Jan. 27, 2017
By Leigh Torbin
The rafters of Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center are filled with banners commemorating the many accomplishments of the dynastic Notre Dame women’s basketball program. Six-foot tall swatches of cloth hang over comfortable blue seats commemorating the 2001 national championship, seven Final Four appearances, 14 Sweet 16s, 23 NCAA Championship berths, plus championships of the BIG EAST and Atlantic Coast conferences. It is an impressive collection befitting one of the sport’s national powers.
High above a garish blend of multi-colored wooden seats and bleachers, when Beth Morgan (Cunningham) made her collegiate debut in 1993, hung just one NCAA banner. No banners signifying championships of major conferences could be found. The Fighting Irish locker room needed some work. A crowd of 598 fans witnessed Morgan’s collegiate debut on Nov. 27, 1993, against Illinois-Chicago, nearly 8,000 fans below what the 2016-17 Irish average per home game.
The Ring of Honor, into which Cunningham will be inducted following Sunday’s game against Virginia, did not exist. Legends Skylar Diggins, Niele Ivey and Ruth Riley were years away from suiting up for Notre Dame. Diggins was three years old.
Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women’s Basketball Coach Muffet McGraw was not a soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach with an endowed position but rather a young sparkplug with six years of Notre Dame experience coming off of seasons where the Irish went 14-17 and 15-12.
An all-state player at Bloomington South High School, the nation’s elite programs sought out Morgan. Schools from the most powerful conferences with national championship rings on their fingers visited the Morgan home. Morgan knew not to be swayed by the glitz. She had grown up immersed in the world of college sports though her father, Indiana University baseball coach Bob Morgan.
The Morgans did not have a crystal ball on their kitchen table, but through her upbringing, the young Beth Morgan knew how to foresee the potential in the 14-17 team 200 miles to her north. Morgan recognized the world-class education Notre Dame placed on the table. Further, she knew that all the Irish needed to raise the women’s basketball program to a status commensurate with its other nationally-known teams was someone like her.
“I felt like coach (McGraw) was a young coach ready to take the program to a whole new level,” Cunningham recalled. “They just needed the players who wanted to be the difference makers and impact players who would come in here and do it. That’s what my mentality was when I decided to come here. I was being recruited by a lot of schools that had traditionally been powerhouses and, at the time, Notre Dame was just trying to get to the tournament. Just knowing that everything was here to do that, if we just came in and worked our tails off and did the things we were capable of doing, we could be the ones to help the program take the next step.”
Now, Cunningham logs thousands of miles annually as Notre Dame’s associate coach recruits the best and the brightest high school student-athletes to join a Notre Dame program that hasn’t left the weekly top 10 in over six years. It is a subset of high schoolers she should know well. She once was one of those elite recruits.
“When I think about our program and where we’ve come and who got it started, I think it started with Beth,” McGraw said. “She was the big recruit that we had to have to change our entire program.”
Carol Owens, a member of 17 out of McGraw’s 30 Notre Dame coaching staffs, echoed that sentiment.
“If Beth Morgan never came to Notre Dame, I don’t know what our program would be like,” Owens said. “She was the beginning of our tradition.”
Inserted into the starting lineup for her first collegiate game against UIC, Morgan chipped in 12 points and never looked back. Morgan graduated as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,322 points – narrowly eclipsing classmate Katryna Gaither’s 2,126. Twenty years after she graduated, Morgan’s sum has been eclipsed only by Diggins, and narrowly at that, with 2,357 career points.
The 1993-94 Irish competed in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, now known as the Horizon League. The only way a team would make the NCAA Championship out of the one-bid MCC was by winning the tournament championship. Morgan had been hammered during the recruiting cycle by coaches from power conferences negatively recruiting against the MCC and the perils of a one-bid league.
The Irish improved drastically in Morgan’s freshman year, going 20-6 in the regular season after being 15-12 in 1992-93, but everything came down to one weekend in Indianapolis. The Irish downed LaSalle and Xavier though to claim just the second NCAA bid in school history. The Irish were rewarded with a home game but fell, 81-76, to Minnesota. Cunningham refers to that loss to the Golden Gophers as “one of those games that I wish you could have back,” but the first taste of the tournament was sweet and inspiring.
“My sophomore year was a great turning point,” Cunningham recalls. “We had a good year in the conference but we got upset in the conference tournament so you’re going to go to the NIT instead of the NCAAs. That was a disappointment for us, but I think it was a great learning experience. We grew a lot from that season. It motivated us. There were a lot of valuable lessons we learned from that and the next two years we took big steps to eventually play in the Final Four. I have a lot of great memories from that building process.”
The 1995-96 Irish competed for the first time as members of the BIG EAST Conference. All of the hearsay from the recruiting process was officially moot. Cunningham could attend one of the country’s great universities and also play in an elite league. The Irish would reach the NCAAs in 1996, beginning a 21-year streak which continues to this day. The Irish knocked off in-state rival Purdue for the school’s first NCAA win before falling at Texas Tech, but that milestone would merely set the stage for more trailblazing by Morgan and the Irish.
As a senior in 1996-97, Morgan capped a career which saw her set or tie 28 school records. An honorable mention All-American and first-team all-BIG EAST pick, Morgan averaged 18.3 points per game helping the Irish to an at-large NCAA bid. The sixth-seeded Irish downed Memphis in its NCAA opener before knocking off No. 3-seed Texas in Austin to advance to the program’s first Sweet 16. The Irish were in unchartered waters. Morgan, who had come to Notre Dame specifically to lead the program to new heights, had officially accomplished that goal, but remained unsatisfied with the Sweet 16 strata.
