Muffet McGraw has always enjoys a good puzzle. Jigsaw, word or number - doesn't matter. She's used them to stay sharp and challenge herself.
None quite compare to what the Notre Dame coach tries to solve on the basketball court each season, though.
''Some years are tougher than others,'' McGraw said in a phone interview Thursday. ''Some years you have a great group coming back, some years you lose a key piece of the puzzle. I enjoy trying to figure out what they are good at and find an offense that works the best for them.''
Not many have done it with more success than McGraw. She is one victory away from becoming the 10th Division I coach to reach 800 wins, and her first shot at that milestone will come Sunday at Pittsburgh. A victory would put her in the same company as Hall of Famers Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer, C. Vivian Stringer and Geno Auriemma.
''I would say I'd be honored to be in that group,'' McGraw said. ''I never looked ahead and said this is my goal. Win this many games or be in the game this long. It's always been fun. As long as I continue to enjoy practice, I'll do it. I don't know if I appreciate the number 800 as much now as at some point looking back I will. But to be in the same category as all those coaches who have done so much for the game, that's special.''
One thing McGraw has in common with those 800-win club members is consistency. She's only had one losing season in her 29 years at Notre Dame, and her third-ranked Irish have been in the Top 25 for 163 straight weeks - the sixth longest active streak. That includes a top-10 spot every week since Jan. 24, 2011 - UConn is the only other school to do that.
''She doesn't really give any special treatment,'' Irish senior Michaela Mabry said. ''She's very hard on them and she demands a lot out of everyone. I think that's what makes this program so successful.''
Tough as she seems to her current players, McGraw has gotten ''softer'' with age. At least that's what some former players think.
''Yeah, that's the first thing that all the former players say,'' Irish assistant coach Beth Cunningham said laughing.
Cunningham is one of those former student-athletes, starring for the Irish as a player under McGraw from 1993-97 and helping the team reach its first Final Four her senior year. She returned to Notre Dame in 2012 after 11 seasons at Virginia Commonwealth, including nine as the women's basketball coach.
''I wouldn't have done it anywhere else. It's Coach McGraw, the University of Notre Dame,'' Cunningham said. ''It's a unique opportunity to work at your alma mater under someone you played for.''
Cunningham is one of many former players around the program. Niele Ivey, who helped McGraw win a title in 2001 as the starting point guard, is an assistant coach also. Another 2001 team member, Ruth Riley, does color commentary on the radio for Irish games. Alumni are always showing up for games in South Bend, including former stars Skylar Diggins, Natalie Achonwa and Devereaux Peters. Those three were instrumental in Notre Dame's latest run of four appearances in the national championship game in the past five seasons.
The family atmosphere helps keep McGraw coming back.
''I mean it's just something that is so rewarding,'' she said. ''It makes you feel like, while they were here was so good for them they want to continue to represent our program.''
McGraw had 88 victories at Lehigh before coming to Notre Dame in 1987, where she's won 711 games. She said she remembers players more than wins.
''Every now and then you'll remember the funny moments, remember things that happen along the way,'' McGraw said. ''It's more about the people you were around more than anything else.''
Sunday might just be another memory for McGraw and the Irish. It's fitting that the milestone could come in Pennsylvania. McGraw was born and raised on the other side of the state in Philadelphia, and she starred at Saint Joseph's before beginning her head coaching career at Lehigh.
She took her team to play Saint Joseph's before Christmas and earned her 797th career victory before a very-pro Irish crowd.
''It really felt like home,'' McGraw said.
It won't be so friendly in Pittsburgh, but McGraw still hopes to put in place another piece of this year's puzzle.
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