The Storybook Season

Author: David Haugh

Tears smeared the yellow paint that covered 8-year-old Tim Heisler’s face.

Halftime of the NCAA Women’s Basketball semifinal game last March 30 at the Savvis Center in Saint Louis, and Notre Dame trailed Connecticut by 12. This was not how Tim envisioned his hero, Ruth Riley, hanging up her headband for good.

“He was a basket case,” Tim’s mom, Karen Heisler, confirms.

Tim’s misery had company in older brother Scott. In the first half, Scott Heisler already had yelled enough at one particular referee with a ponytail to get grounded for a month. “Scott kept yelling, ‘Hey, ponytail! Ponytail! Bad call!’ And we’re a family where it’s clear that you don’t yell at the officials,” Karen adds. “But . . .”

But, this was different. This was as excited about a sporting event as the Heisler boys had ever gotten. This was one of those weekends with the potential to frame a reference for childhood. This was for Ruth.

The things young men will do for the women they love.

Consider the Heisler boys. Scott and Tim are the sons of John Heisler, Notre Dame’s longtime sports information director, and Karen Heisler, an adjunct professor of film, television and theatre at the university. Their kids have been exposed to more Irish sporting events and players than the leprechaun.

Yet among all the choices out there, of all the Troy Murphys, Aaron Heilmans and Arnaz Battles to hook their dreams onto, they chose Ruth Riley. A 6-foot-5 female with a long ponytail and a headband. Yuck, a girl.

“I would see a lot of Scott and Tim’s friends at women’s games,” Karen says, "and they all love Ruth. It’s amazing, really. This never would have happened 10 years ago.

“Maybe my kids don’t see any difference between boys and girls and men and women competing, so that’s why they’re so into it.”

Maybe they don’t. And maybe therein lies the most surprising and significant impact in the Notre Dame community since this momentous season culminated with a national title April 1: Irish women’s basketball games are suddenly where the boys are, too.

(As you know by now, the Irish did rally to stop Tim Heisler from crying and Connecticut from winning, 90-75, before beating Purdue 68-66 two days later.)

Sure, meeting Dubya at the White House was monumental. Schmoozing with Regis in New York was cool. Getting the keys to the city of South Bend during a parade in the team’s honor was big, too.

And certainly nobody can overlook the impromptu marriage proposals to Kelley Siemon, the cries to get a statue of Muffet McGraw erected outside the Joyce Center somewhere next to Moose, or the unofficial movement afoot to paint Touchdown Jesus’ fingernails kelly green.

But even more than all those individual moments of significance, Notre Dame’s title seemed to trigger a collective shift of the campus hero structure that shook an Irish athletic culture traditionally rooted in machismo.

All of a sudden, Muffet’s Misses were mentioned in the same sentences as Leahy’s Lads, and the Notre Dame women’s basketball coach was in greater demand publicly than the Notre Dame football coach.

All of a sudden, Monogram Club members began to wonder how Muffet McGraw’s place in history compared to Devine’s and Holtz’s and other one-time national champion coaches’.

All of a sudden, Domers started to ask who was the last Notre Dame athlete to receive as many national accolades as Ruth Riley. Chris Zorich? Tim Brown? Adrian Dantley?

All of a sudden, young boys were standing in long autograph lines next to young girls outside the Notre Dame women’s locker room after games; making it obvious that if the voting age were 12, Ruth Riley could run for mayor in South Bend and win hands down.

Young boys idolizing young women?

At Notre Dame, which didn’t even enroll the fairer sex until 1972? At Notre Dame, where the fight song urges only the sons to rally?

This is no longer your father’s Notre Dame. Not even your mother’s.

Thanks to 12 young women and their ability to dribble and shoot as skillfully as they smile and chat, this is now your kid sister’s Notre Dame.

“It’s really something to see,” Karen Heisler says. "I don’t think the boys go to the games and see it as a difference between boys and girls playing, they just see a team from Notre Dame that they want to win. It’s just so natural. My kids are shocked when I tell them we didn’t have a tennis team or a swim team growing up. They say, ‘Mom, that isn’t fair.’

“They don’t understand there used to be a difference in opportunity. . . . Maybe this will help them be better people later in life. If so, it’s partly because this (ND women’s basketball) is such a big deal around here.”

Assistant athletic director Bill Scholl would like to tell you that is exactly what he thought would happen when he took over the job of marketing women’s basketball back in 1989. But he’s an honest man. In truth, Scholl walked into his first Notre Dame women’s basketball game back in that ‘89 season — McGraw’s second at Notre Dame — and felt like sprinting back to the parking lot to go find a job he could actually do.

