Purgatory. For Coach Muffet McGraw, that temporary place of torment looks a lot like game day. The things that can go wrong run through her mind in a constant stream. What if this happens? What if that happens? She’s ticking off one potential slip-up after another, made all the worse by the feeling that she has no control over what’s about to happen.
The team heads to the arena an hour-and-a half before game time. There, during warm-ups, McGraw stays in the locker room. She’s keeping herself out of the way. Otherwise, she feels like her nervousness rubs off on the team. On a whiteboard, she writes down three or four keys to the game, the starting five and the defensive match-ups.
Thirty minutes to go, longtime Notre Dame sports announcer Bob Nagle records a pregame radio interview. Afterwards, McGraw jokes with Nagle, maybe talks with an assistant coach about kids or shopping. Sometimes she pencils in a Sudoku puzzle to keep her mind off the rapidly approaching tip-off. As it gets closer, she begins to pace—like a caged lion, she says. Ten minutes out ... The team has a pregame meeting. Coach delivers last-minute reminders: Here’s what we’re going to do on a make, on a miss, defensively, how we’re going to handle the ball screens.
Three minutes before … She walks out to the court. She tells herself to trust. Trust in the team. Trust in her staff. She’s not alone out there, she reminds herself. Just try to breathe. Once the game starts, I’ll enjoy it. But leading up to it is just so painful.
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For 23 seasons at Notre Dame, Muffet McGraw has been suffering through the pregame hours. She has led one of the most successful collegiate sports programs in America—at a school renowned for football and that began to admit women students fewer than four decades ago. This past season, McGraw reached the milestones of her 600th career victory and her 500th win at Notre Dame. Bids to the NCAA tournament have become commonplace as she led Notre Dame to its 15th straight appearance in the Big Dance. Her teams have reached the Final Four twice and won the national championship in 2001. The recipient of virtually every Coach of the Year honor, McGraw has now coached 20 teams to 20-win seasons, and is among the top 25 coaches of all time in career wins.
She was hired in 1987 with just one requirement from then Athletic Director Gene Corrigan—that she not compromise the University’s reputation.
McGraw has responded to that directive by graduating an astonishing 100 percent of her players.
Of course, her record is not without frustrations. She points to the 1991 team, her only losing season, and the 2000 team, which she believes should have won a national championship, as two of her greatest disappointments. But the fact is she has enjoyed far more successes than failures. And in an era when coaches come and go, McGraw has been Notre Dame’s constant. What are her keys to long-term leadership, and what can we learn from her?
Getting McGraw to talk about herself isn’t easy. She prefers the shadows to the limelight, but her humility should never be confused with timidity. McGraw is fiercely competitive, a trait she considers as important off the court as on.
"Society is just now accepting that it is OK for women to be competitive," she says. "If you get into corporate work, especially as a female, sports can only help you learn how to persevere." No leader is successful without a competitive spirit, and whether it’s on the golf course (one of her favorite diversions) or playing checkers, make no mistake. She wants to win. Just ask her players. Freshman guard Skylar Diggins says, "You don’t want to come near her after a loss, and she tends to get even more competitive as the season goes on. She won’t settle for mediocrity."
McGraw readily acknowledges that she is ultra-competitive. But she says she has changed over the years. "It used to take me two or three days to get over a loss. I can put losses behind me more quickly, usually before the next practice, particularly if I have a plan to fix what went wrong. And it’s really a maturity of realizing you can’t control everything."
Part of McGraw’s success can be attributed to her knowledge of the game. Her husband, Matt, says she loves puzzles. "She likes putting the pieces together to see how it all fits together," he explains. "It’s not unusual for her to plant something in our yard, only to dig it up a day later and move it somewhere else until she gets it just right."
Fitting the pieces together was especially challenging this year. McGraw believes the 2009-10 team was as deep as any she has ever coached. It included a stellar freshman, who not only started but became the leading scorer.
The coach preaches the team concept constantly, but she claims it actually starts with recruiting the right kind of players. "Show me a player who won’t accept her role for the good of the team, and I’ll show you a selfish player."
McGraw claims she’s gotten pretty good at spotting selfish players on the recruiting trail. "I look closely at a recruit’s behavior on the court. Is she cheering for her teammates? Is she listening to the coach? I look closely at her relationship with her parents. When you go into her home, is the home a shrine to the child with awards and trophies everywhere?"
Back in high school, Schrader, then vying for Illinois Miss Basketball honors, remembers playing her worst game ever on the day McGraw visited. "She knew I could play, but wanted to know from me how our team lost and how I reacted to that loss, and if I was rude to any of my teammates and my coaches. She wanted to see everything between the lines. Not a lot of coaches do that. She doesn’t want only the basketball player but she wants the person at Notre Dame, too."
Most players would rather forego practice and just play games. "For me, it’s all about practice," McGraw says. "I can’t wait to get back to practice after a game to fix what went wrong."
Her practices during the season are intense and focused. "I don’t think you can get better at a whole lot of things at once. Pick one," she says. Last season, for example, after struggling to defend the University of Pittsburgh’s formidable post players, the team spent the next practice with one goal—finding their spots correctly in their 2-3 zone.
