New head coach Niele Ivey talks family, McGraw and coaching style in introduction

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — There was no search when it came to selecting the next head coach of Notre Dame women’s basketball, but there was still a negotiation.

Niele Ivey — named to succeed Muffet McGraw just 15 minutes after the school announced McGraw’s retirement Wednesday — was formally introduced Thursday afternoon through a moderated, 29-minute online Zoom press conference.

“We identified this as the likely succession plan, I would say, two years ago now,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick said during the gathering, “and as long as Niele remained interested and available, whenever Muffet made that decision, this was the path we were going to move in — subject to Niele agreeing, of course.”

Ivey, accompanied by son Jaden, sheepishly laughed about that last part.

“She was a good negotiator, let me say that,” Swarbrick said with a smile of contract terms that were not immediately shared. “She didn’t make it easy; she made it fair.”

Most of all, Ivey, 42, made it back to a place she has long identified as home, and into a position she called “a dream come true,” after less than a nine-month stint away as an assistant with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

The former Irish star guard and longtime Irish associate head coach gave an extended and mostly composed opening statement, citing and thanking many, but became emotional upon mentioning her Hall of Fame predecessor, the one who endorsed her for the job.

Jaden, seated next to his mom, grabbed Ivey’s hand at that point and held it for the rest of the conference.

“To Coach McGraw, I’m here because of you. You believed in me,” Ivey said before pausing for 12 seconds while fighting tears. “You fostered my development and instilled the confidence in me to prepare for this moment. You gave me my first opportunity and there are no words to properly express the amount of love and admiration I have for you. I hope I make you proud.”

Ivey then saluted her son, a nationally ranked prospect about to head off to his own collegiate career at Purdue — and one who possibly gave Boiler backers a momentary scare when Thursday’s event commenced and he was sporting a Notre Dame No. 33 jersey. Turns out it wasn’t a sign, rather the actual jersey Ivey wore as a senior when she helped the Irish beat Purdue for the program’s first national title in 2001.

“Jaden, you are my why,” Ivey said. “You’re the reason I am who I am. You are the strength I need to wake up and my passion is because of you. You’re my inspiration, my motivation and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you and the sacrifice you made to allow me to live out my dreams, and I will always love you for it. ... This is for us.”

Ivey reserved the final part of her initial remarks for “our team and our amazing fans. Just know from this moment forward, I will give you one-thousand percent of my heart and soul. I can’t wait to get started.”

She meant it literally.

“I’m just going to hit the ground running today,” Ivey said when a question was asked about recruiting. “I’m going to reach out to those I think will help this program. I’m going to rely on those relationships that I built and created when I was here at Notre Dame.”

As she was away from the college game for less than a year, ND’s longtime recruiting coordinator already had developed relationships with some of the program’s targeted high school juniors, and said Thursday that she has maintained those.

Ivey — part of all nine Irish Final Four appearances as a player or assistant — inherits a club that went just 13-18 last season for ND’s first losing record in 28 years, but also one that returns its top five scorers and has added a recruiting class ranked No. 3 by ESPN.

Notre Dame’s approach on the court is expected to resemble others of recent Irish vintage, with tweaks possible.

“Luckily, I have had so much knowledge by being under Coach McGraw that you’re going to see a lot of the same style of play as in Coach McGraw’s system — up-tempo, want to score a lot of points, want to set a lot of drag screens,” Ivey said.

Added the new ND boss, “I’m fortunate to have different experiences with the NBA, and I really love the offense that (Memphis head coach) Taylor Jenkins instituted with the Grizzlies, so I’m going to take a little piece of a lot of different things I’ve learned last year and over the 12 years that I’ve learned with Coach McGraw, but my biggest thing is assessing our talent and trying to find the right offense that’s going to fit our girls here. I want to highlight and make sure they’re all put in the situations that are going to make them successful.”

Swarbrick expressed confidence that he’s put the Irish in the best situation to continue being successful. He cited observing Ivey’s interactions over the years at practice, Ivey’s widely saluted scouting reports, McGraw’s advocacy and his own conversations with Ivey as factors guiding his decision.

“The thing I’ve enjoyed most about our relationship is her intellectual curiosity,” Swarbrick said of the St. Louis native.

“It’s this amazing intellectual curiosity,” Swarbrick said, “and it was always those discussions in which I was most intrigued and saw all the elements of a future great head coach as she wanted to talk about where recruiting was headed or what was the future of women’s basketball or some business issue with Notre Dame athletics. She was looking at all aspects of the program.”

Swarbrick not only bypassed conducting a formal search upon McGraw deciding to retire after 33 years, but said no other candidate was even considered.

He called Ivey’s appointment as head coach “merely a question of when,” not if.

“The real question was whether we could hold on to Niele,” Swarbrick said, “and I think that’s really a measure of how good of a fit this is, not only that we have identified for so long that she was the right successor to Muffet, but that she was so passionate about the opportunity that she turned down a host of great opportunities to be elsewhere (over the years).”

When Ivey did finally leave last August after 12 seasons as an ND assistant, it was simply “the perfect sabbatical,” according to Swarbrick. “We loved the notion of Niele seeing a different program, learning from the NBA’s level of expertise and bringing that knowledge back.”

McGraw had even openly forecasted the future at the time when she said upon Ivey’s hiring by the Grizzlies, “This is going to be a great learning experience for Niele and hopefully one day she can take all that she’s learned and bring it back to our program.”

That day came quicker than many were anticipating, though Swarbrick indicated that the possibility only went into motion within the last month.

“I want to stress that this was her decision, recently made,” Swarbrick said of McGraw’s retirement after 33 years at Notre Dame.

Until then, conversations had been based more on hypotheticals.

“One of the questions annually,” Swarbrick said of his postseason huddles with McGraw, “was ‘Coach, if the proverbial bus came along, whom would you want to succeed you? And for some time, Coach McGraw identified Coach Ivey.”

Even with all the grooming over the years, it still stunned Ivey when the offer became a reality.

“I was shocked just because you just can never really prepare for the magnitude of a moment as huge as it is to lead a program like the University of Notre Dame,” Ivey said of Swarbrick’s phone call. “(It) was a dream come true, an opportunity of a lifetime. I was just so ecstatic, so happy, just filled with love and joy and tears and goosebumps.”

Then Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey, left, talks to Arike Ogunbowale during a timeout in a 71-67 victory over Green Bay, Nov. 17, 2016, in South Bend.
Niele Ivey is shown as a Notre Dame player, passing the ball in a 2001 game against Michigan.

“She was a good negotiator, let me say that. She didn’t make it easy; she made it fair.”

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick on contract negotiations with Niele Ivey