“That first game there were about 200 to 300 people in the stands, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what did I get myself into?’” Scholl recalls.

At the time Notre Dame, which began playing women’s varsity basketball in 1977, had just joined the Midwestern Collegiate Conference after years in the North Star Conference. Despite not playing a Division I schedule until 1980, when the Irish lost a game 124-48 to South Carolina, the athletic department had big dreams but a small following.

It also had a plan.

Scholl remembers former athletic director Dick Rosenthal marveling at how his mother used to love to watch the Notre Dame women play whenever she came to town. From that came a strategy to market McGraw’s program to two specific groups: senior citizens and families with children. “Those are two groups who are basically looking for things to do,” Scholl says. “At that point our best bet was ‘product sampling,’ just try to get them out to see a game or two.”

So began the Great Notre Dame Ticket Giveaway. Around South Bend in the early ‘90s, change the oil in your car and you might have been eligible for Notre Dame women’s basketball tickets. Buy groceries and they may have thrown in a few. Sell enough Girl Scout cookies and they were yours. In some cases, all you had to do was say thank-you to your human-resources manager at work.

“We thought the best way to get tickets into people’s hands was through corporations,” Scholl says. “So we looked at the most efficient ways to do that.”

Meanwhile, McGraw became more visible than the guy on the back of your phone book. Rotary clubs. Kiwanis. Knights of Columbus. Schools. Churches. Boy Scouts. Girl Scouts. Didn’t matter. If McGraw thought talking about her team might attract a few more fans, then she put on a skirt and a smile, and off she went. “Muffet constantly, even today, puts promoting the game ahead of her personal time,” Scholl says. “That was huge in getting people to come out.”

When they did, fans were rewarded with post-game social events designed to let them meet the players. The idea: If they built a relationship with the team, they would be more inclined to return to continue that relationship. McGraw made every player accessible without exception, making the ladies in uniform seem as approachable as a next-door neighbor.

The socials began as Coke-and-popcorn functions for a few handfuls of people and by the Final Four season of 1997, the room started to fill up. Eventually the get-togethers grew so much that after the final home game last season against Georgetown, lines formed outside the Monogram Room as ushers shooed people away.

Players had become such big local celebrities that Kelley Siemon couldn’t go grocery shopping last winter without getting stopped in every aisle. Niele Ivey became more famous around campus than her boyfriend, Notre Dame starting wide receiver Javin Hunter. Ruth Riley couldn’t go anywhere without a pen.

Attendance at the Joyce Center for home games grew steadily each season, especially after Notre Dame joined the Big East in 1995, and peaked last season with an average crowd of 6,376 — 10th best in the NCAA.

But maybe nothing illustrated how exponentially the interest in the program has grown more than the scene last January 15 inside the Joyce Center.

No. 1 Connecticut was the opponent for the nationally televised Martin Luther King Day matchup, and an hour before tipoff the traffic on Angela Boulevard was backed up nearly a mile. The line outside the ticket counter stretched back to Juniper Road, where the people at the end of that line were turned away because all 11,418 tickets had been sold. A sense of inevitability pervaded the campus; a sense of invincibility permeated the Joyce Center.

Inside, McGraw and her team felt the walls of the locker room shake before the game like they never had before. Students stomped their feet in unison with all the moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas and, of course, children, who had come out hoping to witness Notre Dame athletic history. That came, of course, when the Irish crushed UConn 92-76 and fans rushed the floor afterward like they were giving away free $100 bills.

But in many ways, win or lose, the day itself represented the end of a mission outlined 11 years earlier in a nearly empty arena. More than just a sellout crowd had arrived at the University of Notre Dame that day. An elite women’s basketball program had, too.

“We came into the game wanting to win, but when I walked out onto the court and saw all the people, and heard the noise they were making, the day was already made for me,” McGraw said that day after the victory. "I kept looking around the crowd, every seat was filled. And they were loud. We could feel the room shaking. A day like this has been my dream forever, and it will be one of the most memorable moments of my life.

“You know, I waited all my life for this moment — to see a sellout crowd, ESPN, the whole thing. Then to beat them. Does it get any better than this?”

A little more than two months later in the City of Arches where the biggest Mac in town for at least one night was a McGraw and not a McGuire, the answer was yes.

Notre Dame’s 68-66 victory over Purdue in the NCAA Final on April 1 represented the perfectly symmetrical ending to the perfectly symmetrical season.

