When the dust finally settles every year after a tumultuous football season, a fresh fervor grabs ahold of the Irish faithful. The men’s and women’s basketball teams assert themselves as the premier sporting attractions on campus. The excitement among students and fans builds into a crescendo as the teams battle for their respective ACC titles and enter the March Madness tournament.
Directing this charge are two Notre Dame mainstays: Mike Brey and Muffet McGraw. These head coaches have stood as pillars of the community for a combined 45 seasons, guiding their players off the court and pursuing championships on the court.
“It’s an honor to work closely with her,” Brey says of McGraw. “We’re great friends, we’re a great support system for each other and we can talk with each other after a tough loss or a big win. I think she’s an inspiration because the consistency of her program is something you really respect and you want to model your program after.”
Such consistency among one coach, let alone two, is nearly unheard of in collegiate athletics.
The two coaches have undoubtedly been successful. McGraw secured her 800th victory this season, and Brey has notched 350 wins of his own. But at Notre Dame, successful isn’t enough. These coaches strive for greatness. They want championships.
“I want it for this team. I want them to feel what it’s like to win your last game,” McGraw says. “It’s such a special feeling, and they’ve earned it. They really have, and I would love that for this group.”
The women’s team brought home the national championship in 2001, but it has been stymied in the Final Four or National Championship Game each of the past five seasons. The men won the ACC in one of their most successful seasons ever last year, but fell short of securing Brey’s first ever Final Four appearance in a heartbreaking loss to undefeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
Each team lost significant contributors from last season, but they have put themselves in contention for championships once again. As the regular season winds down and the teams prepare for postseason play, both of these leaders will need to be driving forces to maximize their teams’ performances.
“I don’t even think we’ve hit our stride yet,” says McGraw. “I think there’s a lot of improvement coming. I think we’re just now starting to peak, so I’m excited to see what the future is for this team.”
Coach Muffet McGraw
Hometown: Pottsvile, PA
Seasons at Notre Dame: 29
Record: 811-263 (.755)
Conference titles: 8
NCAA titles: 1
One word to describe coaching at ND: “Blessed”
After graduating from Saint Joseph’s University as a four-year starter on the basketball team, it didn’t take Muffet McGraw long to figure out that coaching basketball was her calling.
“Pretty much my first practice at Archbishop Carroll High School right after I graduated,” McGraw says. “That was my first job, and I just knew right from the very beginning that was something I was going to love doing for the rest of my life.”
McGraw coached at Archbishop Carroll High School in Pennsylvania for two seasons from 1977 to 1979. She led her teams to a 50-3 record and a Philadelphia Catholic League championship in her second season.
She then played a season for the California Dreams in the Women’s Professional Basketball League, the first attempt to elevate women’s basketball to the professional level. The league was unsuccessful, however, and McGraw returned to her alma mater and served as an assistant coach at Saint Joseph’s for two seasons.
In 1982, McGraw was named head coach at Lehigh University. She compiled a record of 88-41 during her five years at Lehigh before accepting the head coaching position at Notre Dame in 1987.
Since taking the helm for the Irish, McGraw has turned the program into a force in the women’s college basketball landscape. In the last 20 seasons, the Irish have reached 20 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, seven Final Fours and five NCAA Championship games, including a victory over Purdue in 2001.
McGraw credits much of her success to the program’s culture.
“I think the expectation level when [players] come in … They know when they’re coming in they’re playing for the Final Four,” McGraw says. “They’re playing for the national championship. And there’s a certain level of what is expected that the seniors bring. They kind of teach them that over the summer. So I think that by the time we get to practice they have a pretty good idea of what we’re looking for.”
This culture took time to develop, however.
“You have to have the right people and we had it for a while; then we lost it for a couple years and then we were able to get it back,” McGraw says. “And I think it’s about knowing who we’re looking for recruiting-wise and making sure we get the right kids that fit into what we want.”
For McGraw, even more important than athletic talent is the way that players fit in at Notre Dame. McGraw takes great care to recruit players who will excel in the challenging academic environment and fit in with the team-first culture.
“We look for unselfish,” McGraw says. “That’s important to us that we have unselfish players. They’re all talented. They’re all smart. So you have to kind of look for certain things, someone with a great work ethic. I want somebody that is competitive. I don’t think you can teach that.”
McGraw’s success with the program is undeniable, having led the Irish to four of the past five National Championship games. The program hasn’t won a national championship since 2001, however, with Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut Huskies defeating the Irish the last two seasons.
This year’s squad is 24-1 overall and ranked No. 2 in the AP poll. Its lone loss came in a close contest against the No. 1 Huskies on Dec. 5.
“We are overachieving,” McGraw says. “This is an amazing group. We lost Jewel Lloyd, the number one player in the draft. Our backup point guard who’s an All-American tears her ACL.”
“It’s just amazing what we’ve done. Madison Cable has had a remarkable season, came from kind of being a role player to being one of our best players. Brianna Turner having a great year, Lindsay Allen. I mean we have talent, but what we’ve lost and where we are. I mean we haven’t missed a beat. I’m really proud of that.”
McGraw has cherished her time at Notre Dame. She notched the 800th win of her coaching career in a Dec. 3 victory over Pittsburgh.
