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Edmonds: Muffet McGraw’s legacy is one of victory, equality

| Monday, April 27, 2020

The queen has taken her final bow. After 33 years at Notre Dame, Muffet McGraw earned herself the reputation of being one of the most instrumental coaches in women’s basketball history, and also one of the most important figures in the history of Notre Dame athletics. On Wednesday, McGraw announced her retirement. To some the timing came as a surprise, but in many ways, this was a perfect ending to a storied career.

What can be said about McGraw’s impact on basketball and women’s sports that hasn’t already been said? The numbers speak for themselves. 936 wins, nine Final Fours, seven championship appearances (six of which came in the last decade) and two national championships — one of which was the result of one of the more memorable buzzer beaters in basketball history. McGraw is in a tier of elite coaches that is reserved for only a few in a generation.

More than the trophies or honors she’s earned, McGraw is a trailblazer. Building a dominant program behind the shadows of Rockne’s house is no easy task, but Notre Dame women’s basketball has emerged as the team of the people — garnering support from locals and students alike. There’s something surreal about sitting in a packed Purcell Pavilion surrounded by lime green shirts and thousands of people who became basketball fans due to the work of McGraw and her team. Demonstrating impeccable balance while squatting in stilettos and a pencil skirt, she established her personal image of feminine power to the national stage. And then, of course, there were her viral moments. Two minutes and 22 seconds on the mic was all she needed to singlehandedly challenge the power structure of major institutions, not the least of which were the U.S. Congress and college athletics. McGraw followed up her mic-dropping moment with a gif-able jig as her team punched their ticket to the national championship game. McGraw has proven time and time again that she embodies a combination of power, grace, intensity and excellence.

Our family is a little cuckoo for basketball, whether playing or watching or pretending to be general manager for our beloved Thunder. We’re also a little nuts for Notre Dame, so it should be no surprise that on jersey day in high school, I always showed up as Skylar Diggins.

Having played basketball for years, many former Notre Dame stars were my biggest idols growing up and inspired me to make countless memories of my own. Given our family obsessions, it was a special honor to cover the Notre Dame women’s basketball program over the past three seasons.

While I’ve attended press conferences and stopped by open practices, one particular interaction stayed with me. At the end of last season right as finals were getting into full swing, I rushed over to the women’s basketball office to try to squeeze in a quick interview for our end of year issue. With the stress of finals and move out on my mind, I hadn’t fully comprehended the magnitude of the opportunity, getting the chance to feature someone I considered a role model. It was a small group. Just me and a handful of other reporters — all professional and all men. Throughout the course of that 25-minute conversation, McGraw made a point to take my questions, providing thoughtful answers and putting me at ease. I left that interview and immediately called my dad. Before I knew it, I was happy-rambling about the experience. I had felt heard. What might have been simply listening for McGraw was, for me, the encouragement I needed to know it was alright when I often stuck out like a sore thumb in the press box. McGraw proved she’s much more than talk. In that moment, she embodied what it meant for women to support women.

As I write this preparing for the latest installment of “The Last Dance,” I can’t help but think about McGraw’s last dance. This past season brought along its fair share of challenges. Graduating five starters to the WNBA, losing your sixth man to a major health condition and watching one of your most promising assistant coaches and friends leave for an incredible opportunity in the NBA couldn’t have been easy for the legendary coach. It didn’t have the glory and drama of MJ’s final year. In fact, from an outsider’s perspective it was characterized by grit and growth and even some heartbreak. Through it all though, she remained steady, keeping her team on task and weathering the storm.

Now the time has come for her to hand over the reins to former Memphis Grizzlies assistant Niele Ivey. Ivey was the point guard for the first national championship team back in 2001 and has been with McGraw essentially ever since. You couldn’t have written a smoother transition. Within minutes of McGraw announcing her departure, Ivey was announced as her replacement, a move that has apparently been in the works for some time. While we don’t know everything that went into the timing of her decision, her exit this year instead of last is helpful in two ways. It gave Ivey a year of valuable learning with the Grizzlies, and by leaving after a down year. it gives Ivey a better chance to show improvement.

As McGraw prepares to pass the torch, I have no doubt her legacy is in good hands. She built a program of women who understand the value of women in leadership and sports. She planted the seeds for generations to come as more and more girls continue to seek out new dreams, knowing they are capable, talented and just as deserving. The conversation isn’t over. There are still massive inequalities in sports as demonstrated most recently by pay versus performance discrepancies by the U.S. Soccer Federation. I still hear people scoff at the WNBA, and the fact that many people who consider themselves basketball fans don’t know the name Sabrina Ionescu is frankly an embarrassment. But progress has been made and it will continue to be made because of the work of McGraw and the countless other women and men she inspired — and will continue to inspire — over the course of her career.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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