'A giant in the game': Legendary coach Muffet McGraw steps down at Notre Dame
Just two years removed from the euphoria of winning her second national championship, Muffet McGraw knew it was time.
Time to relax a bit. Time to do something else. And time, hopefully, to watch her young team climb back up the rankings under someone else’s guidance on the rock-solid foundation she built over three decades at Notre Dame.
The Hall of Fame coach retired Wednesday with a resume that includes two national championships in 33 seasons at the school, a surprising decision to many of the countless players and coaches she has influenced on and off the court as a mentor and advocate for women.
“I am proud of what we have accomplished and I can turn the page to the next chapter in my life with no regrets, knowing that I gave it my best every day,” said McGraw, a four-time winner of the AP women’s basketball Coach of the Year.
McGraw said that she and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick have had an annual conversation over the last few years about whether she would be back. She felt this, at last, was the right time to step away.
The 64-year-old coach said she didn’t want to leave after the team lost in the title game in 2019 because she didn’t want the next coach to step into a rebuilding situation with all five starters from that team leaving for the WNBA.
“Where’s the honor in that? I really wasn’t ready,” McGraw said in an online news conference. Instead, she stuck around and her inexperienced team went 13-18 in the program’s first losing season since 1991-92.
“Now looking ahead to know we have a great recruiting class coming in, ranked in top 25 in (a) preseason poll,” she said. “We’re poised to make another run to make the Final Four. I’m leaving the program in a good place.”
Former Fighting Irish player and longtime assistant coach Niele Ivey will return to take over for McGraw. She was on the Memphis Grizzlies staff last year after 17 seasons at Notre Dame.
McGraw became the 13th woman inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. She won 936 games, ranking sixth among Division I coaches, with 848 coming at Notre Dame.
She was also part of the greatest rivalry in the sport over the past decade as Notre Dame battled Geno Auriemma’s UConn powerhouse year in, year out. The two Philadelphia-area natives added plenty of spice to the showdowns, with the winner almost always the favorite for the national championship.
Auriemma won most of the matchups, but not always the biggest ones; McGraw’s team beat the Huskies in the 2018 and 2019 Final Fours.
She said she will miss those UConn games.
“I love that rivalry, great for women’s basketball. When we came into the Big East, Connecticut was the measuring stick,” she said. “People know we’re going to give them a great game. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle. Loved all those moments.”
Auriemma was surprised to hear that McGraw was retiring.
“She leaves behind a great legacy of coaching, winning and competing that translated into a Hall of Fame career,” Auriemma said. “We’re going to miss the competition and we’re going to miss the impact she had on our game.”
McGraw is one of five Division I men’s or women’s basketball coaches with at least 930 wins, nine Final Fours and multiple titles. She took her teams to seven national championship games and won it all in 2001 and 2018.
That last title, won in Columbus, Ohio, featured one of the greatest Final Fours in the history of the women’s tournament and is among her greatest memories.
“Winning that championship in Columbus and seeing all those alums. Forty women out on the stage celebrating with each other whether they graduated in 1990 or 2009 — they were all together,” she said. “Seeing those alums share in that moment that was one of my favorite memories.”
She said that she plans to remain active in the university and local communities. McGraw also will continue to be a strong advocate for women. She drew headlines when she made an impassioned speech at the 2019 Final Four and said she would only hire females on her staff because women needed more opportunities.
“It is inevitable and appropriate that as we mark Muffet’s retirement from coaching today, much of the focus will be on the remarkable record of competitive success that makes her a Hall of Fame coach,” Swarbrick said. “But my reflections go more to her as an educator, friend and role model.”
McGraw sent 20 players to the WNBA during her coaching career, including Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kayla McBride, Arike Ogunbowale and Ruth Riley.
“There’s something about her that makes you want to move a mountain for her. I believe it’s how much she cares about her players,” Diggins-Smith said.
McGraw got her start as an assistant at her alma mater Saint Joseph’s before taking over as head coach at Lehigh in 1982 until she left for the Irish after the 1987 season.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert played for McGraw at Lehigh.
“Coach McGraw is a giant in the game of women’s basketball,” Engelbert said. “She also developed many elite players who have gone on to become transcendent stars in the WNBA and impacted countless players and people around the world through her empowering messages. I look forward to seeing the impact Muffet will continue to have as she embarks on her next chapter.”