey said. “And that’s kind of when the lightbulb clicked and I was like, ‘Hmm, maybe she’s right.’ She’s been right about a lot of things in my life, so really trusted her with everything.”

Mabrey is not the only former player with coaching in her post-Notre Dame life. Achonwa, a current center for the Indiana Fever, said that once her professional career comes to a close, she would like to pursue coaching.

Riley, who played professionally for over a decade and helped lead Team USA to an Olympic gold medal in 2004 before taking over as the Stars’ general manager in 2016, said everything she learned from McGraw has helped promote her career to the level it is today.

“[Playing under McGraw] has helped me in every facet of my career, whether it was moving on to the WNBA and being an incredible foundation to build upon,” Riley said. “After four years at Notre Dame, I had the IQ from Coach McGraw, you know, work ethic, ability to experience success and the empowerment piece as well, the confidence that she breathes into her players. But I feel the same in my job now, just as an executive woman in the sports world, I am equally as grateful for what I’ve learned from her.”

“She is the biggest celebrity in town.”

Her rapport with players is clear from the way graduates talk about McGraw and the tradition of dominance she’s established; her rapport with fans is made obvious by the roar of the crowd when Muffet McGraw strides into Purcell Pavilion in her signature pencil skirt and heels.

She doesn’t let the fame go to her head, of course. Achonwa said McGraw treats everyone the way she would treat her biggest star on the team.

“Sometimes I don’t think Coach McGraw realizes how much of a big deal she is,” Achonwa said. “And that’s the only way to really describe it, is that she’s a big deal. But if you ever met her, you wouldn’t think she knows she’s that big of a deal. She walks in the room and it doesn’t matter your background, it doesn’t matter what your occupation is, it doesn’t matter why you’re in the gym, she’s going to say hi to you, she’s going to embrace you like she knows you.

“She knows all the staff in the entire building, she knows all the coaches. And it’s because she really cares. And I think the fans kind of support us. And I believe the fans come out and support her and support us because they know that she has that no-quit, competitive attitude and so they know that the product they’re going to get on the court and the people they’re there to support are going to come out and they’re going to give their all. It’s going to be a grind every game, so they come and support her and they support us because they know that she would never let us quit, so they’re going to get a game out of it, whether we’re up by 40 or we’re up by four. … Sometimes I want to say, ‘Coach! Do you know that you’re a big deal?’”

Riley said McGraw’s relationship with the fans speak to the fact that she will go down in Notre Dame as a ‘legend.’

“I think that goes into the legacy that she’s built. Thirty years coaching. And the program that she’s built here at Notre Dame has always involved the community as our Sixth Man or Sixth Woman, however you want to see that, and she’s somebody that has embraced that,” Riley said. “When I go to dinner with Coach, people are like, ‘Hi Ruth. And Coach McGraw, can I get your picture?’ She is the biggest celebrity in town and I think that’s amazing. And she’s also the most unassuming celebrity you will ever meet. She is not seeking that attention by any means. It’s simply a byproduct of her greatness.”

McGraw hosts events for fans throughout the season; she invites them into her press conferences; she hurries after games to climb aboard their buses and thank them for coming.

“I think the fans are the key to the game. Some of the games that we had that were close, I don’t think we would have won without them and their energy when we didn’t have it,” Mabrey said. “And I think that speaks to Coach McGraw a lot because she interacts with them. You know, we have parties for them after the season, we try to involve them as much as possible and that comes from her. She wants to get them involved because they dedicate so much of their time to us and I think that just speaks to her character. She doesn’t feel like she’s invincible and she very, very much cares about our fans as much as she cares about us.”

Unfortunately, in women’s college basketball, near-empty stands are commonplace. That does not occur when the Irish take the court at Purcell Pavilion, courtesy of a concerted effort by McGraw — and by extension, by her team — to make them a part of the family.

“She’s always staying after, making sure she takes pictures, does autographs, stuff like that and Notre Dame loves her,” McBride said. “I think she’s always done those things and she’s always put those things first. And that’s what makes her so great, because that’s what she loves to do. She loves to make sure people feel as loved and cherished as we feel. She feels that every night from our fans and she wants to give that back to them in any way she can.”

Muffet McGraw squats on the sideline as she watches her team defeat Montana 77-43 to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 20, 2015 at Purcell Pavilion.Michael Yu | The Observer
Muffet McGraw squats on the sideline as she watches her team defeat Montana 77-43 to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 20, 2015 at Purcell Pavilion.

“It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Hall of Fame.”

On April 1, McGraw was rewarded with an accolade many consider to be the pinnacle of the sport of basketball — she was voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. McGraw was named a finalist for the Hall the previous year, but she did not receive the honor until her second attempt. She said, despite her impressive resume to date, she was not expecting to receive the honor this year.

