Pieces falling into place for McGraw

INDIANAPOLIS -- No plant is really safe in Muffet McGraw's lawn. They take root at their own risk. Because there's a very good chance she's going to dig them up and rearrange them.

"They call me the transplant queen in my neighborhood," said McGraw, coach of Notre Dame's women's basketball program. "They'll say, 'What are you moving today?' when I come out. I buy it, I stick it in, and then I decide it is too tall or it doesn't match what was there. I think it's a kind of therapy. I tune out the world and mess with the flowers."

Her husband, Matt, says just about the time he thinks that everything is organized in the yard and that maybe they'll go play a round of golf …

"She'll say, 'This isn't really what I want here,'" Matt McGraw said. "She'll plant something, and I'll look down and say, 'Don't get too comfortable there because you're going to be out in a week.' She's constantly moving plants around. It's just like the offense."

In her 29 seasons as a college coach -- 24 at Notre Dame -- McGraw has done plenty of "rearranging" of players, trying to find the right formula on court for victories. She has earned 644 of those, with the most recent on Sunday night sending her into her second NCAA title game Tuesday, against Texas A&M.

The Irish's 72-63 victory over No. 1 seed UConn in the national semifinals -- with McGraw figuring out how to beat the Huskies after losing to them three times this season -- represented another one of her passions.

"She's been a puzzle solver her whole life," Matt said. "She does jigsaw puzzles, and those number puzzles. And I've always thought the success that her teams have had are because she never looks and says, 'Who's the best player out there?' She says, 'Who fits in the puzzle?'

"If we get together with her family, they will bring boxes and boxes of puzzles. And she has what I don't -- the incredible patience, the focus to get the damn thing together. She wants to fit more pieces in than anybody else."

The pieces on this squad took a little while to integrate, as Notre Dame lost three of its first eight games. In the Big East season, the Irish fell those three times to UConn and also lost to DePaul. Yet the whole time, McGraw was solving the puzzle.

"I think I've tried to be a little more patient than I normally am, which is pretty hard for me," McGraw said. "I've been, I think, a lot more relaxed. I look at them in the pregame, and it just kind of takes the weight off my shoulders because I know they're ready.

"I feel like I'm so much calmer on the sidelines than I was before. I've had my moments, for sure, even in the tournament. But I'm trying. Every turnover isn't life-and-death. The more time I spend with them off the court, the harder it is to yell at them. When I get on the court, I remember, 'I really like this team.'"

The perfect match

Muffet will be the first to say she hasn't done any of this alone. Alongside her all the way in her coaching career has been Matt, whom she met in 1976 in the summer between her junior and senior years when she was a player at Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia.

They were both working summer jobs at the West Chester County Courthouse, and Matt vividly remembers seeing her for the first time.

"They were walking me around and saying, 'You need to know this person, that person,'" he said. "And they took me through her office and said, 'There's nobody in here you need to meet.' And I thought, 'Oh, yes, there is.'"

Soon, they were talking, and he said he would call later to set up a date for lunch.

"She wrote down her number on this little piece of paper. But I didn't know her name was Muffet yet," Matt said. "So later I look at the paper, and it said, 'Call me at 696-0102, and it's Muffet.'

"And I thought, 'OK, so the joke's on me.' So I called that night, and her mom answered. I'm sure I said, 'Uh, is Muffet there?' And her mom said, 'Here, hold on.' And I was like, 'My gosh, that's really her name.'"

Yes, he remembers what her phone number was then. And she recalls what he was wearing the day they met.

"If there is love at first sight," Muffet said, "that was it."

They wed in the fall of 1977, just before Muffet began her coaching career at Archbishop Carroll High in the Philly area.

"He didn't know what he was getting into," Muffet said, laughing. "We got married right after college, in October, and I started the job a couple of weeks later. In fact, I went to a coaches clinic the night before the wedding. The guy there said, 'Are you here for the whole weekend?" And I said, 'Nah, I can't, I'm getting married tomorrow.' And he thought I was kidding. I think that pretty much set Matt up for what was in store for the next 30 years."

McGraw moved to the college game as an assistant at Saint Joseph's in 1980, then became head coach at Lehigh in 1982. She took over at Notre Dame in 1987 when she was 31 and has been there ever since.

The McGraws have a 20-year-old son, Murphy, who is a junior at Indiana.

"And every season, we have about 14 daughters," Matt said. "That's how she looks at it."

Notre Dame made its first Final Four in 1997, falling to Tennessee in the semifinals. The professional pinnacle for the McGraw family came on April 1, 2001, when the Ruth Riley-led Irish beat Purdue for the NCAA title in St. Louis.

But five months later, Matt had the worst scare of his life on what -- but for a random change in plans -- would have been the worst day of his life.

Muffet originally had a ticket on United Flight 175 out of Boston on Sept. 11. Only the persistence of her then-assistant coach Kevin McGuff, who convinced her to change plans and fly out of Providence, R.I., with him instead, prevented her from being on the second plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

Matt McGraw still has difficulty talking about it without his eyes welling up. He had taken their son to school that morning, then gone to the golf course to try out some new clubs. When he realized what was going on in New York, he began to feel panic.

"I called her and said, 'Where are you right now?' She said, 'The FAA just took us off the plane because they're having a problem with their computers.' I said, 'No, that's not it. Here's what happened. Rent a car, and get out of there now.' And then I was dying for 14 hours waiting for her to get home."

For her part, McGraw will rarely speak of it, and never at length.

"I don't go there," she said. "I think things happen for a reason, and that's why we're here today."

Notre Dame assistant Niele Ivey talks about playing for a national championship for coach Muffet McGraw and coaching alongside her in pursuit of a title.

Coming full circle

McGraw does do some self-reflection, though, on how she has changed in the decade since the Irish won the NCAA championship.

"I still wish I had more compassion. I'm not an outgoing, people person," she said. "That's probably why I like the flowers so much. I'm fine just being behind the curtain. I would love to coach from behind a curtain if I could."

Her competitiveness is as intense as ever.

"She enjoys bridge; she's a very good card player," Matt said. "And she's a great golfer; she'll beat your brains in and wouldn't think twice about it."

Her players, though, think she has mellowed without losing her coaching edge.

"We've talked to players from years ago, and they're like, 'She's so much easier on y'all than she was on us,'" sophomore star Skylar Diggins said. "She's had a lot of patience with us."

One of those people who can compare McGraw, then and now, from firsthand experience is Irish assistant Niele Ivey, who was the point guard on that 2001 championship team.

"Softer -- and you can tell her I said that," Ivey said, smiling. "But the players have changed. She's still hard on them on the court and trying to get the most out of them, but she makes sure that they enjoy being a student-athlete.

"No matter what type of players she has, she figures out a way to win. She'll change the offense to fit them."

Again, that's the puzzle solver in McGraw, who for the past 10 years has had a big one to work on: how to return the Irish to the Final Four. McGraw admits there have been times when she has been frustrated about not having a puzzle piece here or there that maybe would have made the difference.

But Tuesday night, she has a chance to complete the picture again.

"I'm enjoying the circle," McGraw said. "We had our championship reunion in the fall, and the [2001] team came in. They presented a ball to this team and said, 'You know, we've won our championship. Now, it's your turn.'"

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.