This year's version of the Fighting Irish is the most successful in school history. McGraw has led Notre Dame to an 18-0 regular-season MCC record and a 23-6 overall mark. But it wasn't good enough to earn a spot in the 48-team NCAA field, selected yesterday. And it leaves Notre Dame never having played in that tournament.
"I like it a lot here," McGraw said. "Notre Dame is like a family atmosphere, and so is the community. People here are really supportive."
McGraw applied for the Notre Dame job after compiling a 88-41 record at Lehigh. It was her husband, Matt, who urged her to give it a try.
"It was all his idea," she said. "As soon as he heard the job was open, he started campaigning for me to apply. I liked the East Coast, and I liked Lehigh, plus I didn't think I had a chance. But he kept after me. We'd be on the golf course and I'd be in the middle of my backswing, and he'd start talking about it. I finally sent in a letter of application without telling him."
McGraw hopes to build Notre Dame into a nationally recognized women's basketball team, a perennial top-20 powerhouse. She even has dreams of the NCAA Final Four. She can't imagine coaching anywhere else.
"I couldn't go anywhere else, not after I've been here," said McGraw, who is expecting her first child in May. "It's so different from any place I've ever been. Women's basketball is not where we want it to be yet, but we're getting there. Everyone is supportive, the staff, the student body. It's just a great place to work."
Establishing a women's basketball program is not new to McGraw.
McGraw, then Muffet O'Brien, led her Bishop Shanahan team to an undefeated season in her senior year. She selected St. Joseph's University because she liked the idea of being in on the "ground floor" of a program.
She led the Hawks in their first varsity season with a 10.8 scoring
average. In her four seasons, 1973-1977, St. Joseph's was 59-12. In 1976, the Hawks finished third in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women's Eastern Regional. In 1977, St. Joseph's lost, 71-70, to Immaculata
College in the Eastern Regional championship game.
McGraw played for three coaches at St. Joseph's: Ellen Ryan, now an assistant athletic director; Theresa Grentz, who has turned Rutgers into a national contender, and Rene Portland, now coach at Penn State.
"Theresa was a very good coach," McGraw said. "I really learned a lot about coaching from her, like organizing practice and player-coach relationships. Rene and Theresa were very similar in terms of organization."
Grentz fondly remembers McGraw and her first college team as a coach. ''Muffet was a delight to coach. She is a very effervescent-type person. The whole team was energetic and hard-working, but Muffet was always a student of the game. She's a great person to be in women's basketball," Grentz said.
Grentz's Rutgers team made the NCAA field and plays Vanderbilt, a team Notre Dame beat earlier this season.
After her 1977 graduation from St. Joseph's and her marriage to Matt McGraw, a West Chester University graduate, Muffet became coach at Archbishop Carroll. The Patriots were 50-3 during those two years, and McGraw was named Catholic League Coach of the Year in her second season.
After a year playing for the California Dreams, a professional women's basketball team, McGraw served as an assistant coach under Jim Foster at St. Joseph's. McGraw got her chance to be a head coach in 1982, when she took over at Lehigh.
"Lehigh was a great situation for me," McGraw said. "It gave me the time to develop my own philosophy. There were ideas I wanted to incorporate that I had gotten from Theresa, Rene and Jim."
McGraw earned East Coast Conference Coach of the Year honors after her first season. Her 1985-86 Lehigh team went 24-4 and won the East Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles.
Success on the basketball court is something McGraw always has enjoyed. She has been honored by her high school and inducted into the St. Joseph's and Big Five Halls of Fame.
If she stays on her present course, McGraw likely will be added to the list of Notre Dame greats.