Riley, whose favorite girlhood movie growing up in the small Indiana farm town of Macy, Indiana, was Hoosiers, saw her life imitate art when she hit the two free throws with 5.8 seconds left to put the Irish ahead for good. Purdue, incidentally, was not only the same distance away from her hometown as Notre Dame was but was where Riley once attended basketball camp and considered enrolling.

Ivey, the team’s emotional compass who had come back from two knee surgeries, cut down the national-championship nets a few miles from the Saint Louis neighborhood in which she grew up and the Cor Jesu Academy from which she graduated high school.

The victory, a classic, not only gave the university its first national title in a revenue-sport since 1988 but a rally that fit into the great tradition of legendary Notre Dame athletic comebacks as snugly as Joe Montana used to fit into a No. 3 jersey.

Not to mention in all this hoops harmony how the Irish had a coach whose name could have been borrowed from a novel about Notre Dame. Whose values interpret the notion of Notre Dame family literally. Whose doorbell still rings to the school fight song and who always thought this moment was possible. Ever since the day she took the job as an unrelenting but unproven 32-year-old on May 18, 1987.

Actually, this may have been Matt McGraw’s dream as much as Muffet’s, but once the husband got his wife to see in her what he saw, the vision was theirs.

The way Matt McGraw remembers it, his wife was sitting at a bar with then-Saint Joseph’s coach and current Vanderbilt boss Jim Foster when they got the news. The Notre Dame job was open. But so was the University of Kentucky’s.

McGraw had coached for Foster for two seasons before spending the next five as head coach at Lehigh University. Notoriously impatient, she was getting antsy waiting for that next career move.

“Jim thought Notre Dame would be the right job for Muff,’’ Matt recalls.

So did Matt. He was such a big fan of all things Notre Dame that he had mowed an “ND” into the couple’s backyard at their home outside Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Naturally he wanted his wife to apply for the job vacated by Mary DiStanislao.

But Muffet, as ambitious as she was, hedged. Notre Dame? Was she ready? The longer she waited, the more Matt wondered if a precious window of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was closing.

Then one day while the couple was golfing, Muffet began her backswing. Golfers as competitive as Muffet might get mad at the birds if they chirp in the middle of their backswing. She would rather cook a five-course meal than lose at anything, and she hates to cook.

But Matt blurted it out anyway. "YOU SHOULD HAVE APPLIED!’’ he told his wife, wrecking her drive and probably his drive home.

She never replied, never said a word about the job. Until a few days later, when Muffet asked Matt if he wanted to go on a trip. Matt originally said no because he had grown a little weary of accompanying his wife on her frequent recruiting trips.

“Where you going?’’ he finally asked.

“South Bend,’’ she answered.

He had been packed for this trip for years.

The trip went so well that then-athletic director Gene Corrigan called McGraw “better suited than anyone,” he could imagine for the job. Matt McGraw remembers Corrigan’s graciousness, almost as well as he remembers the picture hanging on the A.D.’s office wall.

It was a photo of Ronald Reagan smiling after being introduced as “The Gipper,” the role he played in the legendary movie.

Only in their wildest dreams did the McGraws think that one day they would be part of their own Notre Dame legend.

Fourteen years, two Final Fours and 322 victories later, they are.

Now, as Muffet McGraw’s name took its place in Notre Dame athletic lore next to men her dad, Joe, worshipped from afar, the circle was completed.

McGraw stood at a podium just before midnight at a downtown Saint Louis hotel within hours of Notre Dame’s national championship. She was flanked by her lovable Irish team, wearing freshly made "Notre Dame, 2001 National Champion’’ T-shirts. Flanked by University President Rev. Edward A. Malloy, CSC, athletic director Kevin White and other campus officials. Flanked by her husband, Matt, and son, 11-year-old Murphy, whose spring breaks keep getting better and better. Flanked by the Notre Dame family of which she had just become matriarch.

And McGraw stood nearly speechless as Theresa Grentz, the woman who coached her at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia back when she was a spunky point guard, the woman responsible for starting the coaching path that ultimately had led here, handed McGraw the Sears Trophy awarded every national championship coach.

“If she parties like she did when she was Muffet O’Brien,” kidded Grentz, the outgoing president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, “it’s going to be some night of celebrating.”

And it was, highlighted by nearly 3,000 fans — students, senior citizens, moms, dads, girls and boys — braving 20-degree temperatures to greet the Irish when they finally arrived home at South Bend Regional Airport at 2:30 a.m.

“This is absolutely the best moment of all,’’ McGraw told the crowd.

She didn’t sleep a wink that night. She hasn’t woken up since.

David Haugh is a sportswriter for the South Bend Tribune.