Ever-confident Muffet McGraw wins 800th game of coaching career

My favorite story about Muffet McGraw comes from her husband, Matt, in regard to her landscaping. Virtually no plant is safe in the McGraws' yard, because unless it's rooted so deeply that it can't be moved, it probably will be relocated.

The coach in her is always overriding the gardener. Are those flowers really lined up correctly? Shouldn't that bush be about 10 inches farther to the right? Wouldn't that fern look better in the backyard?

In other words, she's always strategizing, constantly evaluating, looking to make everything just right. A born coach, you might say. One who has now reached the type of numerical milestone that lets us take a little timeout to appreciate one of the great contributors to this sport.

Notre Dame beat Pittsburgh 65-55 on Sunday on the road, giving McGraw the 800th victory of her coaching career, 712 of them in 29 years at Notre Dame. McGraw has led the Irish to the Final Four the past five seasons, and seven times overall.

Furthermore, Notre Dame has evolved from a program that was almost always good (but not necessarily championship-caliber) to that top tier of elite schools in women's basketball. McGraw credits guard Skylar Diggins, a native of South Bend, Indiana, for pushing the Irish to their current level. And there's certainly truth to how much a monumental recruit can impact a program, which Diggins did from 2009-2013.

But Notre Dame's elevation also reflects how McGraw has continued to get better as a coach. She turned 60 in December, but you'd never use adjectives like "stodgy" or "inflexible" to describe her. To the contrary, she seems just as energetic, as innovative, as competitive as ever.

And she has actually become even more confident.

This isn't to say that McGraw ever lacked confidence; she always had it. But there was a time when -- like many coaches, actually -- she kind of preferred the underdog role.

For many years, Notre Dame would have primarily been described as scrappy and smart, which reflected McGraw. There were multiple times, especially in the NCAA tournament, when the Irish weren't the favorite on paper, and yet outwitted and outplayed the opposition.

But Diggins brought a new level of both confidence and talent, and also an expectation of not just being able to compete with the best, but actually be one of the best.

McGraw already had won an NCAA title (2001) and been to another Final Four (1997) even before Diggins arrived. But McGraw, during Diggins' stay at Notre Dame, seemed to become even more sure that the Irish could be in the conversation for a championship every year. And that those expectations were something she could be entirely comfortable shouldering.

McGraw has always been able to make her team play even better than its talent. And in the past several years, the talent level of the Irish has risen, too. So at a time when women's basketball needed another program to really step forward as "big time," Notre Dame has done that.

No, the Irish haven't won another national championship since their 2001 team did it with the "iron women" squad that had little depth but a perfectly complementary starting five led by center Ruth Riley.

Not getting one of the past five titles has been partly just some unfortunate timing. The Irish lost in the 2011 final to a Texas A&M squad that played like a team of destiny that entire tournament. They fell in the 2012 final to a undefeated Baylor team that nobody was going to beat that season. Notre Dame lost in the national semifinals to UConn in 2013 after defeating the Huskies three times earlier in the season. In 2014 and '15, it was again UConn -- both times in the NCAA final -- that was the hurdle the Irish couldn't clear.

"She's brisk and to the point without being curt. She doesn't sugarcoat, but isn't needlessly harsh. She'll offer details, but never wastes words." Mechelle Voepel on Muffet McGraw

There was the misfortune of losing starter Natalie Achonwa in the 2014 Elite Eight to a knee injury; her presence at least likely would have made the championship game with UConn more intense. The final ended up being Notre Dame's only loss of that season.

McGraw says she doesn't agonize over leaving the Final Four the past five years without a championship. Sure, it has to be tough in those weeks in April after the Final Four, when she likely goes over and over scenarios in her mind. But she has to know that the Irish really have given their best. That's the feeling we observers are left with, too: that Notre Dame has become a program that virtually always maxes out its potential.

We've also seen how adaptable McGraw is by the way the Irish moved into a different conference, the ACC, and instantly became that its best team. And despite the obstacles Notre Dame has faced for 2015-16 -- Jewell Loyd's early departure in the WNBA draft last April, injuries (including to star Brianna Turner), and Taya Reimer's departure (at least for the rest of this season) -- the Irish are still ranked No. 3, with their only loss coming at UConn.

McGraw clearly has a great love for Notre Dame, and has been a terrific fit there. But the funny thing is, in an athletic department that has been legendary in creating/promoting near-mythical figures and lore, McGraw is the opposite of "Gipper-dom."

She's far more a scientist than a sentimentalist. She has a straightforward, no-nonsense way of approaching things that is usually a good fit with the types of players she recruits. As a reporter, I've always liked talking with McGraw. She's brisk and to the point without being curt. She doesn't sugarcoat, but isn't needlessly harsh. She'll offer details, but never wastes words. She'll give you her assessment of a game, her players, and her opponent -- but rarely has much of anything to say about herself.

McGraw the landscaper and McGraw the coach have this in common: It's not about her, what she can do to facilitate the best outcome possible. The number 800 pretty much speaks for itself, and McGraw is the kind of coach who prefers that. No embellishments are needed. She'll thank her players, her assistants, her husband and family -- and then focus on trying to win No. 801.