Notre Dame women’s basketball team knew this season was going to be a challenge after it had lost all five starters from the previous season.
“We knew it was going to be a complete rebuild,” coach Muffet McGraw said.
But the combination of inexperienced players with a lack of veteran leadership and injuries has resulted in Notre Dame’s worst season in the McGraw era.
Notre Dame’s 12-year run in the Associated Press top-25 poll ended this season, and the Irish are projected to miss their first NCAA Tournament since 1995.
Those shortcomings have weighed heavily on McGraw all season.
McGraw hit a breaking point last month after a 34-point blowout loss to the visiting NC State. Asked after the game about how hard it’s been to not have an answer for the team’s struggles, the Hall of Fame coach let out a sigh as tears welled up in her eyes.
“I’ve got to do better,” she said as her voice cracked. “I feel like I can fix it, but I didn’t.”
In a world that often portrays women as being too emotional, McGraw, an outspoken advocate for gender equality, wasn’t afraid to show a moment vulnerability in the limelight.
“I get a lot of comments from women about that,” McGraw said. “Some said, ‘I relate to you so much more now this year because I’ve gone through that were in the past you had so much success, I couldn’t really relate to you. And now, I feel like you’re more of a role model for me because of what you’re going through this year,’ which it’s kind of mind boggling to think how that works.”
McGraw, who’s been with Notre Dame for 32 seasons, talked about this season’s difficulties and why she believes it’s important to have an all-female staff in this week’s Chat Room.
After more than two decades of dominance, how have you handled the adversity of this season?
Muffet McGraw: “It’s all about lessons that we can teach this young team about how to handle adversity, how to fight through adversity and what it takes to be a champion. I think we’ve got an incredibly young team with virtually no experience in postseason play and teaching them how hard you have to work, I don’t think coming in as freshman, you realize how hard it’s going to be and I think we’ve made it look easy over the past few years. ... And now [we’re] having to start over and to figure out how to lay the groundwork and build that foundation again.”
Did you expect this season would unfold this way?
MM: “Four points a game was what our returners had. And one of them, Abby Prohaska, we lost for the whole season because of a blood clot in her lungs and so she was gone, the other one, Mikayla Vaughn, hurt her knee in the very first game. So we were in the season with zero experience and playing young freshman — three freshman — who have a great future obviously. ... And I think the pressure on them of knowing they have a lot to live up to, the expectations were so high, I think that was hard for them to relax and just play because I think they always felt like they were not doing enough.”
It’s probably also hard that you don’t have that veteran voice to help the younger players in a way a coach can’t.
probably hard when you don’t have that veteran leader who can be that voice for the players
MM: “Exactly. You can’t point to anyone and say, ‘Just watch her. Just learn from her.’ All of our great players ... they came in and had seniors to look up to who were also WNBA players. We had such great leadership without the past few years, there was always somebody that you could look up to to learn from and then grow into your role as the go-to player. And we’re asking freshman to take the place of WNBA players, so we knew it was going to be a struggle, we knew offensively it would be a struggle just with practicing .. and one the other side we weren’t great defensively either so we knew it was going to be a struggle.”
Are you taking a nice vacation after this season?
MM: “[Laughs.] Yeah, we just talked about that with the coaching staff, we all need to get away.”
Where does the program go from here?
MM: “We have a great recruiting class coming in, they were ranked third in the country. ... We’re still going to be really young because we have nine freshman and sophomores who are going to be playing a lot. And I see us being way better than this year and in the future, I think two more years is when we’ll be back to the elite level.”
Last season, Jackie Young decided to forgo her senior season to play in the WNBA. And Oregon junior Satou Sabally announced her plans to enter this year’s draft last week. What are your thoughts on juniors declaring for the draft?
MM: “To leave school early and to be paid the salary of [$57,000] — you’re not going to be able to build your future on that salary. ... Eventually you’re going to have to fall back on your degree and do something and you’re gonna need that degree. So if you come back and get it, great. If you continue to work to get it, great. I think the degree is the most important thing because, as women, we don’t have the same opportunities as men have to make millions. We’re making thousands and it’s difficult.
“You have to look down the road. I think it’s difficult for young people to look ahead and see, ‘What’s life going to be like at 40 and 50?’ And prepare for that stage in life.”
Last season you said you were done hiring men to be on your coaching staff. Have you received any backlash for not giving men opportunities?
MM: “People ask, ‘Would you hire a woman?’ And they always say, ‘Well, we’re going to hire the best candidate’ — as if the best candidate isn’t a woman. And so I’ve always taken a little bit of an offense at that that you’re thinking is, ‘Well men are obviously better so why would you hire a woman?’ And I found that there’s so many extremely qualified women out there.
“I like to see it as an opportunity for women and I think we have to get the opportunity from the athletic directors, they’re the ones doing the hiring. I also think that the male head coaches need to hire more women on their staff because these girls need to look up and see somebody that they can talk to, that they can relate to, that they can look at as a role model of how they can succeed. And I think sports is a great place for young girls to look up to see a woman leading.”