Niele Ivey always thought she would know when the right fit came along.
For so many years one of the most coveted assistant coaches in women's basketball, she would know when it was time to leave the comfort of her alma mater for a head-coaching position. She would know when it was time to leave Notre Dame.
Instead, it turns out that her first head-coaching job will bring her home to replace someone who seems irreplaceable.
With Muffet McGraw's surprise decision to retire after 33 seasons, nine Final Four appearances and two national championships, Ivey will take over as just the fourth coach in program history.
Ivey isn't quite a Notre Dame lifer -- she grew up in St. Louis and played a lot of basketball before she set foot in South Bend, Indiana -- but she might as well be. She was a star on the court for the Fighting Irish, the point guard of the program's first national championship team. She was an assistant for more than a decade. You could measure the passage of time in her life by watching her son, Jaden, shoot baskets after games at Purcell Pavilion, growing from a boy who heaved the ball at the rim into a recruit who will play at Purdue.
Now it's her turn. Taking over a program that has won multiple national championships in women's basketball, Ivey faces a daunting challenge. But there are reasons many people watched for so many years to see what job would feel right to her.
Who is Notre Dame's new coach? Let's take a look.
Was Ivey the obvious choice?
She was the right choice, but Notre Dame didn't lack for options, even without leaving campus. Like any Hall of Famer, McGraw had her coaching tree. That included current Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff and Wisconsin coach Jonathan Tsipis. Yet like some of her peers at the top of the sport, namely Tara VanDerveer and frequent nemesis Geno Auriemma, McGraw enjoyed remarkable continuity within her coaching staff in recent seasons.
Carol Owens returned for her second stint on McGraw's staff in 2010. A former star on the court, Beth Cunningham joined in 2012. Until Ivey departed prior to the 2019-20 season, that trio was a constant. They were part of seven Final Four appearances and a national title. Unlike Ivey, Cunningham and Owens had previous head-coaching experience. Cunningham compiled a 167-115 record in nine seasons as VCU coach, including an NCAA tournament at-large bid -- no small feat for a mid-major. Owens had a bigger hill to climb when she took over Northern Illinois, but neither the three coaches who preceded her nor the coach who succeeded her matched her winning percentage at the MAC school.
But turning over the program to a trusted lieutenant was never the goal. McGraw always -- but more and more acutely in recent years -- sought equality of opportunity for women in coaching. She wanted to encourage the next generation of coaches and use her own bully pulpit to ensure that doors were open to them -- hopefully in any basketball setting but certainly within the women's game. If either sought the role, Cunningham or Owens could have carried on the Notre Dame tradition. But in part precisely because Ivey hadn't yet been a head coach, she was always the ideal fit to carry on not just tradition but also what McGraw saw as her own legacy.
"She will be a fantastic role model and a leader in the women's empowerment movement," McGraw said in a statement.
A former player, a longtime and loyal assistant, not to mention a mom, Ivey is the person McGraw believes the women's game needs -- and for too long hasn't sufficiently encouraged.
How did she get here?
Notre Dame was just a couple of seasons removed from the Midwestern Collegiate Conference when Ivey arrived for the 1996-97 season. McGraw had shaped the program into a consistent winner over the previous decade, but the Fighting Irish didn't yet matter nationally. They hadn't been more than a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament.
By the time Ivey moved on to the WNBA five years later, Notre Dame was a champion. Yes, two-time All-American and Naismith winner Ruth Riley had a little something to do with that. But after coming back from a torn ACL that wiped out her first season on campus, Ivey was hardly less instrumental. She remains second in program history in steals and fourth in assists.
A second-round pick by the Indiana Fever in the loaded 2001 WNBA draft that produced Tamika Catchings, Lauren Jackson, Riley and Penny Taylor, among others, Ivey started 70 games in her first three seasons, including 26 starts as a rookie while she was pregnant with Jaden. She played five seasons in the league and also played professionally in Spain.
Ivey then transitioned to coaching as an administrative assistant at Xavier under McGuff, who was an assistant at Notre Dame when Ivey played for the Irish.
"I'm a relationship person," Ivey told ESPN in 2018. "So it was a perfect fit for me to be around the game I love and mentor young women. That came naturally for me."
The two seasons at Xavier led to the opportunity for Ivey to return to Notre Dame, where she quickly became the sort of name that popped up every offseason when head-coaching jobs opened. She had offers along the way. But it wasn't until the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies came calling last year that Ivey finally left McGraw. She became the ninth female assistant coach in the NBA and worked extensively with the team's guards, including standout rookie Ja Morant.
What are her strengths?
Ivey was McGraw's pupil. She isn't her clone.
That is to say that Ivey is similar to her old boss only in the sense that neither feels the need to be like someone else. Even after decades in "Michiana," the distinctly Midwestern border region of Indiana and Michigan, McGraw never lost her Philadelphia directness. Nor did she cease to be an introvert, no matter how public a figure she became. She endured small talk. She did the necessary meet-and-greets for the school. But she preferred to study basketball.
Ivey approaches things, well, differently.
"People gravitate toward her because of that smile and how she is with people," former Notre Dame assistant Tsipis said. "There's a natural magnetism."
McGraw's style worked for her. There is a reason Skylar Diggins-Smith said there is something about the coach that made players want to "move a mountain for her." But Ivey brings an energy and an ability to communicate that will serve her well with a generation of players used to dialogues.
Perhaps the best way to sum up what Ivey brings to the job is through Diggins-Smith.
Ivey had the charisma and playing résumé to help win the recruiting battle that allowed Notre Dame, then stuck in a Sweet 16-and-out rut, to beat Stanford for the hometown prodigy. She had the tactical acumen to be in charge of the scouting report when Diggins-Smith and the Irish finally beat longtime nemesis Tennessee in a regional final to reach the 2011 Final Four, figuring out how to slow the top-seeded Lady Vols and helping McGraw adjust on the fly when Tennessee came out playing more zone than Pat Summitt's team had shown all season.
Throughout those seasons that lifted Notre Dame to a place among the elite that it maintained for a decade, Ivey had the power of personality to bring the best out of Diggins-Smith.
"She could get through to Skylar in a way nobody else could," Tsipis said, citing the respect that came from playing the same position at the school and playing in the WNBA. "I just think Niele understood high-elite players have different buttons you have to push. When Skylar needed to be told she wasn't where [she] needed to be at, Niele could tell that with a stern talk, and they could move on and not have anything that ever seemed like it was personal. It was always a really good balance between her and Muffet of getting the best out of Skylar."
What will Notre Dame look like under Ivey?
With as much time as Ivey spent around McGraw as both a player and a coach, it would be a shock if the Fighting Irish undergo a revolutionary transformation on the court.
Whether that means total adherence to the Princeton offense that McGraw loved remains to be seen, but even McGraw was willing to tweak that in recent years to fit personnel.
"I think it will be a really smart team," Tsipis said. "I think that they will play with a lot of passion. She will want them to play fast in transition. And to be honest, probably the biggest thing is they'll play with a lot of confidence."
Ivey will also have a fresh canvas. Success finally caught up to Notre Dame this past season, which would have ended without a place in the NCAA tournament. McGraw successfully navigated transition after transition, from teams led by Diggins to Jewell Loyd to Arike Ogunbowale. But the timing of first Loyd and then Jackie Young leaving early for the WNBA draft, along with Ali Patberg and a handful of other promising players transferring, essentially left Notre Dame short a recruiting cycle. It simply didn't have the personnel to compete this season.
Assuming there aren't any defections, that should change with the arrival of four top-50 recruits next season to complement rising sophomores Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples.