Feeling the accumulated years of stress as a single mother with the frantic schedule of an assistant college basketball coach, Niele Ivey organized a meditation retreat to California five years ago for herself and some friends.
“It changed my life,” she said of the practice that has become routine for her. “I’m really big on self-care, especially with what’s going on.”
Ivey is navigating her role as the new Notre Dame women’s basketball coach during the coronavirus pandemic and while the nation is embroiled in daily protests against racial inequality after highly publicized killings of Black people.
The former Irish point guard and assistant coach has been intentional about confronting the context of current events as she delves into her new job.
Her video conference calls with players involve themes. She introduced them to her meditation guide, Light Watkins, who talked to the players about the benefits of mindfulness. In another, she opened the floor for dialogue about racism.
Following the legacy of outspoken Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who retired in April after 33 seasons, Ivey likewise believes her role extends beyond the court.
“Having dialogue is what I try to do,” Ivey said. “I let them know they have support and I’m here for them. I have a unique perspective. I was a student-athlete here at Notre Dame. The pressure of the high expectations you have to carry on the court and in the classroom is a very high-stress environment.
“I lived that. I just try to be a resource for them and let them know there is support there: ‘I walked in your shoes.’ ”
Ivey, 42, calls Notre Dame “my heart.”
As a senior in 2001 she helped the Irish win their first national championship, and she remains in the program’s top five in career assists and steals. After Ivey played for five years in the WNBA and was an administrative assistant at Xavier from 2005 to ‘07, McGraw hired her as an assistant coach in 2007 and promoted her to associate head coach in 2016.
McGraw was confident she was handing the torch to the right successor — someone who connects with players and possesses the coaching acumen to continue winning.
“She is so charismatic. They flock to her, they look to her,” McGraw said in an interview with South Bend’s ABC-57 in late April. “She’s funny. She’s charming. And she can be honest and intense at the same time, so she’s able to flip that switch, which a lot of people can’t do.
“She’s always been giving me suggestions and telling me who to recruit. And pretty much whatever she said, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.’ ”
Ivey has been part of both of Notre Dame’s national titles, working as an assistant in 2018, and seven Final Four appearances. She remained in South Bend, Ind., until last season, when the Memphis Grizzlies hired her as an assistant — only the ninth woman to coach in the NBA.
Her hiring at Notre Dame is similarly groundbreaking.
Ivey is just the third African American head coach at Notre Dame in any sport and the first African American female head coach. The school’s student body is less than 4% Black with a faculty that is only 6% Black.
“It has raised the awareness,” she said. “People are happy about it. It was a positive. I’m grateful for it. … I did the work and have the resume to earn this role. It also shed light on (the importance of) having diversity. I’m super grateful for Notre Dame and the opportunity. It might open up other doors on campus.”
College basketball’s doors throughout the country need to open to more diversity.
Only 14% of Division I women’s basketball head coaches were Black women during the 2018-19 season, while Black players made up 41.9% of rosters, according to an annual report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Regardless of race, 62.3% of Division I women’s basketball head coaches were female.
Nearly 60% of head coaches and more than 50% of assistants for all Division I women’s sports are men.
McGraw made headlines in 2018 by saying she was committed to maintaining an all-female staff. Ivey had male assistants on her list of candidates but said the three who best fit what she wanted in an assistant happened to be female, two of whom are Black women.
“For our women at Notre Dame to see four strong females and also to see three strong Black females, that’s incredible,” Ivey said. “We have half a team that’s Black. I think it’s powerful. There is value in seeing us in these leadership roles. I am the visual rep of what’s possible. Maybe it will allow anyone, our women, young girls in society, to see that it’s possible.”
Her key with players, she said, is honesty.
Ivey exemplified that with an emotional, passionate social-media post after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“Stop killing innocent, unarmed black people,” the last part of her May 31 Twitter post read. “Stop judging people based on the color of their skin and treating them less than human. We need change and change can only happen if we continue to voice these atrocities, demand justice, call in, petition, and use our power to vote.
“We need to change the laws and unite together to stand up for what’s right. I am not okay and you shouldn’t be either.”
She said it was her first opportunity to use her platform.
“I wanted to share to the world what I felt,” she said. “I know I’m the head coach of Notre Dame. I know I live this reality going on in the world. I’m an African American woman and I have a young Black man I’m raising. I’ve had to have those conversations. He’s such a young, gentle, kind man, and so was George Floyd. I wanted to stand up for what I felt as right to say.”
As a young girl in St. Louis, she said she worried about her four brothers. Now as a mother to Jaden Ivey, who will be a freshman basketball player at Purdue this year, she worries about him too.
Sharing publicly was cathartic for her.
“I was torn up emotionally,” she said. “I was processing it. I couldn’t sleep. I was staying up till 4 a.m. and really upset. I just wrote it down. It was a release for me.”
Ivey’s days are busy plotting how to rebuild after Notre Dame’s 13-18 season. The Irish had made 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and were coming off a national runner-up finish in 2019. She’s mindful of keeping her team connected before heading back to campus.
“The sky is the limit,” she said. “I’m hoping that my passion and the energy I bring rubs off on the girls. I‘m really excited for our future.”