“I got the phone call and I assumed he was calling to tell me that I did not get in,” McGraw said. “And so, when he said, ‘It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Hall of Fame,’ I just had a moment when I couldn’t catch my breath and almost burst into tears on the phone and it was just an amazing moment, and Matt [McGraw] was there with me, so we got to share it.”

While McGraw herself may not have expected the honor, her former players felt she was unquestionably deserving.

“I think she definitely deserves the distinction of being a Hall of Famer,” Achonwa said before the announcement was made. “I mean, you can just look at her track record in general. You can just look at the wins. If you look at purely the wins alone she deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. If you ask players or people that have met her, she deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. If you break down the film on her team plays and how smart her teams play, she deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. There’s so much to go into it.

“She’s a Hall of Fame person. Period. Her character. How much she gives to women’s basketball, she deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. How much she gives to Notre Dame, she deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I don’t want to say it’s long overdue, but she definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

“She’s one of the greatest coaches of all time of women’s basketball.”

Riley said McGraw’s success is secondary to her legacy — the fact that she has built a successful program “the right way.”

“Building a program, building Notre Dame to where it is today, the amount of success she’s had, I think, alone merits her to be in the Hall of Fame,” Riley said before McGraw was named to the Hall of Fame. “ … But, beyond that, the way she does it, with integrity, with class, with character, doing things the right way, graduating her student athletes, she has the complete picture of what I would think defines a Hall of Famer.”

McBride agreed with Riley and Achonwa, but took a slightly different approach as to why McGraw deserves the spot.

“It’s about consistency. I think she’s been doing what she’s supposed to do every year on some level, and she adapts,” McBride said. “We’ve changed conferences, the game has changed and she’s still able to be successful. And that’s what a real coach is. Their willingness to adapt, their willingness to do things the right way. And Coach McGraw has always done that. And her reputation is so great, all around.

“I think it’s hard to find somebody with a record like hers.”

For McGraw, the accomplishment is less a reflection on herself, and instead a chance to look back at the last 35 years as a head coach and 30 years at Notre Dame, especially considering she did not consider it a possibility when she took the job for the Irish.

“I think the biggest thing is it gives you pause,” McGraw said. “You want to reflect back on, really, my whole career and all those people that had such a big part in it. So many amazing young women I was blessed to coach and so many assistant coaches. You don’t do anything in life alone, and this award is just the culmination of a lot of people helping me out.”

“I’m sure I never even considered [that I could be in the Hall of Fame],” she added. “I know we went to the Hall of Fame way back when Matt and I first got married and it was kind of thrilling to go and look at the people that were in there at that point, 30 years ago, but I don’t think I ever started coaching to have any sort of awards. It was really just about the game and teaching the game.”

“I aspire to be like Coach McGraw.”

Being a Hall of Famer is far from the end for McGraw, but the incredible legacy she has created, both on the Notre Dame campus and with each and every person and player she has touched, is already solidified.

“I was out in Lexington, [Kentucky, on March 24] to watch the Sweet 16 game, and just when I saw her, she dropped what was in her hand and ran to me and we embraced,” Achonwa said. “It just goes to show the love that is still there and will continue to be there and how much she builds relationships and how much that relationship will always be there. I’m smiling when I’m talking about her because it should have been the scene from a movie. But the love for Coach McGraw is real.”

McBride noted the extent to which McGraw shaped her life is more than she could have imagined.

“I thank her, I love her and I wouldn’t be the player or person that I am today without her,” McBride said. “Without her pushing me, without her genuine, loving nature, her tough-mindedness, her intimidation at some points. I wouldn’t be the player or person that I am without her.”

Riley said she has always looked up to McGraw and she has done her best since graduation to soak up all the information and wisdom McGraw has to share with her.

“She’s always been around to give me advice, especially being back for two years getting my executive MBA, being around campus a bit more,” Riley said. “You know, I think it’s part of what she says and quite honestly, it’s a lot of me just watching how she works and having this incredible role model that, you know, day in and day out is consistent, has the character, has the integrity that you would want in somebody that you look up to.”

Mabrey, whose familial connection to Notre Dame runs deep, said she and her teammates viewed the tough dynamo of a coach in a maternal way from the moment they stepped out of the gym.

“When she’s on the court, she’s very tough, but when she’s off the court, you can always come to her, you can always talk to her and always get advice from her. Because, at the same time, she was like our mom,” Mabrey said. “She was our mom away from home … and I think she knew that. I think she knew … we have other lives and that’s something she very much believed in. And I think that’s what made my college experience so great. She was always there to talk. I think that’s what made everyone’s relationship with her so strong.”

Achonwa summed up the general feeling that so many of the people who have interacted with McGraw on any level experience.

“I aspire to be like Coach McGraw, on and off the court,” she said. “ … I’m just glad, once again, that I made that decision to go to Notre Dame because those relationship with the players and the coaches and with the Notre Dame community that I will cherish and continue to grow.”

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a senior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident assistant in McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

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