From the Archives: Muffet McGraw’s March Madness successes at Notre Dame
Thomas Dobbs | Monday, April 3, 2023
From hiring to hoisting the trophy: Muffet McGraw’s March Madness successes at Notre Dame
As Notre Dame women’s basketball team returned to the NCAA Tournament this year, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the incredible journey the program has been on, thanks in large part to the leadership of Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw. From her hiring in 1987 to her retirement in 2020, McGraw transformed Notre Dame women’s basketball into a perennial national contender, with 26 appearances in the NCAA Tournament and two national championships.
It’s hard to imagine now, but when McGraw arrived on campus in 1987, Notre Dame women’s basketball was far from a powerhouse. The team had never made an NCAA Tournament appearance, and the program was struggling to find its footing. But McGraw, fresh off a successful stint as head coach at Lehigh University, saw potential in the 10-year old program and was determined to turn things around.
Her hard work and dedication quickly paid off. Just four years after her arrival, the Fighting Irish earned their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, and they haven’t looked back since. But it wasn’t until 1997 that McGraw and her team would make their first appearance in the Final Four.
“I couldn’t be prouder of these two people beside me (Beth Morgan ’97 and Katryna Gaither ‘97). I think that they’re both All-Americans. They had tremendous seasons, tremendous NCAA tournaments. I can’t say enough good things about the way they have taken our program from nowhere to the Final Four.”
The Fighting Irish would lose in the semifinals that year, but they were back in the NCAA tournament the following year where they faced off against top-seeded Texas Tech. The odds were against Notre Dame, but McGraw and her players weren’t intimidated.
“They amazed me,” McGraw said about the team’s performance. “I’m proud to see our team come out with such poise to come out and beat a team like Texas Tech.”
In what is still regarded as one of the greatest upsets in women’s basketball history, Notre Dame defeated Texas Tech 74-59, punching their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen. The Fighting Irish would come up short in a defeat against Purdue 65-70, but the upset victory over Texas Tech was a defining moment for the program and for McGraw’s coaching career.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Notre Dame would win its first national championship, a moment that still brings a smile to McGraw’s face.
“This moment passes anything I’ve experienced in my entire life,” said head coach Muffet McGraw.
After winning another national championship in subsequent years, McGraw firmly established Notre Dame women’s basketball as one of the most prominent programs in the country. It’s worth noting that the current Irish head coach for women’s basketball Niele Ivey ‘00 happened to be the team’s leading scorer in the 2001 National Championship, putting up an impressive 21 points.
In a unique twist of fate, the senior point guard, who ended her five-year career mere minutes away from her hometown, grabbed a Sony camcorder from her boyfriend and was the last player to leave the court. “I can’t wait to watch it again,” she remarked, noting how quickly it all seemed to happen.
As we watched the latest iteration of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team compete in the NCAA Tournament this year, let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the incredible legacy of Muffet McGraw. Although she has since departed, her influence on the program is still palpable, with a former player now at the helm.
McGraw’s unwavering belief in her players, coupled with her dedication and hard work, played a pivotal role in transforming Notre Dame women’s basketball into a program that we can all take pride in.