For both No. 5 Ohio State and No. 1 seed Notre Dame, a Friday Sweet 16 matchup in Lexington’s Rupp Arena presents plenty of opportunities.
With a win, Notre Dame (32-3), coached by Muffet McGraw since 1987, would compete in the Elite Eight for the sixth time in seven years. A win by Ohio State (28-6) would secure the school’s first trip to the Elite Eight since 1993 and McGuff’s first since 2010, when he coached Xavier.
Weaved in is a small sense of dread for each coach. McGraw has been close with McGuff for more than 20 years, or since she hired him as a Notre Dame assistant in 1996. Coaching against friends is tough as it is, even tougher when the result guarantees one’s season is cut short.
“I don’t enjoy playing against my former assistants at all,” McGraw said. “I want to be cheering them on instead of competing with them. Once the game starts, I won’t really notice it, but just leading up to it I think is going to be tough.”
Said McGuff: “It’s tough to go against people you care about.”
The matchup comes more than two decades after McGuff was hired at Notre Dame, which Tuesday he called a “life-changing event.”
McGuff said he had not met McGraw prior to his interview at Notre Dame. But McGraw said McGuff, then an assistant at Miami University, had been mentioned to her by a person she described as “someone who I trusted.”
The vote of confidence improved McGuff’s chances in an applicant pool of around 100.
“We get a lot of resumes,” McGraw said. “I probably interviewed three people and it was a very easy decision.”
McGuff said McGraw remains a very close friend of his family, and for good reason. McGuff’s wife, Letitia, who he first met on the Notre Dame coaching staff, played for McGraw at Notre Dame and was hired as an assistant less than two weeks prior to McGuff.
“I almost felt like I should be walking them down the aisle,” McGraw said.
McGraw found McGuff’s playing experience at St. Joseph’s University in Indiana valuable. She said it allowed him to occasionally participate in practice drills and made him better able to teach footwork, as well as Xs and Os.
Notre Dame won a national title in 2001, and McGuff left to take the coaching job at Xavier in 2003. Now in his 15th year as a head coach, McGuff said he learned much of what he knows about running a program in his six years with McGraw.
“(I learned) the structure of how things work, how to treat people well and what you get in return, but she was great to work for,” McGuff said. “Had high expectations, which is an environment I wanted to work in, but (McGraw) also allowed her assistants to do their jobs and to really impact the program.”
It’ll be business between McGuff and McGraw when the referee tosses up the ball at 7:06 p.m. Friday, but at least one person with deep Notre Dame ties will be rooting for the Buckeyes.
“She’ll be pulling for us,” McGuff laughed, when asked about Letitia. “Fair question, though.”