Editor's note: A version of this story was included in the program at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's induction ceremony and events this week in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The week before Thanksgiving might seem an unlikely time for high drama in the course of a college basketball season. Nor would the University of Evansville seem the most likely visitor to Notre Dame's Joyce Center for what remains, now nearly a decade later, one of the most important nights of Muffet McGraw's tenure as Fighting Irish women's basketball coach.
Yet there she found herself on a Wednesday in 2008. Even as she kept to her regular routine for the day of a game, she knew that the course of subsequent seasons would change for better or worse by the end of the evening. Not by the outcome of a game the Fighting Irish eventually won by 35 points against the overmatched foe, but through the words spoken by Skylar Diggins. McGraw expected the hometown recruit would reveal her college choice in person that night.
Except that as tipoff approached against the Purple Aces, Diggins wasn't in her allotted seat. Then-assistant coach Jonathan Tsipis was the first of the coaching staff to make his way to the court after the final pregame instructions. Diggins wasn't there. McGraw was the last to take her place, minutes before the national anthem. There was still no sign of Diggins.
Notre Dame's football history aside, Indiana remains a basketball state in even its northernmost reaches. Still, the South Bend area is not so populous that local passion for the sport produces superstars on a regular basis. Even nationally, it isn't every year that someone like Diggins, a guard with a commanding presence and regal charisma, appears on the radar. In a place like South Bend, it is once in a lifetime that such a player grows up miles from campus.
Diggins finally did arrive that night. And when she walked into Notre Dame locker room after the win, box score in hand, and asked McGraw how she would get any minutes the following season, the coach's reaction was more raucous than the typical November midweek game.
"She was somebody that we absolutely had to have," McGraw recalled of Diggins. "We couldn't miss on her. So we worked so hard for four years, especially [then-assistant coach Niele Ivey]. I can't imagine what our program would be like if she had not come here. She definitely was the one, she changed the culture of our team. We definitely celebrated that evening, after she committed."
The aftermath is undeniable. What began when Diggins arrived and continues to this day is the golden era of women's basketball beneath the Golden Dome. In the four seasons Diggins spent in South Bend and four seasons that have thus far followed, the Fighting Irish won 90 percent of their games. They became permanent residents near the top of the polls and expected guests at the Final Four, five of the program's seven appearances in that span.
As McGraw readily acknowledges, that night and that commitment took a program to new heights. What she is more hesitant to admit -- but what is no less true -- is that someone had to build that program in the first place. Someone had to make it worth choosing.
Someone had to make South Bend a home, first for herself and then for women's basketball.
Go back to that November night and the game against Evansville. Nearly 6,000 fans showed up, a modest crowd by the standards of a program that ranked ninth in Division I that season in attendance. A championship banner was already on display, that 2001 title one of the rare interruptions in the long-running feud between Connecticut and Tennessee. The assistant so instrumental in recruiting Diggins, Ivey had been the point guard on the championship team.
Diggins didn't plunge into the basketball wilderness. McGraw -- who has won 853 career games and guided her teams to seven Final Four appearances and 15 trips to the Sweet 16 -- had long since cleared that.
"I didn't go into this with a plan of 'this is what I'm going to try and do,'" said McGraw, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this week. "I don't think I really do appreciate what we've done. Because like I say, I always think we can do more. And I always want to do more."
One losing season in 35 years
Like her most famous recruit, McGraw also was the product of a particular basketball culture. In the coach's case, it was the Philadelphia scene that produced, among many others, her, Geno Auriemma and Jim Foster, who employed both at different times on his staff at St. Joseph's. Still a high school coach in the area when McGraw played at St. Joseph's, Foster knew her name but didn't know her until he had a job opening. Even in her early 20s and with three seasons of high-school-coaching experience, McGraw was direct, competitive and willing to speak her mind.
"Geno had been with me for three years," Foster quipped. "I thought that was the norm."
This was well before the days of specialized staffs, of recruiting coordinators and video coordinators and traveling parties in the dozens for road trips. McGraw worked part of her days in an office at the school in what she called a secretarial role, typing and answering phones.
"You knew that she had aspirations for long-term investment into coaching at a time when you had to be an optimist," Foster said, noting he was making $11,000 as the full-time head coach and McGraw not even half that as a part-time assistant. "If you wanted to pursue coaching, that was the avenue and the vehicle available to you at that time."
She applied for just about every local job that came open, leaving room to wonder what might have been if Penn, Temple or Villanova had made more of those applications. Instead, just 26 years old, she was hired as the head coach at Lehigh, not exactly part of Philadelphia's Main Line but close enough an hour north to be in the same orbit.
