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Interview: Former Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw looks back on her time in the Women’s Professional Basketball League

For three short years, women all over the United States, including the future head coach of Notre Dame, played in one of the precursors to the WNBA.

Purdue v Notre Dame X McGraw
Muffet McGraw celebrates winning the 2001 national championship as head coach of Notre Dame.

The history of women’s basketball in the United States goes back to the late 1800s, when Smith College teacher Senda Berenson introduced students to the sport and refereed the first official women’s game in 1893. Two years later, hundreds of women’s teams existed across the country.

The first intercollegiate game between two women’s teams took place three years later, when Stanford faced off against Cal-Berkeley.

In 1971, the women’s game shifted to the five-player, full-court experience that players enjoy today, and women’s basketball was introduced in the Olympic Games in 1976. Interest in the sport surged, and two years later Bill Byrne established the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) with eight teams.

The league would eventually spawn 17 teams, including the California Dreams, New England Gulls and San Francisco Pioneers. Though it was short-lived—the first game was played on December 9, 1978, and the last on April 20, 1981—hundreds of women played their hearts out despite a lack of media attention, an audience or even paychecks they could count on.

Muffet McGraw’s California dream

For many fans of women’s basketball, Muffet McGraw is Notre Dame’s most successful coach of all time. When she retired in 2020, McGraw had coached for 33 seasons and won two national titles for the school, where she still teaches a leadership course.

But for one year, McGraw was one of the stars of the California Dreams. Joining the team wasn’t something she sought, but after getting a phone call about signing up, McGraw wanted to take her shot. At the time, she was preparing to play in Philadelphia when her husband, Matt McGraw, was transferred to Alabama for work. She explains, “In those days, honestly, I never even thought ‘Well, I’ll stay here and play and you go to Alabama.’ It was like, ‘We’re moving.’”

The couple set off for Alabama. McGraw continues, “We weren’t sure we wanted to stay there. [Former Immaculata head coach] Cathy Rush was affiliated with the California team.” Rush told McGraw that the Dreams needed a point guard. Soon, Muffet and Matt were on their way.

The team played at Long Beach Arena to a handful of fans (McGraw laughs, “We could count them during the National Anthem.”) and little to no fanfare or press. “It was a very small crowd in a giant arena.” Still, the team was happy to have the opportunity to play. In these pre-Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese days, women’s college basketball teams were hardly filling stadiums.

Notre Dame vs. Kansas
Muffet McGraw instructs point guard Skylar Diggins during a 2013 Notre Dame game.
Jonathon Gruenke/Newport News Daily Press/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The end of McGraw’s dream, and the WBL

The Dreams folded at the end of the season, leaving McGraw and her teammates out of a job. Money constantly was an issue, and players often didn’t know if they would be paid on time—or even at all. She says:

It was kind of funny because during the season ... you’re actually getting a check, and some of them didn’t even cash. I was fortunate that my husband would wait outside practice, we’d have the engine running and I’d sprint out of practice to cash a check.

Outside of money, one of the biggest problems the league faced was an overall lack of organization. McGraw says that the sheer size of the country versus the number of teams made it difficult for anyone to succeed. As she put it:

It definitely wasn’t thought through. It was too spread out ... there was a team in New York and somewhere in Texas, it was too spread out. You were flying everywhere, and it was so expensive. They probably geographically could have done a little better of a job figuring out how we could have leagues without all the travel.

There’s one aspect of the WBL that McGraw believes is still present in the WNBA today: a “little bit of a lack of respect” from sports media, who infrequently covered games at the time but “are doing better” now, and especially from fans. She clarifies, “I think the stereotypes... and those things have changed a little bit for the better, but 1980? I don’t think [the league] was well thought of.”

This interview is part of a planned series about the history of the WBL. If you played, coached, or otherwise participated in the league (or know someone who did) and would like to contribute, please email