By Liam Farrell ’04
Senior Alumni Editor
The women’s basketball office at Notre Dame is, quite literally, built on the accomplishments of Coach Muffet McGraw. In the office lobby, a section of the floor is made of hardwood and features the insignia from the 2001 Women’s Final Four, when McGraw and her team took home the national title.
There was almost a need for some off-season redecorating. The Fighting Irish reached the championship game in April, narrowly losing to Texas A&M, and the team’s tournament run featured consecutive victories against perennial powers Connecticut and Tennessee.
“Whenever you exceed your expectations and overachieve as a team, I think there is no better reward in sports,” McGraw said recently in an interview with ND Today. “It was just so much fun to watch them grow, and come together, and we just kept getting better.”
More accolades came after the season for the coach, who has held her post for 24 years. McGraw was officially inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, making her the first Notre Dame selection and third Big East coach to be enshrined.
“It’s been like a celebration since April, and we have been on a little bit of a high,” she said. “I’m ready to get back to work.”
Here are some excerpts from her interview with ND Today.
Q: Expectations for the season, at least nationally, weren’t that you would make it as far as you did. Was there a point where you think the season started to turn and snowball in that direction?
A: The Connecticut game at home was that game (in January). We had a shot to win it, and we hadn’t had that in a while. After all these losses, I think you learn. We could have played an easy schedule and been undefeated going into the Big East but I like to challenge them.
Q: You played them four times. Year in year out, there is generally a consensus that they are the top rung. Does that play as a continuing motivation for your team? They play in the same conference as the team that is typically considered the best.
A: They are the measuring stick. No matter how well you are doing in the rest of the conference or across the country, you always compare yourself to how you play against Connecticut. That game here, that gave us confidence. That’s what we were lacking. We’ve always had the motivation, we always had that competitive spirit, but now we had the confidence.
Q: A big core of the team comes back. Unlike last year, maybe this time you are going to have much larger expectations. As a coach, how do you make sure the expectations don’t become outsized and weigh too heavily or feed into a complacency?
A: The captains are a little more responsible for the work ethic part, and I think they have already proven they are not satisfied. They are keeping the team on task. I do really worry about it weighing on them, that is my main concern, because we have not been in this position exactly. We have had a target on our backs for a lot of teams, but not teams that are the top in the country. We are trying to embrace it. I talked to Lou Holtz ’90 Hon., and he gave me some good advice. I’ve got to manage the expectations, and with the social media it is really hard to do, because you can’t keep it from them. They read about everything online. There is going to be a time where we struggle and hit some adversity. How we handle that will determine how far we go.
Q: Is the starting point different than it was in 2001?
A: The biggest difference is we kind of underachieved the year before the championship. We didn’t have the right chemistry. This team does not have that problem, they have great chemistry. That championship team was so mature — there was not a lot of social media, though. They didn’t even have cell phones. They really could get in a cocoon a little bit, but this team can’t, especially (guard Skylar Diggins). It’s a completely different mindset. I want it still to be fun and have them appreciate the journey.
Q: Now being in the Hall of Fame, being recognized at the top of your sport, what does that personally mean to you? How do you see that fitting in as you continue to coach at Notre Dame?
A: It gives me appreciation for all the players and coaches that I learn from and work with. It’s really such an amazing place. It’s been such a magical place. I’m so lucky to be here. My husband and I talk about it all the time because we kind of came out here thinking, “Notre Dame, man … What if I fail?” A few (years) turned into ten, fifteen, twenty, now looking at twenty-five. I never stop to think because it’s always after the season and you look back at that year but then it’s always on to the next year. I’ve just enjoyed it so much and am so thankful to be at such a great place.
I think I am amazed at my own journey of how much I have grown since I started coaching and how much I’ve learned. You look back at your first few years and you go, “How did we win a game?” I just knew so little in terms of the psychology and the philosophy and the coaching part of it.
Q: Is that where you find as a coach you have progressed the most?
A: Oh, yeah. And having (son) Murphy, I think being a mom and watching him growing up playing some sports, just watching the coaching and thinking, “Boy, do I sound like that?” You learn a lot in that way too.
Q: How do you think you have managed to build a place for yourself here? Can you talk a little bit about how (the women’s basketball program) has become part of the University and the community?
A: People don’t come to the women’s game to be seen. It’s not a corporate ticket kind of thing. It’s a fun place to be, and it’s a great value, and it’s a great family entertainment, and the girls come out and sign autographs. We have really done a good job of having local players and trying to keep that so people recognize them. When you look at the best players we have ever had, they are either from Indiana or Chicago. You don’t have to go too far.
Q: Notre Dame is continually trying to be better academically and athletically. It’s a challenge for the students who don’t have to be in the weight room and on the court. As a coach, how do you try and make sure they are achieving toward a diploma?
A: Notre Dame attracts a certain time of person. We have things in place to help them be successful through academic services. Generally, when a kid is a high-level achiever in one area, they usually want to be pretty good in the others. We look for a kid who is going to be a leader and wants to excel. It’s getting harder now. The general student body is getting smarter and we have so much more on our plate. Their social life is what suffers and they make sacrifices in that way. You have to be really committed and dedicated to do that.
Q: Are the characteristics you look for kind of self-enforcing in that way? That if you want to be a great athlete, you aren’t going to necessarily slack off?
A: Pretty much. There are kids who we will recruit and I’ll just say, “It’s not a good fit.” We weed out as many as Admissions. We want them to be successful. Obviously, that’s our goal.