Muffet McGraw had done it all in coaching, so now she’s moving on. The legendary Notre Dame women’s basketball coach announced on April 22 that she would step down, ushering in a new era led by McGraw’s former player and assistant, Niele Ivey. In her 38-year career, McGraw won 936 games, finishing sixth all-time in women’s Division I history. She won two national championships in seven trips and coached 20 WNBA players, including Ivey, who said of McGraw in a statement, “She’s more than a mentor, more than a friend, she’s one of the most influential people in my life.”
Notre Dame, of course, hopes it has found another McGraw in Ivey, and she may keep the Fighting Irish just as prominent as they were under McGraw. But in terms of wins, it might be hard for any coach to overtake McGraw. Just five Division I coaches have won more games than she did, each of them topping 1,000: Pat Summitt (Tennessee), Tara VanDerveer (Ohio State and Stanford), Geno Auriemma (Connecticut), Sylvia Hatchell (North Carolina) and C. Vivian Stringer (Iowa and Rutgers).1 For a variety of reasons, any up-and-comer will have a tough time matching the output of those icons.
Winning 1,000 games requires a kind of career that was rare in the 1980s and is almost impossible today. Coaches like Summitt had chances to amass more than 1,000 wins because at a young age, they had opportunities to grow programs from infancy. Summitt became a head coach in 1974 at age 22, and in the early years, she also washed the players’ uniforms and drove the team van. The first NCAA women’s basketball tournament was not until 1982.
Today’s coaching legends started by leading fledgling basketball programs, and many of them never left. VanDerveer started at Idaho at 25. Stringer began her first season at Cheyney at 24. Hatchell took over at Francis Marion at 23.2 The only coach with 1,000 wins to become a head coach after turning 30 was Auriemma, who took over at UConn at age 31.
|1st H.C. job||1st DI job|
|C. Vivian Stringer||1,041||Rutgers||1972||24||1983||35|
|Sylvia Hatchell||1,023||North Carolina||1975||23||1986||34|
|Muffet McGraw||936||Notre Dame||1982||26||1982||26|
The three still-active coaches — VanDerveer, Auriemma and Stringer — are now older than the 64-year-old McGraw, who may well have reached 1,000 wins with two more seasons. Before a disappointing 13-18 finish in 2019-20, she had won at least 33 games in eight straight seasons.
Gone are the days when a young coach could take over a promising Division I program in his or her 20s. As of Sunday, nine of the 17 new coaches in this year’s hiring cycle are entering their first Division I job. Each of those nine is at least 30. McGraw started at Notre Dame at 31 after two seasons as an assistant coach at St. Joseph’s and five as the head coach at Lehigh. Thirty-three years later, the Fighting Irish hired the 42-year-old Ivey, who spent 12 years on McGraw’s staff and another as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies.
One younger contemporary of Auriemma and McGraw is Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. Since she arrived at Baylor in 2000, Mulkey has won 604 games, fewer than Auriemma’s 698 but more than McGraw’s 560 in that span. But Mulkey didn’t debut as a head coach until she was 38. She has won as much as just about anybody since then, but even if she continues to average 30 wins per year and coaches until she turns 70, she’ll fall about 40 wins short of 1,000.3
Another hurdle in the way of the 1,000-win mark is that there’s more parity in women’s basketball today. Winning 1,000 games requires, say, 25 wins per year over 40 years, or 30 wins per year over 33-plus. While the longevity is harder to achieve, the dominance is, too. Dynasties come and go, and as the defining group of elite coaches start to retire, perhaps another changing of the guard is coming.
VanDerveer, Auriemma and Stringer are all older than 65. While there’s no sign that any is retiring imminently, at some point relatively soon that first wave of coaching titans will be gone, which is a strange thought. There have been only three NCAA Tournaments without VanDerveer — in 1983, 1986 and 1987.
Because of the growth of women’s basketball, rising coaches also tend to take jobs at bigger programs, where 35-win seasons are harder to come by. In 2011, Nancy Fahey, then the head coach at Washington University in St. Louis, became the then-fastest coach to reach 600 NCAA wins among all divisions when she did it in 706 games — 10 fewer than Auriemma. In 2017, after 31 seasons in St. Louis, she took her chance at the Big Ten and joined Illinois, where she has begun a rebuilding process. Last year, Mark Campbell won his 600th game in just 691 tries at Union University in Tennessee. If he decides to test himself at the Division I level, he may find it harder to reach 1,000 than some of those who came before him.
At mid-major powerhouse Florida Gulf Coast, which became a full-fledged Division I member in 2011, coach Karl Smesko has already compiled a 554-122 record in 21 seasons. If the 49-year-old coaches 20 more seasons, he needs to average only 22.3 wins a season to reach 1,000, which is a tick below his average to date but has still proven difficult to maintain over four decades at the Division I level.
This is good for the sport — more programs are catching up to the standard Auriemma, VanDerveer and McGraw have set, and the competition has improved as a result. But the time to pile up wins like McGraw — and the few coaches ahead of her — is running out.