Now leaving the coaching stage, Muffet McGraw and on her own terms, with so many reasons to applaud.
Certainly, the 936 career victories. Only five coaches in the history of Division I women's basketball have more.
Absolutely, the two national championships and nine Final Fours at Notre Dame — seven in the past 10 seasons. This at a place where the men’s program has seen the inside of one Final Four ever — and that was 42 years ago.
Then there was the remarkable longevity. When she coached her first Irish game in 1987, Notre Dame was in something called the North Star Conference, and the women’s NCAA tournament had been around only six seasons. She stayed 33 years. That’s only two seasons fewer than the combined service of Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz across the walkway at the football stadium.
But if we’re looking for an accolade a little outside the box, there’s this — how she and Notre Dame became a real pain in the Auriemma.
Every sport could use a great rivalry, and when Connecticut vs. Tennessee faded in women’s basketball, there was McGraw’s program, ready to make trouble for Geno Auriemma and the mighty Huskies. Noooobody was a bigger UConn pest.
Since 2011, the Huskies have lost only 20 games. Nine were to Notre Dame. Eleven were to everyone else on Earth not named Notre Dame.
Since 2001, UConn has been bounced out of the NCAA tournament only 10 times. Half were at the hands of the Irish.
Or think of it this way. Any list of great rivalries in men’s basketball begins with Duke-North Carolina, but they have never met in the NCAA tournament. In the past nine women’s Final Fours, Notre Dame and UConn played...seven times. The Irish won four.
They became the cobra and mongoose of women’s basketball, and by the time they met for the last time on the tournament stage — the 2019 Final Four — the press conference was must-see.
This was McGraw back then on what the series between the two juggernauts had become: “I think it's very competitive and intense. I think it is the best rivalry in women's college basketball. I think it's one the fans and teams all look forward to.”
And this was McGraw on the idea — put forward by Baylor coach Kim Mulkey — that coaches have so much in common, they’d be good friends if they weren’t always trying to stab each other through the heart. Maybe even married. So someone at a press conference popped the question, even though both have long-time spouses...could she imagine Mr. and Mrs. Geno and Muffet? “I could see us being friends, but I could not see us being married,” she said, playing along with the theme. “So the answer is no, if he's proposing.”
And this was McGraw on spending time with Auriemma: “We've played golf together once. He's a really good golfer. I don't think we kept score. Probably each kept it individually in our heads, and we both won.”
P.S. The next day, Notre Dame rallied from nine points down in the fourth quarter to beat UConn for the second Final Four in a row.
Yep, she was entertaining. Also a fierce competitor, which is why last season could not have been easy. The Irish went 13-18 and staggered to the finish with a loss to 5-26 Pittsburgh. Her last meeting with UConn was an 81-57 thrashing. It brought to mind something McGraw once said: “I hate to lose more than I like to win, for sure.”
But that’s not why it was time to go. She’s 64, and plenty of coaches work way past that, even through the rare dud season. By all accounts, she had brought in a solid recruiting class to make things better. But the woman who knows a thing or two about putting together effective game plans has a different one for her life now.
When she wasn’t bantering about Auriemma at the 2019 Final Four, she was raising a passionate voice for the advancement of women, in and out of basketball. Coach that many years, win that many games, and when you talk, people listen. Or at least they should. It was pretty hard not to that day.
“We don’t have enough female role models,” she said then. “We don’t have enough visible women leaders, we don’t have enough women in power. All these millions of girls that play sports across the country, we’re teaching them great things about life skills. But wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead?"
“When you look at men’s basketball, 99 percent of the jobs go to men. Why shouldn’t 100 or 99 percent of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women? Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them, and that’s the problem.”
A year later, at her virtual press conference Wednesday — in the age of the coronavirus, people retire on Zoom — she was discussing how heartening it had been, the response from that moment on the soapbox. It only made her eager for more.
“I feel like I’ve turned into a real activist and I’m really enjoying that,” she said.
And the reaction just didn’t come from working women. “I’ve heard from so many men with daughters. It really was an important thing for people to hear. I’ve tried to build on that — just to talk about women’s empowerment, what we can do to help women lead. What better way to start that than in sports? Now that I’m transitioning over, I hope I can continue that in every facet.”
NCREDIBLE IRISH: We picked the all-time starting five for Notre Dame women's basketballI
So it wasn’t the losing season, though that didn’t go down well. It wasn’t the demands of the job, though some of those won’t be missed. She has had a blessed career, and a blessed life — never more than in September of 2001, when on a recruiting trip she had a ticket on the second plane that flew into the World Trade Center, until she changed her plans.
Bottom line? The end at Notre Dame seemed to come because of this:
“I’m looking forward to doing something else.”
Muffet McGraw has already done Hall-of-Fame plenty in women’s college basketball, and you don’t need to count the banners or trophies to understand that. Ask Connecticut.