Muffet McGraw has long considered herself an educator first, coach second.
It’s fitting, then, that the legendary Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach, who retired in 2020 after 33 seasons at the university and 936 career wins, is now teaching a leadership course on the South Bend, Indiana, campus where she’s a renowned figure.
“I love what I’m doing right now. I love teaching because I think it’s just like coaching,” said McGraw, who also serves as a basketball analyst for ESPN. “(Coaches) are educators. Our main job, at least for me, is to empower women, to build confidence in women, to talk about the life skills that they are going to learn that are going to really help them throughout their lives.”
Because of McGraw’s decades helping mold student-athletes, she was selected as the 2023 NCAA Pat Summitt Award winner. Established in 2017, the Summitt Award recognizes an individual in the NCAA’s membership who has demonstrated devotion to the development of student-athletes and has made a positive impact on their lives. McGraw will receive the award during the 2023 NCAA Convention in San Antonio.
“Muffet McGraw represents the very best in college sports – as a coach, a mentor, a teacher, and an advocate. Her remarkable record on the court speaks for itself,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “Even more important are the countless lives she has touched, imparting lessons and values that set her athletes on the road to success in whatever endeavors they choose. We all owe her a debt of gratitude.”
A former point guard at Saint Joseph’s, McGraw described the honor as “inspiring” and “humbling.” Like many coaches, McGraw admired Summitt for how she led her team and elevated the women’s game.
“She is somebody that everybody looked up to. Everybody knew that she wanted our game to be as good as it could be,” McGraw said of the late Summitt, who died in 2016, five years after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. “Having an award named after Pat … it’s really humbling for me.”
While McGraw downplayed any personal comparison to Summitt, her career resume is among the coaching elite.
McGraw sits No. 7 on the all-time wins list for women’s college basketball coaches, four spots behind Summitt in third. The Notre Dame coach, whose teams cut down the nets in 2001 and 2018, retired as one of six women’s basketball coaches to win multiple NCAA championships. The Irish played in nine Final Fours under McGraw. She received Associated Press Coach of the Year honors four times, along with earning Naismith Coach of the Year, U.S. Basketball Writers Association Coach of the Year and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year three times each. In 2017, she received the John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching Award and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Among McGraw’s core philosophies, she said one is at the heart of the success she’s experienced. The essence of it: What you allow is what will continue.
“You set the standard, and your culture is what makes you successful,” McGraw said. “The things that you’re going to demand from your players and the things that you tell them, ‘This is where the bar is. We’re going to keep this bar high, and I am not going to accept anything under this. This is the way we act. This is the way we carry ourselves on the court. This is the way we want people to look at us. This is our reputation, and that is important to me.’ So I think I could be really demanding and telling them, ‘This is what the standard is, and you have to rise to the occasion,’ because I just wasn’t going to allow anything that was mediocre.”
McGraw’s pair of national championships were products of this standard. Still, she said witnessing smaller moments of player growth toward that higher bar are her favorite moments to look back on.
“They have that moment in a game when it all comes together, and you can just see them kind of standing a little taller and walk in with a little more confidence because in their minds they did it. They got to this moment they thought they could be there, and now they finally achieved what they thought they could. And it’s such a powerful moment,” she said. “When you think of all those great things that you learn from playing sports that help you, no matter what you go through, I love when the players would come back and say, ‘This really difficult thing happened to me. But I knew I could handle it because I knew I’d faced adversity before, and you helped me get through that.’
“I love that moment of seeing the potential of seeing what they can do when they leave Notre Dame. It is just so rewarding to see what these women can do out in their communities and out in the world.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, McGraw made it her mission to make an impact on communities outside basketball. An idea to hold one food drive blossomed into Meals with Muffet, now a nationwide food drive in its third year. It allows clubs, groups, families and individuals to team up in the fight against hunger in their communities.
Teaching her course called “Sports Leadership: How Leaders Help Teams Flourish” at the Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business has been another avenue to continue impacting the next generation.
For McGraw, it’s a way to continue the primary reason she coached: education.
“I’m really enjoying my students. I’m learning a lot,” McGraw said. “It’s obviously a lot about what I did in coaching. It’s all about teamwork. It’s all about culture. It’s about being a great teammate and what you can add and how you become a leader. I’m just trying to be a role model and keep people thinking and talking about how we can improve and what ways we can get more people involved in leadership.”