Inside Niele Ivey's first weeks as Notre Dame's head coach

Niele Ivey, a starting guard on Notre Dame's 2001 championship team, holds weekly Zoom calls with her players. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Niele Ivey made two trips of note to South Bend in recent weeks. The one that people heard about involved her introduction as Notre Dame's women's basketball coach, replacing her mentor and former boss Muffet McGraw.

The less publicized trip to South Bend came after the Memphis Grizzlies and Ivey, their first-year assistant coach, returned from Portland without ever playing their scheduled game against the Trail Blazers on March 12. The NBA season was suddenly on hold following Rudy Gobert's positive coronavirus test. So instead of driving to her rented apartment upon the team's return from the Pacific Northwest, Ivey got in her car and drove north. Her son, Jaden Ivey, attends La Lumiere School in LaPorte, Indiana, and the high school senior was at the time in nearby South Bend on spring break.

Ivey picked him up and they spent the night at the house she never sold. The next day they returned to Memphis to quarantine together when La Lumiere resumed classes remotely.

"My focus was trying to figure out what was going on," Ivey said. "The world was so unknown, so I was panicking about just making sure I had him with me.

"I didn't have any premonition of what was in store for me a month later."

What was in store, of course, was not only taking over at her alma mater after a year away as part of a small group of groundbreaking female assistant coaches in the NBA, but succeeding a Naismith Hall of Famer on McGraw's scale. And while coaching in the age of a coronavirus pandemic is not unique to Ivey, imagine replacing a legend and finding it isn't even the biggest challenge a new job holds.

In discussing her first few weeks on the job at Notre Dame with ESPN, one of the first things that became clear was that while Ivey was the obvious heir apparent once McGraw stepped away, it was not a fait accompli. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick called Ivey's stint with the Grizzlies "a sabbatical" before an inevitable return, but that underplays it.

"It was really hard, to be honest," Ivey said of leaving the Grizzlies. "The last year was the most amazing year of my life, the experience I had in the NBA, the relationships I built with everyone with the Grizzlies, the players, my head coach. It is such a first-class organization, and I just loved it. I loved the NBA, loved everything about it."

The pandemic played its part in the process, as it plays a part in seemingly everything we do these days. Swarbrick reached out to Ivey toward the end of March. He told her McGraw was stepping away and offered her the job. Talks went back and forth for several days before they agreed on a deal. Even if the result had been the same, the process would have been considerably different had she also been juggling a back-to-back against the New Orleans Pelicans or another road trip to Portland.

"It would have been really difficult because I still had responsibilities, with scouting, and my focus would have been on that," Ivey said. "I always want to be the best I can be wherever I am so I would have been focused on being a really great assistant more so than going through the interview process and all that sort of stuff. I would have been more focused on the task at hand. I probably would have pushed it off."

Instead she was on the same Zoom call on which McGraw told Notre Dame players about her decision to retire. Looking back, sophomore Abby Prohaska wonders whether the players should have sensed something was up when the message came in mid-April for a call at an unusual time during the day. But Zoom calls were a routine part of life by then, so much so that each call with the basketball staff had a theme -- that particular day each player set a baby picture as her background.

"We're all getting ready for a normal Zoom call, and it turns out it's one of the most serious calls I've actually ever been on," Prohaska lamented. "And my baby picture was in the background. So it was quite the experience."

The shock and sadness that accompanied McGraw's announcement barely had time to register before players were screaming and celebrating Ivey's appearance on screen.

Ivey, who spent 17 seasons at Notre Dame as a player and an assistant coach, is hardly a stranger; she either coached or at least helped recruit essentially everyone on the roster. And even as she settled in with the Grizzlies this season, she texted her old players regularly, not just general encouragement but messages that let them know she was watching.

"If she had a game that night, obviously it wouldn't work, but she definitely was very informed and staying up to date on all of us," Prohaska said. "It was comforting to know she still had our back even when she wasn't there."

Checking in is one thing. Now Ivey, like a lot of coaches, is trying to figure out how to coach a team from afar.

The most visible mark the new coach made in her first weeks on the job -- first days on the job -- came on the recruiting trail. The same week Ivey was introduced, Olivia Miles verbally committed to the Fighting Irish. ESPN HoopGurlz ranks the 5-foot-10 guard from New Jersey second in the class of 2021. Ranked 16th in the same class, Sonia Citron committed days later.

Coaches are not allowed to comment on individual recruits until those athletes officially sign and the necessary documentation is submitted to the NCAA. Still, the commitments all but spoke for themselves.

"I'm hitting the ground running recruiting," Ivey allowed. "Every coach knows how important that is."

But recruiting is always a remote process to some degree, and one poor season -- the Irish went 13-18 before the 2019-20 season was canceled -- clearly hasn't damaged the Notre Dame brand. Far less familiar is coaching a team that isn't on the same campus and couldn't be in the same room even if it was. Ivey is back in South Bend, even if she is unable to work from the office and still needs to clear out her rental in Memphis at some point before summer. But players are scattered across the country.

Ivey at least had a couple of weeks of training, in the time between the NBA putting its season on hold and Notre Dame calling her back to South Bend.

"I thought Taylor Jenkins did a really fantastic job of trying to navigate through it and try to stay engaged with the players," Ivey said of the Grizzlies coach. "We stayed engaged as a staff -- the first week we did several Zoom calls to try and figure it out. He was really great with trying to update us with information. That was really beneficial, so I'm using some things that I learned with him, how they stayed engaged with the Grizzlies, with our players here."

Ivey and the rest of Notre Dame's coaches take part in weekly calls with Swarbrick that offer all of the same uncertainty that every school is dealing with while trying to figure out a return to class and competition. And she has weekly calls with the basketball team that offer little in the way of long-term answers. Instead there is a dialogue, talk of successes, goals, challenges and the kind of team they want to be when they can reunite.

"It allowed us to really connect with our coaches," Prohaska said, "because they would share a little bit about what they've been going through so we were all on the same page."

In Ivey's case, just as it did when the NBA season shut down and she went to pick up Jaden, that means being both coach and parent. She is monitoring the news to find out when players can return to campus and when a new era can begin in earnest. But she is also monitoring the news to see when and if Jaden, a basketball recruit, will be able to leave for his freshman year at Purdue.

"For both sides, as a coach and a mother, we're just playing the waiting game," Ivey said. "Waiting to see what the next phase is, what the summer looks like. I'm in the process on both sides with the unknown.

"And just trying to stay healthy through the process."