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There will never be another Muffet McGraw

Notre Dame’s legendary basketball coach unexpectedly retired. She finished as one of the game’s best ever.

Pitt v Notre Dame Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Muffet McGraw unexpectedly retired Wednesday after 33 years as the head coach of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team as one of the biggest legends in the sport. While it’s impossible to fill McGraw’s shoes, Niele Ivey will try. Ivey, a former Notre Dame player and 12-year assistant coach under McGraw, was named as the Fighting Irish’s next head coach minutes later.

Notre Dame and Muffet have become synonymous, as the Irish have been a decades-long mainstay among the nation’s best teams. She coached Skylar Diggins-Smith, Arike Ogunbowale, Jewell Loyd, Kayla McBride, Jackie Young, Natalie Achonwa and more before they hit the main stage in the WNBA. Talent sought out McGraw, and she made the most of it. Before she went to Notre Dame, McGraw even coached current WNBA commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, at Lehigh.

McGraw finished her career with a 936-292 record, nine Final Four appearances, seven championship game appearances, and two NCAA championships in 2001 and 2018. That’s historic. Her teams were the University of Connecticut’s best challenger and, at other points, UConn was theirs. Few teams can say that.

McGraw’s list of accomplishments is tremendous, even if she’s going out on a sour note. For just the second time in her Notre Dame career, the Irish finished the season below .500, and were on track to miss their first NCAA tournament since 1995. The Irish had lost their entire starting five to the WNBA Draft in 2019, with all five starters chosen within the first 19 selections.

While the 2019-20 season was a bummer, it doesn’t overshadow everything else McGraw did at the program. Her resume includes 31 seasons with 20 wins or more, 67 NCAA tournament wins, 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and three National Coach of the Year awards. She was also at the helm when Notre Dame women’s basketball sold out a home game for the first time in 2001, and she kept the momentum going. The Irish were in the top 10 in attendance each of the last 14 years.

The list could go on, but here’s a gift to sum up the rest of the on-court stuff:

McGraw’s most defining moments include Ruth Riley’s free throws to win the program’s first title in 2001, and Arike Ogunbowale’s pair of game-winners in 2018. A 2019 speech before the Final Four, tops the list, too.

Here it is, in full:

“We don’t have enough female role-models,” McGraw said. “We don’t have enough women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power. Girls are socialized to know when they come out, gender roles are already set. Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the men that are the stronger one.

“When these girls are coming out, who’s looking out to tell them that’s not the way it has to be. And where better to do that than in sports. All these millions of girls who play sports across the country. They could come out everyday — and we’re teaching them great things about life skills — but wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead.

“This is a path for you to take to get to a point where, in this country, we have 50 percent of women in power. We have, right now, less than five percent of women as CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. When you look at men’s basketball and 99 percent of the jobs go to men ... Why shouldn’t 100 or 99 percent of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women. Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. And that’s the problem.”

McGraw is leaving a Notre Dame program that slumped its way to the finish line, losing the final game of its season to a 5-25 Pittsburgh team, but it has a bright future still. Sam Brunelle, the No. 6-ranked player by ESPN in the class of 2019, will be a sophomore, and four five-star recruits from the class of 2020 are set to join the Irish including No. 20 Madeline Westbeld, No. 27 Allison Campbell, No. 34 Natalija Marshall and No. 44 Alasia Hayes. The pieces are in place for Ivey’s tenure.

“We have a great recruiting class coming in,” McGraw said, according to ESPN. “I think the program is right back where it should be and poised to make another run to the Final Four. So I feel like I’m leaving the program in a good place. And also a chance for me to do something else.”

What’s next for McGraw is important. The 64-year-old has plans echoing the sentiments of her 2019 speech, with more time to act on them.

“This is a retirement from coaching,” McGraw said. “I am excited about the opportunity to continue to promote women’s equality and to speak on behalf of all women across the country. And to use my platform in any way I can. I’d like to get more involved in community work. I find I’ve turned into a real activist, and I’m really enjoying that. I hope a lot of things are in store, and definitely a different page than I’ve been on.”

McGraw’s coaching days might be over, but her legend is still being written.