ESPNW.com - The troops are suited up in lime-green aprons, their names embroidered in blue script over the Fighting Irish logo, making it all the easier to complete a mission that on this day includes selling programs, handing out pompoms and posters and, as usual, greeting 9,000-plus patrons as if they are close friends and relatives streaming through their own front doors. Their leader is a 70-year-old, no-nonsense former nun named Patricia McAdams, who is stationed at Gate 10 of the Purcell Pavilion inside Notre Dame's Joyce Center and manages this group of about 50 mostly female, mostly senior volunteers that serve as the heart of one of the top-ranked and most highly supported women's basketball programs in the country. It is this core unit, with hugs and smiles for seemingly every fan who streams by, that transforms Notre Dame's home court on this Saturday before a clash with No. 2 Connecticut, and before every home contest, into a green-filled mass of organized hysteria, making it one of the toughest places for opposing teams to play. They are a family, they say, drawn together by their shared love of Notre Dame basketball and a desire to see the women's program, the NCAA runner-up last season, and women's sports prosper. One volunteer, Mary Jane Goodwin, is 94 and pauses in her duties passing out posters to say she played basketball, softball and volleyball as a girl. "Of course, it was hardly anything back then," she said. "I wish I was young, playing today. I'd love to get out there." Goodwin, who has her fingernails painted green, says she was drawn to today's game because her granddaughter played basketball at Sienna College and because, while nursing her husband who was weakened by a heart condition for 16 years, the two religiously listened to Notre Dame women's games on radio. After her husband passed away, Goodwin attended games in person and was invited to volunteer with her sister, Marguerite Krueger, who died recently. "I just love [Muffet] McGraw," Goodwin said of Notre Dame's head coach. "And what a pleasure it is for me to do this for the girls. I feel like I'm part of the program." David Woods remembers the days when attendance was sparse. He was new to South Bend. A retired colonel, he accepted the post of Notre Dame's ROTC Air Force commander in 1985. Woods and his wife, Eileen, met McGraw and her husband, Matt, when Muffet accepted the Notre Dame women's job and the couple moved two doors down in '87. "As we got to know Muffet, she let us know that they needed some help in getting fans to come out, and so Eileen and I started to talk it up amongst all our friends," Woods said. When Woods tried to get out promotional information, he found he was up against a South Bend business community already committed to Notre Dame's men's programs. But he also discovered there was an available niche for the women.
"The affluent people scarfed up all the tickets [for the men's games] and saved them for business associates and friends," Woods said. "So there was this golden market for retirees and young families in the community, and we promoted the women's games as a family affair." As Woods and soon fellow supporters like McAdams began to mobilize -- forming a fan club, starting a newsletter, designing a basketball logo for the women, which was eventually adopted by the men's team, and marketing apparel -- because there was nothing for the women's teams at university bookstores -- the fan base gradually grew. Very gradually. "We really weren't even into ticketing," Woods said. "In the early days we had pot-luck days where people would bring in snacks to sell at games to help us underwrite expenses, and we had a small token fee to be a season-ticket member." Meanwhile, McGraw did her part by building a winning program with star players like Katryna Gaither and Beth Morgan leading the Irish to their first Final Four in 1997 and Ruth Riley to the national championship in 2001. After the first Final Four appearance, the university began to assign seats to the women's games for the first time. But a funny thing happened. "People had always come early and rushed in to get the very best seats," McAdams said. "But even when we got assigned seats, they would do the same thing. [Before the UConn game], I got here at 12:30 [for a 4 p.m. tipoff] and there were already some people there and the gates don't open until 3. By 2, there were a ton of people waiting. The ushers felt sorry for them in the cold and let them inside. "A lot of the older people will come to get a good parking spot for a 7 p.m. game by 4:30. On the way, they get a sandwich and they're sitting in their cars, eating their dinner." McAdams' ties to the team began before she even arrived at Notre Dame in May of '92. Throughout most of the '70s, she worked at Immaculata College, where she taught calculus to several players on Cathy Rush's women's championship teams. The star of those teams, Theresa Grentz, went on to coach McGraw at Saint Joseph's (Pa.) University. Several members of McAdams' and McGraw's families also knew each other from their hometowns in the Philadelphia area. And though the two had never met before McAdams arrived in South Bend, McAdams came to know McGraw as one of the handful of fans who attended