NOTRE DAME — Muffet McGraw and Geno Auriemma have been crossing paths for a long, long time.
The stakes seem to keep rising, too.
Auriemma arrived at Saint Joseph’s as an assistant coach to Jim Foster in 1978, two seasons after McGraw graduated from the school that bills itself as the “Cradle of Coaches.” A year after Auriemma left Saint Joseph’s to coach at his alma mater, Bishop Kenrick High School, Foster hired McGraw as his assistant.
“They were both easy hires,” said Foster, the coach at Ohio State the past 11 seasons until he was fired last month.
McGraw and Auriemma will see each other again Sunday in the NCAA semifinals. McGraw is trying to lead Notre Dame (35-1) to its second national title and Auriemma is trying to help the Huskies (33-4) win their eighth in a rematch of what has become the biggest rivalry in the game.
“I think it is the most heated rivalry in women’s basketball and it’s a game that everybody enjoys watching, and we enjoy playing,” McGraw said.
McGraw and Auriemma have coached in all 40 games the two schools have played. Auriemma, the coach at Connecticut since 1985, has a 29-11 advantage in wins, including a 10-1 lead in Big East tournament games. But McGraw, the Notre Dame coach since 1987, holds a 3-0 advantage in NCAA tournament games — all in the national semifinals. The Irish have also beaten the Huskies four straight and in seven of the past eight games.
Foster is good friends with both McGraw and Auriemma. He met Auriemma playing intramural basketball at Montgomery Community College outside Philadelphia in the 1970s. Foster was hired as the girls coach at Bishop McDevitt High School, and in his second season hired Auriemma as his assistant. When he got the job at Saint Joseph’s two years later, he brought Auriemma with him.
He met McGraw after becoming the coach at Saint Joseph’s and interviewed her when he had an opening.
“I liked the energy she had and the passion she had for Saint Joe’s,” he said.
A photo from the mid-1980s hung in Foster’s office, showing him and some former assistants, including McGraw and Auriemma, at a beach on a cold summer day. They spent two days together talking basketball. In the photo, by the way, Auriemma is wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt.
“He wasn’t a Notre Dame fan, it was a chilly day and he had nothing else to wear,” Foster said. “Irony of ironies, X number of years later they’re at this stage.”
Anyone who knows McGraw knows how competitive she is. Auriemma noted it as he talked about golfing with McGraw.
“She gets all fired up about driving the ball further than me — which is a big deal when you’re teeing off 50 yards in front of me,” he said. “That goes to show you how competitive Muffet is. She’s incredibly competitive.”
They haven’t golfed together in years, however, and while the relationship between them is cordial, they are not good friends. Both say the game Sunday is much more about the teams than the coaches.
“She doesn’t have to prove anything to me and I don’t have to prove anything to her,” Auriemma said.
McGraw said she never looks at it as a one-on-one battle with another coach, but concedes some victories are more satisfying than others. She pointed to finally beating Tennessee and Pat Summitt in an NCAA regional championship game two years ago, when the Irish were 0-20 all-time against the Volunteers and McGraw was 0-16.
“It feels great to beat a program of that stature. When we beat UConn, I feel the same way. I don’t feel like I beat Geno. I feel like my team beat his team,” McGraw said.
Foster, though, believes it is a bit of a factor for any coach.
“I think some of that is always in the back of your head, but it’s the smallest percentage. It’s about this game and your team,” he said.
Notre Dame was 0-11 against the Huskies before the then-No. 3 Irish led by All-American center Ruth Riley upset top-ranked UConn 92-76 in a nationally televised game in January 2001, ending 30-game winning streak by the Huskies and handing them their worst loss in more than seven years. The Irish did it again in the NCAA semifinal that year, winning 90-75 en route to the championship.
“That game certainly gave us and our program kind of a great momentum swing,” McGraw said.
The Irish went 2-4 against the Huskies over the next four seasons, before the Huskies rattled off 12 consecutive victories. The Irish finally beat UConn 72-63 two years ago in the NCAA semifinals behind the play of Skylar Diggins, keeping Maya Moore and her teammates from winning a third straight national title. The Irish did it again last year, winning in overtime.
Both coaches admit they are tired of meeting in the semifinals, saying they would have preferred delaying the rematch until the final.
“We’ve played them three years in a row now and it would be nice to play somebody else,” McGraw said.
Auriemma said the NCAA might want to consider emulating what the NFL does in the playoffs and “reseed the teams when they get to the Final Four so we wouldn’t have to play Notre Dame every year.”
Foster believes there’s no telling what to expect with two teams so familiar with one another.
“It could be brilliantly played or it could be an ugly game because they know each other so well,” Foster said.
As do their coaches. Notre Dame and Connecticut aren’t scheduled to play each other next season with the Irish moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it’s likely the paths of McGraw and Auriemma will cross again. They always do.