Their phone calls have been quieter of late.
That’s not to say the calls are quiet per se. They still have plenty to talk about. They just can’t talk shop. “How’s that new defense coming along?,” one might ask, without thinking twice. “Can’t tell you,” says the other.
Muffet McGraw and Coquese Washington would always tell each other.
They had always been on the same side, too, until Washington left Notre Dame in 2007 to be Penn State’s women’s basketball coach. Even then, it didn’t matter. Washington could discuss basketball freely with McGraw because she never had to play against her mentor, who still coaches the Fighting Irish today.
Today is precisely the problem. At 7:30 p.m., Washington’s Lady Lions will take on McGraw’s Fighting Irish on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center.
“I hope I don’t throw up on the court in the middle of the game,” Washington said.
Washington and McGraw can approach this game with their glasses half-empty or half-full: It’s the hardest part of their ordeal, but it’s also the end. When this most unnatural contest comes to a close, one friend will have beaten the other friend.
Washington even likened this matchup to playing against a sister. McGraw recruited Washington, coached Washington, and coached with Washington. Their relationship has evolved across four decades.
McGraw knew Washington had a high basketball IQ from the start. McGraw identified the most with point guards, and this particular Flint, Mich. recruit maintained an uncanny equanimity in the backcourt. Washington started as floor general since her freshman season in 1989.
“She was a really good listener,” McGraw said. “That’s something I always give credit to people for doing because a lot of people want to do things their own way. She was always willing to see another way to do it.”
Washington was studying law and playing in the WNBA when McGraw called her about an assistant coaching vacancy in 1999. McGraw said it took her only a minute to determine Washington was the only candidate for the job.
For eight years, the pair worked together in South Bend, Ind. Washington learned from McGraw’s analytical coaching style. The veteran strategizes during basketball games as if she was playing a chess match, trying to stay several steps ahead of her opponent.
“I don’t know if every basketball coach has [that skill] because they feel like they have to do a lot of their coaching in the game,” said one of McGraw’s current assistants, Carol Owens. “She really is strategic in what she’s teaching at practice and the timeframe.”
Washington’s inherent rapport with players complemented McGraw’s basketball acuity. Together, Washington and McGraw made four Sweet 16s, and won a national championship in 2001. She also brought in innovative recruits that forced McGraw to adapt, but ultimately helped make Notre Dame a juggernaut women’s basketball program.
McGraw said she wasn’t surprised when Washington started to draw head-coaching interest. McGraw thought Washington was already talented enough to bypass a position at a mid-major school.
It was a bittersweet time for McGraw, as she knew her player-turned-colleague was ready to lead, but she wasn’t ready for her friend to leave South Bend.
“Coquese is kind of the model in her eyes of what she wants her assistants to turn out to be,” said Owens, who coached with Washington on Notre Dame’s staff from 1999-2005.
Washington chose a program with major baggage. Despite its historical success, Penn State was mired in two consecutive losing seasons. The team was reeling from former coach Rene Portland’s resignation after allegations arose that she discriminated against lesbian student-athletes.
Both Owens and McGraw said Washington was the perfect hire to rebuild the program.
Washington suffered three straight losing seasons in the Big Ten as she slowly stocked the team with her own recruits. But at the same time, Washington had to adopt the team left over from Portland’s regime. McGraw said Washington jumped into the fray with a winning mindset, even though that didn’t translate on the court right away.
“With the former coach, it was just incredibly difficult to mend the fences and build relationships with people on campus, in the office, and with the team that was fractured,” the Notre Dame coach added. “That’s a difficult position. You have to be a psychologist and few other things besides...
“Coaching was probably the smallest part of her job initially.”
Washington utilized her own charisma and some of McGraw’s organizational techniques to first heal Penn State’s women’s basketball program, and then make it strong again. The Lady Lions have progressively improved in the Big Ten since 2007. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament every year since 2011, and won their conference title in 2012 and 2013.
McGraw and Washington often talked about the challenges the latter faced, not just with Penn State but with the transition from assistant coach to head coach. The two share many of the same coaching qualities, especially their observant reticence during games and their zealous tutelage of point guards.
They continued to pick each other’s mind, until their showdown was scheduled some months ago. While neither wanted their respective conferences to sadistically pit them against each other, McGraw and Washington both knew it could happen.
“There’s an emotional connection there that you don’t have when you play another team. With another team, it’s like, ‘Alright. It’s time to kill them!’ ” Washington said, a sense of faux rage. “With this, it’s like ‘I don’t want to kill them. I like [McGraw].’ ”
And obviously, McGraw likes Washington. She roots for the Lady Lions when she doesn’t play them. As Washington’s program sits on the fringe of Notre Dame’s level of eliteness, McGraw has pulled as hard as anyone for her friend.
McGraw said she thinks Penn State had some bad luck last year, pulling the “toughest draw in the [NCAA] tournament.” The Lions played LSU at home for the second straight year, losing to the Tigers in the second round.
But Washington’s success remains unprecedented. Owens said she has spurned multiple programs that have tried to buy her away from Penn State. McGraw added that, of all the rookie head coaches in 2007, Washington is probably the only one with the same job today.
McGraw’s role in Washington’s ever-rising stock is more than significant. For more than 20 years, their mutual support hasn’t wavered — until tonight.
Tonight, as much as this game goes against their instincts, each coach must try to force the other to fail.
Both said they will be glad when it’s over.
“It won’t be a typical game. It won’t be a typical night,” Washington said. “It will be a little different. I’ll get through it. Hopefully the outcome is positive.”