That orbit had rarely been disturbed. She and her husband, Matt, lived briefly in Alabama when a job took him there. She played part of one season with the California Dreams in the short-lived Women's Professional Basketball League, never seeing much of her $11,000 salary after the team folded before it completed its schedule. She was otherwise comfortable in a world with frontiers that stretched not much beyond southern New Jersey. Even as she wrote the letters "TG" next to the names of potential recruits, as in "too good for us," she wasn't sure she wanted to leave Lehigh. Matt's voice foremost among them, a chorus of voices told her to try.
"She didn't leave her family for hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Foster -- and indeed, the new job paid just an extra $5,000 a year. "She left it for an opportunity."
When she arrived at Notre Dame in 1987, McGraw inherited a team coming off a 12-15 season. A team that still played in the North Star Conference, a mishmash amalgamation of women's programs from schools such as Dayton, DePaul, Evansville and Notre Dame that owed its existence to the still-precarious state of women's athletics in those early years under an NCAA umbrella. (Notre Dame wouldn't play in the Big East until the 1995-96 season, graduating from the North Star after McGraw's first season only as far as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.)
Notre Dame had never been to the NCAA tournament. It had never been ranked.
The Fighting Irish went 20-8 in McGraw's first season. They beat a ranked foe for the first time.
"I think I'm always striving for perfection. But I think I've been able to really look at the good things and celebrate those a little bit better than I used to. I can leave the gym happy after practice." Muffet McGraw
It sums up a good deal about McGraw that her first 35 years as a head coach produced just a single losing season. It sums up still more that the 1991-92 team that finished the regular season 11-16 then won the MCC tournament and made the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame teams are always better in March than they were in October. But the late run notwithstanding, that season was a building block in another way. McGraw -- who boasts a .761 winning percentage in 35 years on the sideline -- had gone after the best available talent without giving much thought to how the pieces fit together. Her hyper-logical mind assumed everyone would recognize talent and accommodate it accordingly. Everyone didn't.
"There were a lot of problems with the team chemistry," McGraw said. "It was a really valuable lesson to learn, and I really looked at things a lot differently after that. In some ways you do learn a lot more when you lose, unfortunately. Going through that at the time was not fun."
She learned another lesson after the national championship in 2001. By her own admission a pessimist at heart, she looked at a roster without Ivey, Ruth Riley and other key parts of the title run and did the mental math. It didn't add up to a repeat. It was, again, a logical assessment. But that lack of confidence, that doubt, rubbed off on a team that lost 10 games and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. She vowed that wouldn't happen again.
There is a constancy to McGraw that is appealing. It is there in the Princeton offense and the 2-3 zone defense her teams run, in the poker face she wears as she crouches on the sideline. But that is balanced by an intellectual curiosity too often sacrificed to ego in her profession. She is always asking questions, picking out things to try when watching other teams, pulling out sugar packets at a restaurant to arrange around a salt-shaker basket as she diagrams plays.
She is sure in what she believes. She believes she can always learn more.
'A pretty high bar'
Now go back to the windfall that came Notre Dame's way when Diggins decided to stay home. The lessons of chemistry learned, McGraw understood within a few meetings that the teenager treated as royalty in South Bend was a leader driven and able to make those around her better, not a selfish liability. And once Diggins moved on, much as McGraw's inner pessimist wondered how people could keep ranking her team so high, Notre Dame returned to Final Fours and played for championships because of the confidence in, and relationships forged with, Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd, Lindsay Allen and others.
McGraw spent decades making sure Notre Dame was a program ready for a windfall. Hers is the work of a lifetime, difficult though it might be for her to appreciate it.
"I'm trying to really celebrate the little things," said McGraw, one of just six coaches in men's and women's NCAA Division I basketball history with 800 wins. "You always want more. You always want to be better. We could have been a little bit better, we could have won by a little bit more. We could have made a couple more shots, made a couple more stops. So I think I'm always striving for perfection. But I think I've been able to really look at the good things and celebrate those a little bit better than I used to. I can leave the gym happy after practice."
"But I am really demanding, and I do have a pretty high bar," she continued. "So I wouldn't say that's an everyday occurrence."
Early in her time in South Bend, she stared in confusion at a store clerk who asked her if she wanted a "sack" for her "pop." All she knew was that she wanted a bag for her soda. She still calls it that. She has lived now half her life in this Midwestern setting. It has taken the edge off her sarcasm, at least by her estimation, life lived at a slower pace. But it hasn't taken away the competitiveness or the aggressiveness of her roots, those she needed to succeed first on the court and then as a coach at a time when the world didn't make either easy for women.
"There is not a day that goes by that you ever question that part of things," said Tsipis, now the head coach at Wisconsin. "It just happens to be that Philly has a distant suburb in South Bend, Indiana, where she happens to live."
Yet she made it a home. For herself. For Diggins and dozens of others. For women's basketball.