McGraw says this new generation of young athletes has been raised differently than previous ones. "As parents, you want to protect them; you don’t want them to fail," she says. As a result, she sees fewer young players who are equipped to handle adversity or to accept responsibility for mistakes. She finds that she needs to treat her players more individually and bend some of her rules.
She also says players today expect to have more input on the game plan, and she welcomes this. At halftime, she’ll quiz them on what’s happening on the court—even when she already knows the answers. McGraw says the players sometimes bring fresh insight, and it also forces them to take ownership: "You said that man-to-man was what you wanted to do, so get it done."
She also gets the team right back on the court after a defeat. "I don’t like to give them a day off to let things fester," she says. The day after a disappointing loss to Oklahoma in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, McGraw already had her underclassmen working on plays for next season.
Of course, ask any former player and she will tell you practices have actually gotten easier since they played for Coach McGraw. Assistant Coach Niele Ivey, who was a point guard on the 2001 National Championship team, concurs. "I tell her she’s getting softer all the time, but she is also adjusting to a new generation of athletes. That’s another thing that makes her a great coach. She adapts to the players she has. She adapts to the game, and she adapts to the times we live in."
One important factor is McGraw’s honesty and directness in asking players to change assignments, change roles, and even change positions. For Lindsay Schrader, a fifth-year senior, it was very hard to move inside to a post position after an outstanding career at guard and a summer practicing three-point shots. "She [McGraw] said, ‘I completely understand that you don’t want to, but I need you,’" says Schrader. "She convinced me it would help us win games."
McGraw relies on her tri-captains for leadership and teaches them to vary their roles. On this year’s team, the captains were Melissa Lechlitner, Ashley Barlow and Lindsay Schrader. "One day, I would be the yeller, motivating them to work harder. Lech and Barlow would be the cheerleaders," Schrader says. "Coach said it has to switch every day. As a leader, you need to take different leadership roles."
Without a doubt, McGraw is a strategist, but she also says it is so much more than Xs and Os, and that’s a lesson she wishes she had learned much earlier in her career. "In the early years, it was all about winning," she says. "I was unforgiving, and I wasn’t a very good coach off the floor." She says it was with the 1997 team, one of her favorites, that she began to change. "I told that team in the middle of the NCAA tournament how much I cared about them, and how much I enjoyed coaching them. They didn’t believe me. They thought I was just telling them that because I wanted them to keep winning!" After that, McGraw says she became more tolerant of their mistakes. "I began to reinvent myself," she says.
One way McGraw engages with her players is by scheduling weekly five-minute meetings with each of them just to talk about what’s going on in their lives. Those conversations can be unpredictable, says Schrader: "One day when I came to her office, Coach told me she was reading this book and had a question for me. She said, ‘If you couldn’t die in your sleep, how would you want to die?’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘Come on. Answer.’ I said, ‘If I couldn’t die in my sleep, I would rather die gazing at someone that I loved or in the arms of someone I loved.’" Schrader thinks her answer impressed her coach.
Muffet McGraw is more than just a coach. She is a wife and mother, and has become a role model for women who believe having a demanding career and a family are not mutually exclusive. Matt, her husband of 32 years, is a representative with Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. She credits him for taking a large share of responsibility for raising their son and running their household, and for helping her handle the stress of the job. "He makes me laugh and can get me out of a funk," she says.
She goes so far to say that anyone who aspires to coach at this level should follow their dream, work hard, "and find a husband like Matt." Their son, Murphy, who she claims taught her patience and compassion, is a student at Indiana University.
Muffet recalls when Murphy was playing point guard for his grade school team, and she used to shout advice from the sidelines. One day, he told her, "I don’t really want to hear you during the game." So she stopped shouting and just cheered.
When Murphy went to high school and said he didn’t want to play basketball anymore, she was disappointed. But she said, OK, as long as he was involved in something. Murphy joined the cross country team. "I want him to find his passion," she says.
Father and son conspired against mother this season when Murphy surprised his mom by showing up to present her the game ball at a ceremony recognizing her career wins. Murphy drove home and back to IU in one day, roughly a 10-hour road trip.
So what has kept Muffet McGraw going year after year? Matt says it is her ability to surround herself with talented assistant coaches and staff and delegate responsibility. Lindsay Schrader points to her uncompromising daily work ethic— a discipline she demands from every player. Muffet McGraw says she has a passion for Notre Dame, for its commitment to wanting to win the right way, for attracting a certain type of driven, over-achieving person. Matt, who carved an "ND" in their lawn with a mower the day she was hired, says there was no need for a discussion when she was offered the position. "Anyone who knows her understands she belongs at Notre Dame," he says. "This is where she’s supposed to be."
In mid-April, Muffet McGraw saw five graduating seniors off at a sports banquet on a Tuesday. By Thursday, she was sitting in the bleachers in a gym in North Carolina, taking notes on 15-and 16-year-old prospects. Putting the puzzle together.
Season 24 is well under way.