the women's games as well as through her position as a computer engineer. "She's a computer genius," McGraw said of McAdams, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science and manages the campus workstations of 450 university faculty members. "So we'd get new software or computers and we always needed her help. One day I said, 'You know we have a new dean, he has to get season tickets,' so Patricia turned into quite the promoter. She introduced the team to anyone new on campus, and they'd be badgered into it. "Then I'd try to organize something and she'd say, 'I can do a spreadsheet,' or 'Let me take care of this bus trip,' and it grew to the point that I didn't know what I'd do without her." Sadly, they almost had to find out. Four years ago this month, driving home alone from a Fighting Irish game at West Virginia, McAdams stopped and got out of her car to help a stranded motorist on Interstate 69 in Fort Wayne, when another car lost control and hit hers, slamming her from behind and knocking her over the guardrail. McAdams sustained a broken pelvis, broken clavicle, six broken ribs, a fractured back and neck and a crushed left arm. One of her legs was severed on the spot. The other was amputated in surgery. She says she doesn't remember anything after crossing the state line into Indiana, but her phone bill later told her she placed a call to 911 before she was hit. "We lost our game, and driving home I remember it was torrential rain all the way across Ohio, and by the time I got to Indiana and came across [Highway] 30, it was turning to sleet," McAdams recalls. "But I don't remember the accident and I don't remember the first two weeks in the hospital." For days McAdams was not allowed visitors, and then they didn't stop -- friends, siblings, nieces, nephews, co-workers and a steady stream of Notre Dame priests during her 15-week stay. The nurses called it "the Invasion of the Catholics." "The first time I saw her, I cried," longtime friend Judy Miller said. "But she's a very strong-willed person and she made up her mind that this wasn't going to get her." In six months, McAdams was living by herself in a new handicapped-accessible house and back on the job. Back to her troops in the green aprons. "Her determination is incredible," said Jo-Ann Aldrich, a first lieutenant on McAdams' volunteer brigade. "I've literally never seen her down. We would do anything for her." McAdams says she is profoundly grateful it wasn't worse. "If I hadn't gotten out of the car, I would have been killed instantly," she said matter-of-factly. "My car was crushed by the car that hit mine. The whole back end was pushed into the wheel. All my bones were broken, but I had no injuries to internal organs. If I was shorter [she was 5-foot-10], I would have been killed [instead her legs took the brunt of the collision]. And I came very close to losing my arm." As far as her job is concerned, there isn't much she can't do that she did before, she said, other than "heavy lifting and crawling on the floor to connect a computer." "My left arm is not perfect, but it works," McAdams said. "Last year at Christmastime, I had to have surgery to remove some of the wires and a screw because over the years the wires were starting to cut into some ligaments, and I was having a lot of pain from that. But other than that, I am in very good health. I can still do what I have to do." That includes driving on her own to road games where there is wheelchair-accessible seating. And riding herd over her crew at home games, where duties extend well beyond game day to stuffing envelopes (before the newsletter went online) and folding and packaging the approximately 7,500 lime-green (McGraw's favorite color) T-shirts that go out to season-ticket holders each year. Woods, who became general manager of the Joyce Center before retiring in '01, credits McAdams for taking the volunteer effort to the next level. "She's taken over and left me in the dust," he joked. "We started to step down in the early to mid-2000s because I retired and we started to travel, but I don't think I'd be willing to relinquish the reins of leadership and control without someone like Patricia to manage the volunteer force. It's an amazing thing." Among the Irish volunteers handing out pompom shakers at the UConn game on Jan. 7: Notre Dame provost Thomas Burish's wife, Pamela; Notre Dame president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh's secretary; the wives of the graduate school dean, the vice president for research and the associate provost and VP for internationalization. "People are a little afraid of her," McGraw said with a laugh. "It's 'You will volunteer,' and they're there." McAdams laughs in both agreement and astonishment. "They're from all walks of life," she said. "I take care of half the campus, so I know a whole lot of people and have worked with them. ... Everybody helps until they play 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Then, even if they still have stuff to do, I make them go in because it's not fair if they can't watch the game." Of course, McAdams does not factor herself into that equation. "I have to have my priorities," she said in all seriousness. Stephanie Menio, Notre Dame's 29-year-old