Her success put Notre Dame women's basketball on the map, quite an accomplishment on a campus whose storied football history includes such legends as Knute Rockne, George Gipp, and the Four Horsemen.
She's basking in the spotlight, and why not? She has everything - an adorable son, a supportive husband, a top 10 ranking, and one of the best coaching gigs in the country. Not bad for a feisty point guard from St. Joe's who wasn't allowed to practice until the boys got through.
There is just one more thing McGraw would like, though. She'd love to hear that victory march played again at the Final Four at the First Union Center next March. For the West Chester native's team to be recognized as college basketball's best, to win the NCAA crown in front of family and friends. . . . McGraw breaks into a toothy grin just thinking about it.
"It would be awesome," she says. "Absolutely awesome."
* First, the name. Muffet, as in Little Miss, is her legal name. It's not her birth name; she was christened Ann, after her mother, who married Joe O'Brien and had eight kids, of whom Muffet is fifth.
"Everybody called me Muffet so I had it changed," she explains. And though McGraw, 44, exudes a carefree girlishness that her name implies, in no way is she a lightweight. As a child she would hoop with nine boys full-court, and be the last one standing. She expects her team, with four returning starters, to intimidate. "We're a great team and we're a little too humble about it," she tells the Irish before a practice. "We need to have a swagger."
She's had success at every level. A four-year starter at St. Joseph's, her 1976-77 squad finished 23-5 and was ranked third nationally. After graduation, she coached at Archbishop Carroll, where her 28-0 team won a Catholic League championship.
She moved on to Lehigh University, posting back-to-back 20-win seasons, then took the Fighting Irish to eight postseason appearances, three Big East championships and the 1997 NCAA Final Four, where they lost to eventual champion Tennessee. Over her 17-year college head-coaching career, including five seasons at Lehigh, McGraw's teams have won 70 percent of their games.
"She's smart," observes Matt McGraw, Muffet's husband of 23 years. "She knows the game upside down. She loves the game. She loves to coach the game. And she doesn't like to lose - at anything."
"She's Miss Competitive," declares Eileen Woods, McGraw's pal and neighbor. "She organized an Olympics in our cul-de-sac with about 10 teams. We had the Wiffle ball challenge, the basketball shoot-out, crazy golf. It was all in fun. But Muffet took it like. . . . Let's just say she was upset when her team didn't win."
"I am intense," McGraw acknowledges, with a hint of embarrassment.
The nice thing about achieving long-term success is that you learn what works for you. McGraw has struck an enviable balance between work and family. Both facets of her life are clicking like a perfectly executed pick and roll.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a rock-solid husband like Matt McGraw, whom friends describe as the perfect mate for Muffet. Matt was a fan of women's basketball (actually of Muffet's) when it was a fledgling college sport without any conferences of its own, back in the '70s. He can tell animated stories about every player his wife has coached. It was Matt who drove the van to the away games and turned on the gym lights during Muffet's early years at Lehigh, and it was Matt who encouraged her to send her resume to Notre Dame.
Now Matt is enjoying all the perks and prestige that come with being associated with a big-time college program.
"We came here," he says with mock imperiousness, "and my tasks were done."
Among the tasks that Matt McGraw will never give up, as long as his wife is coach, are his duties as stay-at-home dad to 9-year-old Murphy. Matt's job as a head hunter for computer companies allows him to work from home. So he is Murphy's primary caregiver, shuttling him to school, piano lessons and soccer, although, "I don't have a lot of time to be a psychopathic soccer parent."
"I'm Mr. Mom," Matt says good-naturedly. "I do all the cooking." He enlists Murphy, who is leafing through a Pokemon magazine, for affirmation.
"Murph, what does Mom cook?"
"Um, egg stuff. Fluffy egg stuff."
"Muff can't cook her way out of a paper bag," Matt says.
Muffet acknowledges as much. It's just one more reason why she appreciates her husband.
"There's no way I can do what I'm doing without him and enjoy it," she says. "There aren't too many women coaches who are married and doing what I'm doing. A lot of men would say, 'You're moving for your wife? What's up with that?' I think it helps if the man is really confident."
Matt helps her keep everything in perspective. "Matt knows exactly what to say. After a loss he can joke me out of a bad mood. It's the quality I appreciate about him the most."
With all the demands placed on McGraw by the team, the university and the community, she still devotes one day a week to Murphy, which she has designated "Mom and Murphy Day."
Yet like any working mother she is stretched and stressed by work, home, and the self-inflicted pressure of trying to be superwoman.
"When I'm in the office I think I'm really missing time with Murph, and when I'm reading to Murph I think I really ought to be watching film," she says. "I just tell my players, let's get this right the first time so I can go home!"
Patience is not one of McGraw's strengths; she even delivered Murphy three weeks early. It's only the first day of practice and already McGraw is pushing the schedule. She cuts short a drill so she can watch the team work five-on-five, then gets frustrated with the sloppy scrimmage.
Carol Owens, one of McGraw's assistants, tells her to relax. "Don't worry," Owens assures. "Remember, we have a veteran team."
"You're right," McGraw replies, trying more to convince herself. "I was just anxious. . . . "
What's gratifying about coaching, McGraw says later, is its ability to reflect and reveal. She's learned from her mistakes and become a better coach and person, her players say.
"As the years have gone on, she's become a lot more laid-back," senior guard Danielle Green says. "She used to be a lot harder. . . . She's come a long way."
"Initially I thought I was Bobby Knight," McGraw agrees. "My relationship with my players was cut-and-dried. But after I had Murph . . . I was never somebody you could call compassionate, but I've become more sympathetic and understanding." She shakes her head in disbelief. "How could I have coached 17 years ago?"
Notre Dame is glad she hung on. If her team's health and luck hold out, McGraw could very well be pacing the sidelines of the First Union Center in March, wearing the bright suits she favors, surveying the court with newly acquired 20-15 vision (courtesy of off-season laser surgery), and vying for her first NCAA crown.
She's realistic about the Fighting Irish's chances: "I don't think our season will be a failure if we don't go to the Final Four, because so much of it is luck. Part of having a successful season is teaching them about how to handle success and failure."
But in the same breath she adds, "Playing in Philly would be a blast. An absolute blast."
ABOUT THIS SERIES This is the first in a series of occasional stories following Notre Dame basketball coach Muffet McGraw and her team as they pursue their dream: The NCAA women's basketball championship finals in Philadelphia. Next month: Unleashing the competitive spirit as the season gets under way.