ESPN

Inside Niele Ivey’s Historic First Season at Notre Dame

scroll

In April 2020, on the day Niele Ivey was named the new head coach of women's basketball at Notre Dame, she could look back and trace how one opportunity led to another, and how the chain of those experiences had brought her back home. She was a former All-America guard for the Fighting Irish and the 19th pick in the 2001 WNBA draft. She had been an assistant to Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw for 12 seasons and most recently spent the last year as part of the Memphis Grizzlies coaching staff. Now she was the first Black female head coach in school history, and only the fourth-ever women's basketball coach. Her son, Jaden, would be playing basketball just a few hours away at Purdue. Everything had led to this moment. Nothing could've prepared her for a pandemic.

She coached in a mask and gloves. Every morning she waited to see if one of her players had tested positive for the coronavirus. Her first win at Purcell Pavilion played out to a group of less than 100 live fans because of COVID-19 protocols. After missing the NCAA tournament last March for the first time since 1995, the Irish beat Ohio University 105-69 in their first 2021-22 game in front of more than 4,500. Notre Dame takes on Western Illinois on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ACCNX).

ESPN followed Ivey's historic first year to get a behind-the-scenes look at taking over a storied program in a pandemic.

When McGraw announced her retirement after 33 years as head coach, Notre Dame named Ivey as McGraw's successor minutes later. "When she first was here as a player, we had a player-coach relationship, but I always felt more like her second mom," McGraw says. "Eventually it continued to evolve to the point where I was asking her opinion all the time."
Ivey was a point guard at Notre Dame from 1996-2001. Her senior year, she was named All-America and helped the program win its first national championship. "I feel like I really grew up here, coming in as just a young girl, leaving a national champion," Ivey says.
Ivey became the first female African American coach in Notre Dame history. "Being the face of Notre Dame and representing African American females, there's so many pressures you can try to take on, but I never wanted to take it on as a pressure," Ivey says. "I felt like it was a blessing." Ivey's coaching staff -- she retained much of McGraw's staff and hired associate head coach Coquese Washington -- are all women.
Ivey has been a part of nearly all the Irish's biggest victories over the past 25 years, including this 2018 win over rival UConn. "She has the kind of charisma when she walks in a room, her smile lights up the room and you know she's there," McGraw says. "She's not somebody that you could ever say, 'Oh, I didn't notice her.'"
Ivey's son, Jaden, was born nine months after Ivey was drafted into the WNBA. They've always been each other's biggest fans. Jaden wore his mother's Notre Dame jersey at her December 2016 Ring of Honor ceremony and at the April 2020 press conference introducing Ivey as head coach. "We've always been that power duo," Jaden says. "It started at a young age. We just built that bond."
Now a sophomore point guard at Purdue, Jaden averaged 11.1 points in his first season and was named to the Big Ten all-freshman team. Purdue is less than three hours away from Notre Dame, and Ivey tries to make the drive down when she can. "I'm always cheering," Ivey says. "You know, mommy cheerleader."
The team wore contact tracing devices and went through a COVID-19 pause in the middle of last season when a player tested positive for the virus. "Every morning I got a text after our testing and I always had that like, 'Oh Lord, please.' I'm praying that the team is safe," Ivey says. "It's heavy -- the weight of that all year."
Coaching in a near-empty stadium, it felt strange when Ivey could hear herself calling out plays. "Not having that energy, it felt like a scrimmage," Ivey says. "It took us a while to establish our own identity in an empty arena."
COVID-19 protocols limited how Ivey was able to recruit and run practices. For the first few weeks, she could only have four players in the gym at the same time. By the end of the season, Ivey was able to coach practice with the entire roster.
Prior to taking the Notre Dame head job, Ivey spent the 2019 season as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies. She was just the ninth active woman coach in NBA history. She says being in that environment helped prepare her for the pressure a head coach experiences. "I was in a space [at Notre Dame] as a 12-year assistant coach where I was very comfortable," Ivey says. "I was getting better every year. But I didn't have that pressure. Going to the NBA, that really forced me to grow."
Ivey and the team led "Race for Change," an on-campus walk in October 2020 meant to raise awareness and conversations about social injustice. "I felt like it was just another reason why I was pushed into this role -- to be a strong woman, somebody that my African American players can look up to -- a Black female who has a Black son, who's just like them," Ivey says. "I've had the same type of injustices, have family members that have gone through this society of systemic racism."
In the beginning, team bonding was limited to virtual interactions, and Ivey tried to organize games like Family Feud over Zoom. "Their lives are a lot different, especially as a student-athlete," Ivey says. "There's so many things they've had to sacrifice." The vaccine made in-person team gatherings at Ivey's house possible again.
“This is the moment that I’ve dreamt of and have been preparing for.”
Ivey begins every morning by meditating, something she has done for the past six years. The habit clears her thoughts, which feels even more crucial on game days. "My mind's always racing just thinking about like, 'OK, I can run this,' and 'Will this player work?' and 'What about defense?'" Ivey says.
"Coaching in this environment has been something that I had to learn -- there's no one I could call and be like, 'How did you guys coach in this?'" Ivey says. During the 2020-21 season, there were 14 first-time head coaches in women's Division I basketball who, like Ivey, were navigating their first year in a pandemic.
As part of McGraw's staff, Ivey built a reputation as one of the best recruiters in the country, bringing in top-12 classes in nine of her 10 years as recruiting coordinator. Ivey's first full class as head coach -- Sonia Citron and Olivia Miles (left) -- was ranked fifth by ESPN. Miles enrolled early and played in six games last year. "Olivia brings that vision and swag to the point guard position," Ivey says.
Notre Dame finished the 2020-21 season 10-10, and for the first time since 1995, missed the tournament. "It was uncomfortable for me," Ivey says. "In 17 years, I've never had that feeling of, 'Oh, are we going to get in?'"
McGraw and Ivey met frequently outside during the COVID-19-shortened 2020-21 season -- socially distanced and warmed by a fire pit. "I said, 'Listen, I'm going to give you advice when you ask me and you can take it or not and I'm not going to change one thing,'" McGraw says. "That was one of the first things. We had to kind of get over that hurdle. Like, 'Don't think you're going to hurt my feelings if you don't run this offense or that defense.'"
Returning to the tournament is the goal, and Notre Dame should have the pieces to do it. Forward Maddy Westbeld, third from left, returns after winning the ACC Rookie of the Year last season, and in addition to her first recruiting class, Ivey has added graduate transfer Maya Dodson, second from right, from Stanford. Meanwhile, Jaden, second from left, is a projected first-round pick in this year's NBA draft.
"Everything I experienced in the past, and especially in the past five years, I've had so many transformative years in my career," Ivey says. "Going away from Notre Dame and to the NBA. This is the moment that I've dreamt of and have been preparing for. I didn't realize I've been prepared my whole life."

Produced by ESPN Creative Studio: Michelle Bashaw, Belca Bedoya-Pedyna, Heather Donahue, Karen Frank, Alecia Hamm, Kaitlin Marron.

Written by Dana Lee. Edited by Melanie Jackson.
Photography by Matt Cashore, Jay Davalos, Mustafa Hussain, Michelle Kanaar.

Additional Photography by AP Photo, Fighting Irish Media, Getty Images.