There are home-run hires, and then there’s what Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick engineered without hanging so much as a “help wanted” sign outside the women’s basketball office.
Hiring Niele Ivey, a former Irish point guard, a former Irish associate head coach, Notre Dame in every sense, to replace Muffet McGraw, who retired Wednesday after 33 seasons, went beyond a home run.
This one was a bottom of the ninth, two strikes, two out, grand slam for Swarbrick. Who knew he had this in him? He’s been around college athletics long enough to know that you just don’t replace someone of McGraw’s stature overnight. Someone in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Someone who took the Notre Dame program to heights nobody thought possible when she arrived in 1987 when Final Fours and national championships were beyond dreams. Someone who’s on the Mount Rushmore of coaches not only on campus, but across the country.
Still, Swarbrick found the right person — the only person — in the 42-year-old Ivey, who becomes the fourth coach in program history.
There’s nobody more suited, more prepared, more ready, more Notre Dame to lead Notre Dame women’s basketball. Doesn’t matter than she’s been away from the program the last nine months while serving as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Doesn’t matter that she’s never been a head coach at any level. Ignore it all.
In a lot of ways, this was her program over her last few years. It had her fingerprints, her influences, her swagger all over it. She was without peer in player development, in recruiting, in game planning, in being an assistant/associate head coach. The longer she stayed and the more she did, it was obvious that this would one day be all hers.
Now it is.
"I am so honored to be able to follow in the legacy that Coach McGraw built here at Notre Dame,” Ivey said in a university release Wednesday afternoon. “My love and appreciation for Coach McGraw is beyond anything I can express. She’s more than a mentor, more than a friend, she’s one of the most influential people in my life.
“I am full of gratitude for Coach McGraw and what she has done for me.”
McGraw did a lot for someone who did a lot for her. Asked during Wednesday's Zoom press conference one word that best describes Ivey, McGraw went with charismatic.
"She is somebody that people are attracted to," McGraw said. "She has got a smile that lights up the gym. She's so fun to be around and yet she can flip the switch and be as serious and intense as anyone in the gym."
Especially when it comes to the game. Spend five minutes with Ivey and you realize that she is beyond ready to do this. She knows the game. She sees it differently. She sees it like a head coach. Sees it like somebody who had spent 12 seasons at McGraw's side. Sees it like someone who knows what it's like to get to nine Final Fours (two as a player, seven as a coach). Ivey watched how the Hall of Fame coach worked. How she lived and breathed and sometimes slept the game. How she sustained success at a place where sustained success once was thought unlikely. How she built winners and graduated winners and did it all with class and a fire that, until Wednesday, burned so brightly.
The Tribune asked Ivey for five minutes in March of 2019 for a column in advance of a second-round NCAA tournament matchup with Michigan State. With her stir-fry lunch quickly going cold, Ivey dived into the interview the same way she did her scouting report. All in. With both feet. With her soul. She explained how she watched film. She talked of writing all those notes. Of getting maybe a few hours of sleep before editing and revising and revising and editing. Of all the time and effort and energy that went into that responsibility, because that’s what the boss needed. Wanted. Demanded.
All that for a game that Notre Dame would win by 28 points. That didn’t matter. Ivey’s report did. She operated like a head coach long before she became one.
In so many ways, Ivey’s been working toward this point since she was a coveted recruit. Been working toward this since she scored more than 1,000 career points (1,430) and played in more than 100 career games (132) at Notre Dame. Been working toward this when she was teammates with the likes of Ruth Riley to help McGraw win her first national championship in 2001 in, of all places, her hometown of St. Louis.
This is the career arc that Ivey followed, through her four years of college, through five seasons in the WNBA, through her 12 coaching seasons at Notre Dame, and the short stay with Memphis. Even when Ivey left last summer, McGraw talked of her one day returning.
One day is Thursday.
McGraw’s decision to walk away now may have been a stunner, something the women’s game hasn’t had in, maybe forever. But nobody should be stunned about Ivey’s quick hiring. Heck, the university waited all of 16 minutes between McGraw’s announcement that she was leaving and the announcement that Ivey was returning home.
By 4 p.m., Ivey’s Wikipedia page already had changed to include the title, head coach, Notre Dame.
Sure, Wednesday should’ve been reserved only for McGraw given everything she’s given to the game, but this day’s been coming for a few years. Few may have seen it, but it was there, building and hiding in plain sight. McGraw was nearing the end of her coaching career. When that time came, there was no question her successor.
You saw it in 2018 and 2019. You saw it in different ways this past season. In painful ways.
Watching Notre Dame this season, something was missing. It had more to do than just losing all five starters from that 2019 national runner-up team to the WNBA over the summer. There was something else. An X factor. The Irish played and competed and gave effort, but they just didn’t seem to have that edge, an edge that Ivey had long offered.
Few could break down a scouting report to the finest of details like Ivey. Hers ran pages and pages long, the ins and outs of the starters, of the reserves, heck, maybe even the walk-ons and student managers. You know, just in case. She often left nothing to chance.
Even when Ivey left for Memphis last summer, she kept her house just north of campus. You know, just in case the day came where she might need it again.
That day has arrived.
So has Ivey.