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Competitiveness is 'just part of' Muffet McGraw's DNA

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McGraw's success at Notre Dame is legendary (0:28)

Muffet McGraw has coached the Fighting Irish in five national championship games, including a win in 2001. (0:28)

Muffet McGraw, then a seventh-grader, was sitting with her Catholic school classmates one afternoon when a priest walked in.

"I'm starting a basketball team if anybody's interested," the priest said.

Nobody talked. Nobody moved. The girls scanned each other to gauge whose hand would shoot up first. Girls' basketball was a 6-on-6 game then, but McGraw had played a bit with the boys, letting the dust and the rust of the playground fill her soul each day. The ball, the net, the lines on the court, tugged at her. "I loved it," McGraw said. "I just loved it."

McGraw's hand was the first among the girls to bolt toward the sky. She was already plotting the first game. "I'm 4-foot-10," McGraw thought to herself, "I better work on my ballhandling."

McGraw, 61, has used that same relentless desire to improve, compete and dominate to build Notre Dame into a national powerhouse during the past 30 seasons. Boasting an 853-227 (.771) career record, McGraw has coached the Fighting Irish to a national championship (2001), to seven Final Four appearances and 15 trips to the Sweet 16.

She will be inducted into the 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class in September. And though Notre Dame's season ended in the Elite Eight less than a month ago, she's already preparing for next season. How to get more defensive stops? How to make passes crisper? McGraw's mind doesn't stop.

"The competitiveness, it's just part of her makeup, it's part of who she is," Chattanooga coach Jim Foster said of McGraw, who was an assistant on his Saint Joseph's staff from 1980 to 1982. "It's show up every day with an attitude about work and getting better and competing. That's been driving her forever."

'Two, three steps ahead'

Don't step on Muffet McGraw's court unless you're willing to give everything. Practices are businesslike. Intense. Competitive. Detail-oriented.

During a 5-on-5 half-court drill called "perfect offense," every movement must be perfect. If players don't set perfect screens, make perfect passes (five before a score), score at least three out of five possessions, and have at least three in the lane for a boxout, the score dips to zero. McGraw will stop play 10 times to iron out one detail until it's fixed.

"She's very brilliant in that way," said Carol Owens, Notre Dame's longtime associate head coach. "As a staff we're like, 'How should we do this?' or 'How should we do that?' She's already two, three steps ahead of us, like, 'That might not work because this is going to happen.'

"She sees the game in a totally different way and I think that's one of her gifts."

Off the court, McGraw isn't one to chit chat. She's got a witty sense of humor, throwing one-liners that leave her staff howling. She enjoys low-key, home-cooking type restaurants, like Cracker Barrel.

But on the court? She demands the best out of everyone. No coach or player is immune, especially when it comes to being on time (which means early).

"You will get left," Owens said. "There's been a couple times I've had to chase the bus down."

"She held us accountable. She didn't sugarcoat things. ... You never had to wonder what she was thinking."

Skylar Diggins on coach Muffet McGraw

Dallas Wings point guard Skylar Diggins, who led the Irish to three consecutive Final Fours (2011-13), couldn't coast.

"I can admit I've been kicked out before of a Coach McGraw practice," Diggins said. "You definitely have to be on your p's and q's."

"That's what made us so good. She held us accountable. She didn't sugarcoat things. She's a woman from Philly, she's got a lot of flavor, she'll let you know how it is. You never had to wonder what she was thinking."

But McGraw understands Diggins in a way few do. Since offering Diggins a scholarship at 14, McGraw has been the one Diggins can always turn to.

"Coach is Coach. She'll get on you," Diggins, 26, said, "then she's your biggest fan at the end of the day."

Building a powerhouse

When McGraw was hired to coach Notre Dame in 1987, her budget was scarce. Players ate at McDonald's or from gym vending machines. The men's schedule dictated when and how long the women practiced.

McGraw purposefully recruited local players with big families, with lots of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, because unlike the 8,104 fans that flock to home games on average now, the stands were empty back then. The student newspaper, "The Observer," hardly covered the team.

But McGraw pushed and pushed, and Notre Dame soon broke through. The then-No. 12 Irish upset No. 5 Purdue 73-60 in 1996 for the first NCAA tournament victory in program history. Then the team reached its first Final Four in '97. Then Notre Dame beat Purdue 68-66 for the national title in '01.

The Irish, who have made 24 NCAA tournament appearances under McGraw, went to five consecutive Final Fours from 2011 to 2015.

"It's a huge desire for her to win another championship," Owens said. "You can take away all the accolades she's gotten, if she could win another championship that would definitely be icing on the cake ... that competitive fire is still there."

Finding her voice

McGraw was 21 when she clutched a whistle at Archbishop Carroll High School in 1977 for her first coaching job. She knew she wanted to be on the court for the rest of her life, but she had some reservations.

"I was always afraid when I'd say, 'Get on the line, go to the baseline and run,' what if they say, 'no'?" McGraw said, laughing. "You know? What if they don't do it? ... Are they even going to listen to me?"

As she learned to trust her voice, becoming an assistant coach at Saint Joseph's and head coach at Lehigh (1983-87) before Notre Dame, she realized it was just as important to teach her players to trust their own voices.

When her son, Murphy, began playing sports, she thought more about the relationships she was building with her own players. She began to ask for her players' input. Certainly not in the huddle with 10 seconds left of a thriller, but in quiet moments during practice.

"I'm going to try to help them get ready for what's next and to build their confidence because I think that's important for women," McGraw said. "I want to try to turn them into leaders. I want to try to get them to really use their voice."

Ruth Riley, former Notre Dame and WNBA star, remembers the confidence McGraw instilled in her. She sensed that her coach wanted to make a difference when meeting her for the first time as a high school recruit.

Though McGraw got lost trying to find the farm Riley's family lived on, she convinced the center to jump on board. Riley became an All-American, a national champion, and later, an Olympic gold medalist. She said McGraw empowered her to realize her potential as an athlete.

"There's not a lot of [women] who have been able to be successful and be able to build programs from the ground up," Riley said. "She had the experience of pre-Title IX disparity, and how we continue to fight for equality.

"She's a trailblazer. She's part of that generation that has moved the needle forward for women's college basketball."