Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey comes 'full-circle' with coaching return to native St. Louis

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey  encourages her team during the Truman State-Notre Dame NCAA Women’s basketball game on Monday, October 31, 2022, at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.

SOUTH BEND — Niele Ivey’s not referring to one of the most recognized landmarks in her native St. Louis when she says this weekend “is going to be a full-circle moment for me,” but she could be.

After all, this homecoming is feeling as aesthetically full-circle as when the 630-foot Gateway Arch hits its nearby reflecting pool under just the right light, and besides, that arch typically occupies at least a moment of Ivey’s mind when she does go back.

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St. Louis is where Ivey grew up; where she led Cor Jesu Academy to a perfect record and still its only state basketball title as a junior in 1995; exactly where, in a believe-it-or not twist, she helped Notre Dame win its first national title as its point guard in 2001; and yet, also where she hasn’t been in a basketball context ever since that night.

The sentimental Ivey makes a point of driving past the arch on almost every trip she makes home. She even still takes pictures, despite the fact she must own gobs by now.

A stop at Imo’s Pizza is usually on her card, too.

Feb 24, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Niele Ivey signals to her players in the second half against the Clemson Tigers at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not a certainty that Ivey will be able to squeeze everything into this weekend’s busy agenda — because this is also a business trip as the ND head coach gets set to line her Irish up against California in Saturday afternoon’s inaugural Citi Shamrock Classic — but regardless, those things will be present in Ivey’s heart.

More importantly, a plethora of people meaningful to her will be present in a more visible way. Most of them still live in and around St. Louis.

Her parents, Tom and Theresa, plan to attend the game. So, too, do each of her several brothers and nephews, her high school coach, her best friend and many others.

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“I’m excited to bring my team back home,” Ivey said late Thursday shortly before she and her team departed South Bend by air. “It’s my family, my roots, my high school coach (Gary Glasscock). Everything I know is right there in St. Louis. … It’s a break-through moment.”

The itinerary for Friday was slated to include Ivey and her squad practicing at Cor Jesu, a visit to the Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club where she hung out growing up, and a luncheon for the Irish and the Golden Bears at which track and field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee was expected to serve as featured speaker.

Joyner-Kersee’s appearance is another part of that full-circle feel for Ivey, who sounds more like a kid than a coach when asked about it.

Ivey, 45, is 15 years younger than Joyner-Kersee, who grew up in nearby East St. Louis, Ill., then played basketball at UCLA in addition to winning heptathlon gold medals at two Olympics.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee takes the stage during the inaugural Collegiate Athlete Hall of Fame ceremony this past summer in Eugene, Oregon.

“She was my biggest role model,” Ivey said of Joyner-Kersee, once voted by Sports Illustrated the greatest female athlete of all-time. “Somebody I really, really looked up to. … She was somebody I followed, and I’m going to be star-struck seeing her again.”

Ivey did meet Joyner-Kersee once before, but “I was very young,” so this will be different.

“I want to let her know how much she inspired me,” Ivey said.

What’s a bit stunning about this weekend’s trip, yet suddenly poetic — and yes, another part of that full-circle aspect — is that Ivey hasn’t been inside the Enterprise Center, site of Saturday’s game, since the night she and the Irish won that national title there in 2001, when the oft-renamed facility was called the Savvis Center.

“I think just with my life, being in the WNBA, being a coach, I never had an event I had to go back there into the arena,” Ivey said, “so it’s going to be actually really surreal to feel that vibe again, because I know I’ll never forget that feeling, winning in that arena.”

In the 2001 semifinals there, Ivey racked up game highs of 21 points and five steals as Notre Dame set a Final Four record for largest deficit overcome, 16 points late in the first half, while storming back for a 90-75 win over UConn.

Ivey suffered a sprained ankle late in the game. It didn’t matter.

Taped up and unrelenting, she added 12 points, six steals, five rebounds and four assists two nights later as the Irish held off Purdue 68-66 in the championship.

California Golden Bears head coach Charmin Smith talks with guard Leilani McIntosh (left) in January of 2020.
(Photo: Soobum Im, Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports)

Fast forward to now, and Ivey’s not merely ready to bask in those memories, but to inspire other St. Louis youngsters, and to share her hometown with her players.

“Being able to take them home, I get a chance to show them who I really am,” Ivey said. “I think when I’m here at Notre Dame, I think I’m seen as a former player, (as) head coach, but now I get a chance to bring them home to show them my roots. My journey was not easy, so I get a chance to show them what hard work looks like, what sacrifice looks like, and I’m excited to share that with them.”

The other coach, too

Ivey will share the stage Saturday with a fellow St. Louis-raised head coach, as Cal’s Charmin Smith returns as well.

Smith’s path has been remarkably similar to Ivey’s.

Just like her counterpart, Smith was a Missouri prep star (at Ladue Horton Watkins, where her team was set to practice Friday); went to multiple Final Fours collegiately (at Stanford); played several seasons professionally; was a longtime assistant at the college she later became head coach; was a pro assistant for one season just prior to landing her current spot (in the WNBA with New York, while Ivey’s year was in the NBA with Memphis); and has never coached in St. Louis before now.

Ivey’s 35-19 in her third season at ND, while Smith’s 25-48 in her fourth at Cal.

Smith was a senior at Ladue when Ivey was a freshman at Cor Jesu. The two never squared off in high school, but did play on opposite sides in fall and summer leagues.

“She’s part of the greats that came before me,” Ivey said of Smith. “She’s somebody I looked up to.”