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Notre Dame Basketball

Niele Ivey Q-A: Notre Dame coach talks foundation, transition

September 15, 2020

The support has come from all directions; budding star and newly minted NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant, fellow Memphis Grizzlies teammate Jaren Jackson Jr.; plenty others in the program’s storied lineage.

Now. Niele Ivey is settling into putting her stamp on Notre Dame women’s basketball.

“She’s great, honestly,” Morant told reporters of Ivey prior to the 2019-20 season. “She gave me some little corrections with my game, like getting to certain spots on the floor.”

With NCAA movement due this week on a timeframe for the planned 2020-21 basketball season and her team finally assembled on campus for the fall semester, Ivey visited with Irish Sports Daily to discuss a broad range of topics, including her transition atop the program, what she’s learned about her team, her scheduling philosophy and her views on a potential season.

Hint: Ivey adamantly wants to run it ahead for her first season as the hand-picked heir apparent to Muffet McGraw and the powerhouse Notre Dame women’s program.

ISD: When you accepted the job to take over the program at your alma mater, it was relatively early in the COVID-19 pandemic and no one could have known the challenges that were ahead. How has that further challenged or complicated your transition atop the program?

NIELE IVEY: It was definitely a challenge, not having the opportunity to have the team on campus. I think that was probably the biggest challenge. The press conference was via Zoom; the team call with Coach McGraw and her retirement into my hiring was via Zoom, so it’s definitely a lot different than I guess a normal transition or normal entry into a head coaching position.

Just not being able to physically be around the team, that was super challenging. Very happy now that they have had the opportunity to come onto campus at the beginning of August [when all Notre Dame students were welcomed back to campus for the onset of fall semester classes that began on August 10].

ISD: The early weeks during a coaching transition are typically pivotal for getting to know a new team and building rapport. How much did your history at Notre Dame aide in that process, since you couldn’t be around them in person, and what were some of the things you did to foster those relationships?

NI: My relationships really helped. I had recruited actually two of our freshmen that had already signed before I left. I had been in the process of recruiting almost everybody on the team, so I had that rapport like you said. I think that really helped, because those relationships were already built and I already had a strong foundation with the majority of the team.

And then just to continue those relationships, I had weekly Zoom meetings, tried to have themes every meeting and tried to have purposeful meetings, wanting to basically find out things that were going on with team, giving them as much information and education as I could with the pandemic going on and, again, just trying to have the open dialogue and great communication so that they would feel comfortable with the setting we were in.

ISD: What have you learned about yourself both during the transition to head coach of the program and also with how you’ve been forced to manage the transition during COVID-19?

NI: I definitely realized, and I always felt like I was a strong person, but this definitely tested my strength. So, I definitely felt that I was prepared for this moment, not even knowing it was going to be this type of situation, but I definitely felt like I was prepared. I definitely felt like Coach McGraw prepared me for this incredible and unprecedented time in college basketball and in the world.

I felt like, just basically, my strength helps me get through all the areas that otherwise would have been situations that I couldn’t have gotten through. Just the adversity from being a student-athlete, knowing the ups and downs from being an assistant coach, all that kind of goes into that. I think I definitely was tested throughout my entire career, and then I honestly I really relied on the support of my family, eventually my staff and then the University of Notre Dame, really. I got a lot of support.

ISD: What do you feel like you’ve brought from your time as an NBA assistant to Notre Dame? I’ve also seen some of those Grizzlies players interacting with you on social media; what does that mean to you?

NI: It’s meant everything, because I realized the impact that they had on me, and the impact that I had on them, actually. Which, I think, coming into Year 1 in the NBA I never would have known was so brand-new for me. New city, new team, new family. The fact that we created that special bond in that short period of time was really, really special for me. I was just humbled and honored to be able to be in the presence of those great, elite athletes, especially Ja Morant, and also my former boss, Taylor Jenkins. I learned so much from the Grizzlies organization, and it was an experience that was life-changing for me.

So, I am very blessed to say that I was a part of it and also to still have those relationships and to have built that bond with the organization and the players.

ISD: I know these hardly are normal times in recruiting right now, with NCAA-mandated dead periods and visits restricted, among other guidelines. Have you seen your time in the NBA already help on the recruiting trail, in conversations, and do you anticipate that will continue to pay dividends as you’re able to recruit more?

NI: I think it gives, I think I’d say, a little bit of respect, respect for my coaching, my coaching career, my ability to coach with being in the NBA. So I definitely think I have garnered probably more respect maybe even from the recruits.

I know that the recruits follow the WNBA, all the young talent, men and women, the WNBA, the NBA. So that’s always probably an attraction from me having those relationships, knowing the Grizzlies players and other players in the NBA. I’m not sure, but I am appreciative of the experience and plan on bringing that experience to the collegiate level at Notre Dame.

ISD: You have very quickly utilized your platform at Notre Dame to work for social justice issues and to be active in the community. Why has that been important to you and what have you learned during that process?

NI: It’s extremely important. My mission is to connect with the community; to love, to service, to mentor this group and also the community that I am a part of.

And I’ve been blessed and fortunate to be part of the South Bend community and Notre Dame community for over 15, 16 years. This has always been my second home. I always felt like if you have an opportunity to impact lives and communities then you should, and I know that I’m in a situation and with a platform that’s a lot bigger than it was before. I’m grateful for that, and I want to utilize that in the most positive way.

What better way to use my voice than to be able to speak to communities and be on the front-lines and to be active in the fight for social justice.

ISD: How have you incorporated that approach with your team and what has been the response on campus to your efforts?

NI: I’ve gotten a really positive response, and I have tried to incorporate just having the dialogue and having the uncomfortable dialogues with our team from Day 1. We’ve had those conversations in Zoom calls, through texts, just to see how they were managing and navigating through all the negativity that is really been made aware in the world.

Anything that they’re passionate about or anything that they want to express. I’ve definitely been a proponent of making sure that they are using their voice and making sure that they are being heard and that they know that I am being supportive.

And just having some team initiatives, trying to have some social justice actions here in South Bend and at Notre Dame. They’ve been very active online, and I’ve been completely supportive of the way that they’ve been expressing themselves, educating themselves, and having, even just within the team, having conversations that are necessary for everyone to have amongst each other.

I’ve been very inspired by them and been very hopeful that they are going to make a positive impact in the community, just as I want to.

ISD: I know you grew up in the St. Louis area and were the first member of your family to graduate college, you were part of the first women’s national championship at Notre Dame. What do you think that says about your character and your individual makeup?

NI: I think it says just that I’ve worked really hard. I’ve worked really hard to get to this position. I worked really hard in high school to get to college, and I felt like that work ethic has just been kind of in my DNA. I’ve been competitive in sports, but I think that my work ethic has kind of helped me along the way. I’ve had opportunities to be among great teachers and leaders and mentors that have guided me along the way. So, I’m very fortunate in that regard. I guess I would say I’ve tried to lead from my heart, as a captain, as a student-athlete, throughout my entire life, so that that value that I’ve led by and been taught by my mother and Coach McGraw and all the coaches and mentors that have helped me along the way, that’s why I feel like I am prepared to be in this role to lead. I’ve learned how to lead the right way.

ISD: What have you learned about your team since you got them on campus and now are able to be around them and them around you? How will you know in this upcoming season that your first Notre Dame squad is playing your brand of basketball?

NI: I’ve definitely learned that the team, they are extremely hard-working, they are super-excited to be here. I think their time away has kind of motivated them and excited them about being here. They’re coachable, they’re willing to listen, everything that I’ve thrown at them in workouts and in strength and conditioning, they have received the information and worked really hard. So they have a great mentality, a great mindset right now. I’m really excited about that.

And I’m just hoping to get Year 1, with this brand-new staff here, I just want to build the right foundation and the right habits. And I think that once I can build that competitive habit and competitive drive that it will eventually flourish to something super-successful. I think the biggest thing, I’m just worried about getting better every day and working on the fundamentals and the habits on a daily basis and hopefully continuing to grow as I’m establishing myself in Year 1 and my standards for this program.

ISD: Both for this year and in the future, even thought some question marks remain with COVID-19’s potential impact on the season, what are your scheduling philosophies for your program?

NI: I want to continue having one of the toughest schedules in the country. I know just learning from my time here as an assistant at Notre Dame, I know that that always prepared us for the NCAA Tournament, for our conference tournaments. So I definitely want to make sure that we are scheduling some of the top teams and programs in the country. I definitely want to be top five in RPIs; I know those are kind of changing, with how they’re establishing RPIs. But definitely want to schedule a tough schedule to prepare us for the tournament and so I definitely want to continue with that formula for the season. And then the ACC is one of the best conferences in the country, so I know that I will be challenged every day and every night. So I’m just hoping to continue to challenge ourselves and challenge myself with our non-conference schedule as well.

ISD: The ACC men’s coaches had floated an “all-in” NCAA Tournament proposal, with the expectation that some teams likely won’t be able to play a complete schedule in the upcoming season due to COVID-19 factors. Would that be something you would like to see considered for the women’s game?

NI: I just found that out (late last week). I want to play. I know that the NCAA Tournament, it’s really important for us to have the NCAA Tournament this year. I’m looking forward to finding out more information and education on it, and how that affects the women’s side. So, I just definitely want to get more information.

But, I’m a proponent of playing safely and praying that it all works out for us. I definitely want to play.

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