“I think it was a time to reflect back on all the players and all the coaches I’ve had,” McGraw says. “I’ve had so many amazing people. It’s like anything in life. You don’t do anything by yourself. You always have help, somebody supporting you, and I’ve had just hundreds of people that have been behind me and help me get there so I feel like it’s sort of a group accomplishment with my staff.”
When asked if she would ever coach anywhere else, she emphatically replied, “No. Absolutely not. I’m going to retire here.”
McGraw says she will continue coaching as long as she enjoys it and asserted that her passion for coaching is as strong as ever.
“I think I’m going to be somebody that’s going to wake up one day and go, ‘I’m done.’ I don’t think I’m going to be somebody that’s going to think about it for a long time. I’m going to know when I don’t get excited about getting in the gym.”
“It helps when your team has such a great camaraderie and they’re fun to coach,” she adds. “So I think that has a lot to do with it too.”
McGraw’s passion and commitment to her team shine crystal clear in even a brief conversation with the coach. Even after all the championships and successes that she has brought to the university, McGraw still feels blessed by the opportunity to coach at Notre Dame.
“I pinch myself sometimes, like ‘I’m really here,’” she says. “When I first came I was kind of like, ‘How long will I be able to stay’, and it’s been almost 30 years. I love watching the band going by and the golden dome, and I just really feel lucky to be here.”
Coach Mike Brey
Hometown: Bethesda, MD
Seasons at Notre Dame: 16
Record: 449-222 (.669)
Conference titles: 1
NCAA titles: 0
One word to describe coaching at ND: “Magical”
Mike Brey grew up surrounded by athletics, with his parents cultivating a love of sports and coaching from a young age.
“I’m the son of two teachers and coaches,” Brey says. “So when I grew up, my dad coached, my mom coached, my dad coached basketball and football, so I grew up watching them teach and coach. I had an uncle who was a great player at Duke University, part of their first ACC Championship team. So I had a lot of role models that I wanted to follow and that got me into the game.”
Brey played three seasons of college basketball at Northwestern Louisiana State (now Northwestern State) before finishing his collegiate career at George Washington in 1981.
Brey’s first coaching job came in 1982 as a head junior varsity and assistant varsity coach at his high school alma mater Dematha in Hyattsville, Maryland. He worked and learned under legendary Dematha coach Morgan Wooten while also teaching history. During Brey’s five years at Dematha, the team went 139-22 and was ranked the number one high school team in the nation by USA Today in 1984.
Brey got the chance to learn from another legendary coach in Mike Krzyzewski when he was hired as a Duke assistant in 1987. During his eight seasons with the Blue Devils, Brey saw the team advance to four national title games and win the National Championship in 1991 and 1992.
Brey credits his time under Wooten at Dematha and Krzyewski at Duke as instrumental in his development as a teacher and basketball coach.
“Starting as a high school teacher and coach was great for me,” Brey says. “I really learned how to work. Working at a Catholic high school, six periods of history, coaching JV, helping with the varsity, scouting ... The day-to-day experiences of working in the classroom for five years, I think I’ve really drawn on them on a daily basis ever since then.
“Certainly then, to go from working with Morgan Wooten, who’s one of the great teachers and coaches in history, a Hall of Famer, to work for Mike Krzyzewski, I feel I have the Harvard Business School or John Hopkins Medical School training of coaching. I’ve been around some amazing mentors from a teaching coaching standpoint.”
Brey got his first chance at being a collegiate head coach when the University of Delaware hired him in 1995. In five years with the Blue Hens, Brey led his squad to a 99-52 record, including two trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Brey’s success at Delaware earned him an opportunity at Notre Dame, where he was hired as the head coach in 2000.
In 15 seasons with the Irish, Brey has led his team to 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, including five in the last six years, two Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight appearance last season.
This year’s team, despite losing superstars Jerian Grant and Pat Conaughton to the NBA Draft, has pulled off recent upset wins over No. 5 North Carolina and No. 13 Louisville in a late surge for postseason positioning.
The No. 19 Irish are currently tied for fourth place in the ACC, but a favorable schedule for the remainder of the season will at least give them a chance to win the regular season ACC title and repeat as victors of the ACC Tournament.
“We’ll do our part and see what everyone else does…” Brey says. “Take care of your business, and then go see how the other guys do. I love the position we’re in.”
Regardless of how this year’s season and all the rest play out, Brey feels privileged to guide and mentor his players during their Notre Dame careers and beyond.
“It’s been magical. To be the coach here still on a daily basis after 16 years, I’m so honored. It’s a great institution, and I love the kind of kids that we attract here. We get a group of kids, a special breed of cat who wants to come here to compete in the classroom and compete on the basketball court. It’s one of the reasons I don’t want to coach anywhere else, the kind of guys that are attracted to this place.”
Brey wants to be remembered by his players as “the best teacher my guys have had here at Notre Dame,” he says. “I think I have them at such a key time. Of course, they have to take my class every semester, and in the summer, and I coach and teach them through a lot of other things that another professor here would not do. But to be their best teacher, and to help them with stuff not just basketball wise, growing up and ready to face life.”