In appreciation of Muffet McGraw
Rivalry, wrote Louisa May Alcott, adds so much to the charms of one's conquests.
And that's where it begins with Muffet McGraw.
Her abrupt retirement last week as the women's basketball coach at Notre Dame belied her enduring excellence, not merely to the game but for purveying a villainous role in the allegory that was UConn-Notre Dame.
Every good story has a villain. Even the Bible had the serpent. McGraw was our villain. Geno Auriemma was Notre Dame's. And on the band played across the country, hitting notes of social change, institutional hiring practices, humor, sarcasm, perceptions of women and men and an overarching reason for The Periphery — not just the diehards — to watch women's basketball.
Perhaps the prevalence of a pandemic has us preoccupied, preventing us from raining the appropriate hosannas on a Hall of Famer who made the sport — and one of its greatest rivalries — better. Whether we/you like McGraw is irrelevant. She will always be part of UConn lore and legend.
Rivalry sustains sports. The Yankees need the Red Sox. The Celtics need the Lakers. UConn needs Notre Dame. And vicey versey, as Archie Bunker once said. ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke said of UConn-Notre Dame at the 2014 Women's Final Four, "I think it's great. I hope it gets nasty. A little animosity is fabulous."
Some of women's basketball's keepers of the gate never understood that. Or didn't want to. They wanted to "focus on the game," which the rest of country did not. Geno vs. Muffet was engaging. It raised consciousness for the game. And then when people watched, they saw the residual effects: brilliantly run offense from both parties and the noteworthy talents of Maya and Diana; Arike and Skylar.
And yet UConn-Notre Dame would never have been as prevalent without the he said/she said that so gloriously entertained us. As the old line goes, you need to crack a few eggs to make a good omelet.
There were barbs over scheduling. We'll play but they won't. During the 2014 Selection Show on ESPN, McGraw said:
"We were disappointed they couldn't fit us into their schedule this year."
"We've gotten pretty good at beating them."
"Kayla McBride is the best player in the country."
"Michaela Mabrey is the best sixth man in the country."
"When you grow up in Philadelphia," Auriemma said in response, "you tend to exaggerate. I know that first hand. Trust me. ... As for the scheduling part? Let me just say it's not nice to fib during lent."
A few years later, McGraw called Auriemma a bully in an ESPNW story.
And then there was the 2014 Final Four, during which McGraw was named Associated Press Coach of the Year and Breanna Stewart was named AP Player of the Year. In the same room. Room H at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Barely bigger than a bread box. All shoehorned together violating each other's airspace like one, big, unhappy family.
Just before it began, Auriemma offered his seat to hobbled Notre Dame senior Natalie Achonwa, who was on crutches, after her recent knee injury.
"Would you like to sit here?" Auriemma said.
"Yeah," Achonwa said.
Auriemma is still waiting for "thanks, coach."
A little later, Stewart was called to the podium to accept the Player of the Year award. McGraw did not applaud.
"Nobody knows what it's like being us. Nobody knows what we go through every day, what our players go through every time they win awards, (other people) get pissed off," Auriemma said.
At that same Final Four, McGraw said how "the rivalry has gone a little away from the civility." When asked what could be done to restore civility, she said tersely, "I think we're past that point."
It led "SportsCenter." It was dramatic and theatric, in that unapologetic way rivalries ought to be. Think about it: Who would ever want to see Kevin McHale and Kurt Rambis exchanging cannoli recipes?
"I could sit here and list 10,000 coaches that don't interact with each other whose rivalries are intense," Auriemma said. "This is a function of women's basketball. Sometimes we act like we're supposed to go to dinner every night. We're supposed to play each other, try to beat each other's brains in, try to win a national championship and compete like hell. Muffet and Geno. And then we're supposed to get together afterwards and go have a bottle of wine. That's just not going to happen. So stop asking us why it doesn't happen."
Notre Dame and UConn have a necessary — and hallowed — place in each other's history. They made it better. They made it great. And so here's a voice in the Connecticut wilderness offering a giant thank-you to Muffet McGraw.
Happy retirement, coach. Some of us will always leave the light on for you. Too many good memories.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro