Dec. 2, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
Personable, energetic, clever and filled with a zest for life, Niele Ivey (@IrishCoachIvey) is naturally quite active on the social media platform Twitter. As is often the case, Notre Dame alumnus Ruth Riley was on campus earlier this week. On Monday, she took a fun photo with Ivey in the lobby of the women’s basketball offices with each one pointing at a photo of the other in a collage celebrating the 2001 national championship team they co-captained.
Ivey’s comment on the photo was “Love my teammate @ruthriley00! It’s truly a blessing to have you back! Thank you for the support. So proud of you Ruth #NDfamforlife”
The latest subset of that “Notre Dame family for life” to intertwine Ivey and Riley is the Ring of Honor. The highest accolade Notre Dame basketball can bestow, Ivey’s 33 will join Riley’s number 00 and Skylar Diggins’ number four during a pregame ceremony on Sunday before the current top-ranked Notre Dame team faces Valparaiso.
“It’s a tremendous blessing,” Ivey said. “I’m just so excited and honored. The thought of being in the rafters at the University of Notre Dame and being among so many legends and greats that have really shaped our athletic program — men’s and women’s basketball – is a dream come true and I’m honored.”
A frequent question has arisen since the announcement of Ivey’s honor. Is she going in as a player or a coach? Ivey’s All-American playing career saw her help lead the Irish to the national championship. As a coach in her 10th year at Notre Dame, Ivey has mentored All-American guards Diggins and Jewell Loyd. Ivey, along with associate head coach Carol Owens and Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women’s Basketball Coach Muffet McGraw, are the lone links to all seven of Notre Dame’s Final Four appearances.
So what facet is it? We’ll let Ivey herself explain why each stage has been met by success.
NIELE THE STUDENT-ATHLETE
Arriving in South Bend from St. Louis, Ivey carried a Missouri state championship ring. The odds of her suiting up for a national champion continued to fluctuate.
Ivey played five games as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury. She watched from the bench as Notre Dame went to its first Final Four. The Irish advanced only to the Sweet 16 the next three years. Then, as a fifth-year graduate student making up for the season she had lost in 1997, Ivey helped bookend her career with a 2001 Final Four trip — and she did not stop there.
When she returned to the Final Four, she was also returning home as the event would be contested at the Savvis (now Scottrade) Center, home of the St. Louis Blues. Ivey provided a masterful coda to her collegiate career, making the Final Four’s all-tournament team by averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 steals per game in wins over UConn and Purdue.
Ivey’s final season saw her earn All-America honors, be a finalist for the Nancy Liberman Award as the country’s top point guard and receive the Francis Pomeroy Naismith Award for the country’s best player who is no taller than 5-foot-8. Ivey collected her third successive first-team all-BIG EAST plaque as a senior in 2001. She served as a co-captain, and graduated ranking second in school history for career assists. Ivey and Diggins remain to this day as the only Notre Dame players with 1,400 career points and 700 career assists.
Navigating this long road, while leading to the fairy-tale ending, is one of many things Ivey credits for her overall personal and professional development.
“I’m most proud of being the first to win the national championship,” she said. “My story was coming back from two ACLs. I had a lot of adversity in the time I was here at Notre Dame. Going through all of the adversity and tough times, struggling with the injuries and ultimately going out on top winning the national championship in my hometown was an incredible journey.”
NIELE THE PROFESSIONAL PLAYER
Ivey’s success in the difficult environment provided by Notre Dame both on and off the court, led her to become a proud representative of the program in the WNBA. A second round pick in the 2001 WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever, Ivey would play four years in the league, also seeing action for the Detroit Shock and Phoenix Mercury before knee injuries ended her career prematurely.
Ivey knows, however, she may not have made it even that far without the experiences she obtained at Notre Dame.
“I became a strong confident young woman under (McGraw) and her leadership,” she said. “I was challenged on so many levels academically and athletically at Notre Dame. Playing in the BIG EAST and going up against amazing opponents while being challenged by coach McGraw made it an easy transition going to the WNBA. Playing against great players was something that I was used to. The transition to the WNBA was very smooth.”
NIELE THE COACH
As Ivey said, the transition to the WNBA was smooth. Thanks to the “ND family” Ivey tweeted about on Monday, the transition to coaching was not tough either. An assistant coach on McGraw’s staff during Ivey’s playing days for the Irish, Kevin McGuff took over as the head coach of Xavier in 2002. Nearing the end of her WNBA career and preparing for the next chapter of her life, Ivey contacted her old coach about an internship.
After hanging up her playing shoes, Ivey was not afraid to do the grunt work to discover what she had to do as a successful coach that she may not have appreciated as a player. She coordinated film exchanges, made team travel reservations and performed other important background tasks devoid of glamour.
She did them well and she did them with a smile. She also did them with the fortuitous timing of completing her internship just as a position was opening up on McGraw’s staff. The Notre Dame family connections in Cincinnati had furthered her education to where she was ready to reconnect with her Notre Dame family at Notre Dame itself.
“A door opened for me at Xavier and I took advantage of that opportunity,” Ivey recalled. “Then the call came from coach McGraw. I never imagined that I would have my first coaching job be at my alma mater. It all happened fast and was a blessing at a perfect time when I was retiring from the WNBA and she had a position open.
“I love being back. I have a lot of pride in what I do here at Notre Dame. I love coach McGraw. I love Notre Dame, what it stands for and everything it has blessed me with. It’s rewarding to be able to give back to the program that gave so much to me.”
One of the building blocks which led to the first two Final Four trips, Ivey has only continued to nurture the Irish program as she begins her 10th year on McGraw’s staff. As her own title has shifted from assistant coach up to associate head coach, the program has developed alongside her. Notre Dame made five straight appearances in the Final Four from 2011-15 and has consistently been a national championship contender recently.
Focusing mainly on the team’s backcourt play, Ivey has help sculpt the confident young women who have toppled her from school record charts. Diggins was a two-time Nancy Lieberman Award winner, a four-time All-American and the third overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft. Loyd picked up a pair of consensus first-team All-America honors, the 2015 espnW National Player of the Year prize and was the first pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft.
Lindsay Allen, Ivey’s latest star pupil, is a two-time Lieberman Award finalist who recently joined Ivey, Diggins and Mollie Peirick as the only players in school history with 1,000 points and 600 assists.
Ivey has still been known to get actively involved in drills during practices. Her playing days may be behind her but she can still show her current pupils a few things on the court along with what she teaches them about life through the medium of basketball.
“(When I meet with recruits), I talk about the family atmosphere that Notre Dame provides,” Ivey said. “It’s a very special place. We set ourselves apart from a lot of universities because we have that balance of academics and being a family environment. It’s a special place and not a lot of people understand that until you get on campus.
“The best part of my day is being able to see coach McGraw, Carol (Owens), Beth (Cunningham) — people that I’ve known for years as a player and also being able to share my knowledge and passion for Notre Dame with our team.”
NIELE THE MOTHER AND ROLE MODEL
Figuratively, Ivey is a second mother to Notre Dame’s players. It is a role she cherishes.
“I enjoy being able to be a mentor to them,” Ivey said of the student-athletes. “I enjoy watching them grow. I enjoy setting goals with them and watching them get better from the time recruiting them to their growth process by the time they graduate (from Notre Dame) to seeing them go on to become young successful women. Some stay in the game. Some venture out and do different things like in the corporate world. Some are mothers, wives, there’s a lot of different areas that people transition into. I just love being a part of that and being able to help them in any kind of way who cares for them and supports them in more than just basketball.”
Ivey is also mother to one son, Jaden. For all the shiny trophies littering the women’s basketball offices, the apple of Ivey’s eye is her 14-year old son. Ivey confesses that, with her jam-packed work schedule, it sometimes takes a village to help raise Jaden. Relatives from Indianapolis and St. Louis help regularly. What is obvious, however, is that her successes as a player and coach have only helped her develop a polite young man who is perhaps her finest legacy piece.
“For the student-athletes who later in life want to do both – balancing motherhood with a career – I’m an example of multi-tasking and work ethic,” Ivey said of how her own motherhood makes her a better coach. “That’s sometimes very hard in this world. The team also gets to see a different side of me being a mother, having Jaden around and watching him grow up. They see how I interact with him and how it translates from being a coach to being a mother. I think they respect that. Knowing their mothers (from recruiting), I think they respect that in the role that I play as a mother and coach to their daughters.”
Jaden is yet another reason why Ivey considers herself fortunate to have spent the past 10 years as a coach for the Irish in particular.
“(Notre Dame) gives me an opportunity to raise my son in a faith-based environment with great people surrounding us.”
Ivey’s legacy at Notre Dame is clearly both brilliant and multi-faceted. Circling back to the social media laughs she shared on Monday, since Ivey cherishes the family-atmosphere that both Notre Dame and her program engender, maybe Riley is the best one to sum up Ivey.
“She is the heart and soul of Notre Dame women’s basketball,” Riley said for a tribute video to air during Sunday’s pregame ceremony. “There’s no one beyond coach McGraw who has impacted our program more.”
Like a portrait of a family matriarch hanging over the fireplace, the Ring of Honor banners shine upon the current and future Notre Dame teams with the visage of ultimate role models for those wearing blue and gold uniforms that day.
Star student-athlete. Professional player. Coach. Mother. Role Model. Ivey has done it all with a quiet confidence. Sunday afternoon, when her name and number adorn the Purcell Pavilion rafters, there will be nothing quiet about the statement of just what Ivey has meant to Notre Dame.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications associate director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame’s women’s basketball and men’s golf teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.