Maybe it’s hard to quantify what counts as stunning news these days, but this … put this down as stunning sports news, Wednesday’s announcement by Muffet McGraw that she is retiring as Notre Dame’s women’s basketball coach.
An era ends with a tweet.
For all Notre Dame’s historical sporting success, if the school established a Mount Rushmore of Irish coaches somewhere on campus, maybe next to Touchdown Jesus, it would have to include room for a two-time NCAA champion, a four-time Associated Press national coach of the year.
In nine trips to the Final Four, the Fighting Irish won their semifinal game seven times, led by a St. Joseph’s graduate who had grown up in West Chester, got her coaching start at Archbishop Carroll High, and her first college work as an assistant on Hawk Hill. She will be replaced by Niele Ivey, who played and coached under McGraw for 17 seasons at Notre Dame before serving as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies this past season.
“It has been my great honor to represent the University of Notre Dame these past 33 years, but the time has come for me to step down as your head basketball coach,” McGraw started her announcement.
The 64-year-old thanked bosses, players, assistants, and told her program’s fans that it was her “honor and privilege to play for you.” She said she was proud of all they had 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.”
This past season -- 13-18, only her second losing mark in a head-coaching run that began in 1982 at Lehigh -- was a tough one, and McGraw let the world see how it wore on her, getting emotional once at a postgame press conference. McGraw traditionally hadn’t been one to let the world in all the time. Her toughness came baked in.
She never forgot her roots, even when she was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. Mel Greenberg was there to record her thoughts: “The first good decision I made was going to St. Joe's," she said. "I made some lifelong friends, and I'm so happy that my former teammates and friends and Don DiJulia, our athletic director [now retired], are here to share this moment with me.
“We’ve come a long way since our playing days, and so has women’s basketball. I love this game,” she said. "And I never could have imagined when I started coaching Archbishop Carroll in 1977 that it would take me to so many places I would have never seen and given me so many experiences that have changed my life. "
Another time that McGraw showed her commitment to a larger cause than simply winning a basketball game was when she explained last year that she wouldn’t hire a male for her staff. At first, you might think, how is that making the world better? McGraw explained herself quite clearly.
“Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the man that is the stronger one,” McGraw said at the Final Four, her words amplified by saying them from the podium at her sport’s central gathering spot.
“When these girls are coming out, who are they looking up to, to tell them that’s not the way it has to be?” McGraw said, as quoted in the New York Times. “Where better to do that than in sports? 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?”
The message elevated McGraw, because it helped define her beyond the wins and losses. You can argue the merits of this debate, but strong evidence comes from Muffet’s own shining record, which now stands at 936 wins, 292 losses, between Lehigh and Notre Dame.
In the 10 seasons from 2009 to 2019, Notre Dame averaged 34 wins and four losses. No wonder this past season wore on McGraw so much. She’d practically forgotten how to lose.
And now? Sing her glory and sound her fame. Strong of heart and true to her name.
If you’ve followed McGraw’s life work at all, you know the rest, the part about cheer, cheering for old Notre Dame. Today, that famous fight song resonates a bit beyond South Bend. This afternoon, there’s one less iconic figure in women’s hoops. A sport seems a touch smaller for this announcement.