Monday, May 4, 2020

McGraw rides off into sunset after 33 years at Notre Dame

Muffet McGraw chats with Ray Floriani outside Notre Dame bus following Fighting Irish’s win over Fordham last November. (Photo by Karen Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

The news came as a complete surprise. 

On a sun-splashed weekday afternoon, the announcement was made: Muffet McGraw was stepping down after 33 years as head coach at Notre Dame. 

Instantly, a few thoughts came to mind. The Fighting Irish were coming off an uncharacteristically down year, finishing at 13-18. Their season ended in a 67-65 loss to a five-win Pittsburgh team in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament’s opening round. There was no March Madness. Had it come to pass, it certainly would not have included McGraw’s group. Despite the rough season, there was no hint of the coaching chair at South Bend even rising a degree on the proverbial thermometer.

Another thought came to pass on the difficulty of maintaining a top flight program these days. Notre Dame won the national championship in 2018 and was runner-up a year later. Regardless, the competition is increasingly tougher. UConn is not going away. The same could be said for Baylor and South Carolina. Mississippi State, whom the Irish defeated for the national title two years ago, lost coach Vic Schaefer. He’s now directing the Texas Longhorns, certain to eventually give Kim Mulkey’s Baylor Bears a run. Beyond the marquee programs, mid-majors these days are now getting better and providing more than early-round fodder for the higher seeds.

McGraw’s own conference, the ACC, is getting better each year. Louisville is an outstanding program. Jeff Walz’s Cardinals won the league, but were upset by Florida State in the tournament semifinals. North Carolina State went on to defeat the Seminoles in the final. In all, six schools won 20 or more games. With Courtney Banghart at North Carolina, expect her Tar Heels to improve on the 16-14 mark of her first year in Chapel Hill. Life is not easy on Tobacco Road.

After sizing up these thoughts and ideas one thing was certain: Muffet McGraw realized it is time. She directed the Irish program for 33 years. Her resume shows two national championships, 24 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, nine Final Fours and 936 victories. She began her career as an assistant at her alma mater, Saint Joseph’s, in Philadelphia, Then it was on to Lehigh as a head coach from 1982 through 1987. Even at an early stage in coaching, she inspired and empowered women. One such player, Cathy Engelbert, used that inspiration from those days in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to ultimately become commissioner of the WNBA. McGraw, bestowed many honors during her illustrious career, is a deserving Women’s and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.

The realization was there. The clock struck midnight. The late Al McGuire always spoke about the fact that you cannot coach forever. McGuire felt it should be tucked together in a certain timeline. That timeline varies per individual. For some, it can be a decade or less. For others, like McGraw and Mike Krzyzewski, who is still on the Duke sidelines, the measure comes in decades. For McGraw, this was it, a time to exit gracefully and pass the reins.

Notre Dame did the right thing not courting potential suitors.  Niele Ivey, the school’s logical and rightful choice, spent last season as a Memphis Grizzlies assistant. Prior to that, she spent a dozen years as McGraw’s assistant. A former standout for the Irish, Ivey’s selection was a prudent one to say the least.

Realizing her value as a teacher, Notre Dame wants to keep her involved in some way in that capacity, whether she will be involved with students or mentoring young coaches. Nothing is certain, except that she will still be an integral part of Notre Dame. Should Ivey need someone to consult or seek guidance, McGraw will be close at hand.

After defeating Fordham on opening night in November, McGraw spoke outside Rose Hill Gymnasium near the team bus. She emphasized the growing pains of a young team, having lost five players to the WNBA, not to mention a tough schedule in both non-conference and ACC play. She seemed eager to meet the challenge. Realistically, she had been in a year-to-year evaluation mode. The 13-18 final ledger was not the deciding factor, as Ivey will inherit an outstanding recruiting class that should have the Irish back in national conversation sooner rather than later. For McGraw, the time was now.

On that unseasonably warm November evening, Notre Dame had defeated Fordham, 60-55. The host Rams gave Notre Dame a battle, but fell short. For Fordham head coach Stephanie Gaitley, it was more than getting an outstanding program to venture into the Bronx for a road game, it was also a reunion of a longtime friend in the game and matchup of two coaches with Big 5 Philadelphia roots, McGraw from Saint Joseph’s and Gaitley, who played for Harry Perretta at Villanova.

“My memories with Muff go back over 40 years when we worked Cathy Rush’s camp together,” Gaitley said recently. Part of the camp featured pickup games among the counselors. Gaitley knew whom she wanted as a teammate.

“I loved being on her team because she was a pass-first point guard and tough defensively, so you knew you had a good chance to stay on the court,” Gaitley recalled. “Muff and I would run into each other a few times in the summer in Ocean City, New Jersey (Gaitley’s hometown). She certainly has left her mark on the game and will continue her legacy in a new role.” 

Pass-first and strong defensively are apt descriptions of her Notre Dame teams, fundamentally sound outfits that fought through adversity, as in 2018, when four ACL injuries did not deter the Irish from claiming a national championship. McGraw’s teams were unselfish and sound, which comes as little surprise, as they adopted the persona of their mentor and applied it on the court. Beyond the wins and accolades, that might be the best compliment a coach can receive. 

For Muffet McGraw, it was simply time. Time to step away from the sidelines. For those who were part of or followed her program, what a time it truly was. Nothing lasts forever. She gave to the game over three decades. For that we are all thankful. Something, though, tells us she is far from finished from giving.