The Sweet 16 matchup saw Notre Dame face No. 2-seed Alabama in Columbia, South Carolina, and Morgan produced what remains one of the biggest performances in Irish lore. Morgan netted a career-high 36 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as the Irish ran past the Crimson Tide, 87-71. Another upset, this time over fifth-seeded George Washington in the Elite Eight, brought the Irish to the program’s first Final Four. Eventual national champion Tennessee ended Notre Dame’s season in Cincinnati, but the flame which has held the Irish atop the women’s basketball community to this day, had been lit.
Told that a team which went 14-17 her junior year in high school was not the ideal location for an Indiana all-state player, Morgan ignored the naysayers. She looked deeper and found the place to make her dreams of a Final Four a reality where it would be remembered forever.
“I’m thankful that I looked at the things that are really important to me and not so much the little things that other people thought were important,” she said. “I had my list of priorities and Notre Dame fit it to a T.”
Part of those priorities included basketball but it was not limited to sports. The priority list also included an elite degree in marketing that she earned in the spring of 1997 from what is now the Mendoza College of Business. Morgan also found one other important piece of her life on the Joyce Center court, her husband. In addition to being a fellow business school student, Dan Cunningham served as one of the team’s male practice players and the two would fall in love and marry in 1998. The couple now has four young children, all under six years old.
PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER AND COACHING PROFESSIONALLY
After graduating, Morgan continued her playing career, suiting up professionally for the Philadelphia Rage of the American Basketball League (an early rival of the WNBA) and also spent a season with the Washington Mystics. Internationally, she helped Team USA claim the gold medal at the 1997 World University Games.
Soon the time would come to transition to her post-playing career. Here all that she took from Notre Dame (connections, education, playing experience and a loving husband), the total package that brought her up route 31 from Bloomington South High School, came together.
“At the time when I was thinking about what I wanted to do beyond playing, I remember talking to coach McGraw and her saying that if you really want to coach you have to be willing to go anywhere,” Cunningham said. “You can’t just wait for an opportunity to come back here. Dan and I talked. He’s always been supportive and said, ‘I can find a job anywhere. You’re more limited with the number of opportunities.’
“I had an opportunity to be an assistant with (former Notre Dame assistant coach) David Glass at Virginia Commonwealth. I went in with no experience. He gave me a ton of responsibility. I was doing everything from scouting reports to team travel – a lot of everything. I had my hand in a lot of things and got a lot of experience very quickly.”
Cunningham proved to be such a fast learner that when Glass stepped down in 2003, the 27-year old with two years of assistant coaching experiences was offered an opportunity to become the Rams’ head coach. She would spend nine years at VCU, compiling a 167-115 record including three 20-win seasons, an NCAA berth and four trips to the WNIT.
BACK HOME IN INDIANA
Cunningham spent a total of 11 years in Richmond, but Notre Dame burned in her heart still. When an opportunity came to join McGraw’s staff for the 2012-13 season, she jumped at it.
The alma mater Cunningham returned to had matured into the dominant women’s basketball power Cunningham had helped set the wheels in motion to create. The recent Notre Dame rosters have featured a slew of All-Americans. Trips to the Final Four are expected. Talk of a national championship is annually realistic. WNBA scouts regularly venture to the renovated Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center to look at options for their coveted first round draft picks.
Assigned to work with the team’s wings, Cunningham immediately showed a knack for developing student-athletes to carry the torch that she and many others had long held proudly aloft. Kayla McBride was a two-time All-American and the ACC Player of the Year in 2014.
This year’s wings group includes three former McDonald’s All-Americans in freshmen Erin Boley and Jackie Young and sophomore Marina Mabrey. Both freshmen have made noticeable improvement over the course of the 2016-17 season as Cunningham has helped them adapt to the college game. Mabrey remains an outside shooting weapon for the Irish, entering Thursday’s game against Duke as the team’s leading scorer in ACC play.
Notre Dame is 19-3 on the current season, one victory shy of reaching 20 wins for the 11th straight year. The Irish went to five consecutive Final Fours from 2011-15, the final three of them with Cunningham on the staff. Expectations are high. The giant which Morgan helped finally awake in 1997 is thriving. As she looks back to her youth in Bloomington, she knew all along this possibility existed with the right people and hard work.
“I feel like Notre Dame always had things in place to be successful,” Cunningham said. “They just hadn’t established a consistent winning program at that point (of my recruitment). I felt like they had everything in place to play at an elite level. It started with coach McGraw being the leader, and I had a lot of faith in her and what she was building. Certainly, Notre Dame as a school sells itself. I had always looked at Notre Dame up on a pedestal as a place that you can only dream of being able to go there. To have that opportunity to go to such a prestigious institution – everything about it appealed to me.
“I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to come here because Notre Dame just impacts you in so many ways. We always talk about it as a 40-year decision and it certainly is. It impacts you so far beyond just those four years here. It’s the relationships, the people, the mentors that you’ve had. I’m really thankful and grateful for the people that have impacted my life in that way and gave me the opportunity to be here in the first place.”
The enduring appeal of the golden dome shines as brightly upon today’s recruits as it did upon teenage Beth Morgan in the early 1990’s. But making the school’s women’s basketball dreams a reality took special people. One of them is about to see some well-deserved recognition for her share of the program’s collective achievements, as her number 21 will go to the top of Purcell Pavilion around 2 p.m. on Sunday.
“I’m certainly honored to be in this position and humbled by the opportunity to hang a banner with my name on it,” Cunningham said. “I’m sure it will all hit on Sunday. You think about hanging banners like conference championships and Final Fours but you don’t think about hanging your own banner. That’s pretty special.”
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications associate director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame's women's basketball and men's golf teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.