coordinator of women's basketball operations and marketing, arrived on the job seven years ago and said she was immediately steered toward McAdams. "She's the heartbeat of the entire fan base," Menio said. "At this point of my job, I couldn't do it without her. She'll call and say, 'Make sure when you send out the season-ticket holder email, there are eight spots left on the bus for the Cincinnati road trip.' She's incredible and that's what makes the fan base what it is. Our fans are running the program. It's not only us coming out to play the game." On this afternoon in early January, the Irish honor members of their first Final Four squad during a much-anticipated game against conference foe and rival UConn played in front of a sellout crowd of 9,149. It ends in a 74-67 overtime victory for Notre Dame, which snaps the Huskies' 57-game regular-season Big East winning streak and marks the first time Notre Dame has beaten UConn twice in a row. Mollie Peirick-Busam, a junior on that 1996-97 Final Four team, is amazed by the fan turnout. "We had fan support, don't get me wrong," Busam said. "But to have sellouts now is so fun to see. There were no sellouts then. We were happy if the place was half-full." After the game, McGraw credits fans with being instrumental in the victory. "We wouldn't have won that game today if it wasn't for the crowd," she tells reporters. "It was electric in there." Kevin and Lisa Morrison have been volunteering for the team since the mid-'90s. On the afternoon of the UConn game, they show up in full Irish regalia: he in a bright green bodysuit, green face paint and fedora; she with her face painted half-blue, half-gold and her hair colored blue. "Patricia drug me in 11 years ago and she created a monster," Kevin said of McAdams. "But we do it because we love it. I love to watch the girls play. Women play the game the way it's supposed to be played. Men are more hotdogs." Aldrich, 69, has been a volunteer since '96 and is accompanied each game by her husband, Phil, who despite being confined to a wheelchair with Parkinson's has also worked the games. "The parents come in and we all get hugs," Aldrich said. "We have parents from former players who still come back." As if to confirm, Suzie Cable, mother of freshman guard Madison Cable, pauses to chat. "It really is one big family," she said. "When we come in, we know the gentleman at the door, Max, and I give him a piece of chocolate. When I get to the seat, the usher asks about Madison, and I ask about her family. When you sneeze, they give you a Kleenex." Jaine Novosel, mother of senior guard Natalie Novosel, agrees. "They buy into it and really invest emotionally," she said of Notre Dame's volunteers and fans. "It's not that way everywhere. They made an effort to get to know us. They take pride in taking parents under their wing." So much so that when Notre Dame played Evansville -- and Natalie's sister Shannon -- at home last season, Irish fans cheered for Shannon as if she were from Notre Dame. And that support extended to the entire Evansville team when it played its first-round NCAA regional game in South Bend. "It was an amazing experience being embraced like that," Jaine Novosel said. "It really left an impression on us." Morrison, whose son and his family drove in from out of town to see the UConn game, nods at the characterization. "People see me cheering," he said, "and they ask 'Which one is your daughter?' and I say, 'They all are.' I consider them all my kids." Helping forge the bond with the fans is a team that puts in an extraordinary amount of community service, including five charity events this season. McGraw also asks her players to pledge additional hours, and one player responded by signing up for 40 more. "Our fans definitely want to get to know you, which makes you want to get out in the community and help them," senior guard Brittany Mallory said. With a nod to a largely retired fan base, Notre Dame also keeps women's ticket prices among the lowest in the nation at less than $4 for single-game tickets and $70 for individual season tickets. The program had its first sellout crowd in 2001. Last season, the NCAA finalists outdrew the Notre Dame men's basketball team in attendance. They are on the same pace this season. "Both families and retired citizens, whose category I fall into, have taken ownership of this team," Woods said. "It's not the university's team, it's their team." Mallory laughs, thinking if their UConn victory had been a men's game, fans would have rushed the floor for sure. "But that's not our makeup; we'd take a little longer to get out there," she said. "But they were loud and crazy." After the victory, players linger outside the basketball office. McAdams' work is not yet done, as she consults with Menio about an upcoming fan bus trip. Meanwhile, a breathless Natalie Novosel, whose six free throws in overtime helped No. 2 Notre Dame defeat UConn, is still talking about what helped them the most. "It was such an electric feeling out there," Novosel said. "We rode [the crowd] like a wave. When we were down, they were so uplifting. "They're crucial to our success." McAdams might have heard, but probably not, as she steers her motorized wheelchair down the hall and zips away.