Leading from the Heart

Niele Ivey


Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Coach

Standing courtside in her first season as head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish women’s basketball team, Niele Ivey sees a lot of herself in the promising young women running up and down the floor.

“Sometimes I feel like that could be me 20 years ago,” said Ivey, point guard on Notre Dame’s 2001 national championship team. “I want my players to feel the same pride, the same energy, the same excitement I felt wearing that uniform. I want them to experience the joy I’ve experienced. Sometimes, that probably comes off as a little intense.”

She is able to be so intense with her players and get the best from them, she says, because they know it comes from a place of love.

“I can be very caring and personable,” she said, “but I can also flip the switch and be very demanding — it’s tough love. That’s something that is in my DNA, as a recruiter and as a coach. I want the best for my players and for our program.”

Coach Ivey, wearing a mask, talks to her basketball team on the court.
Standing courtside in her first season as head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish women’s basketball team, Niele Ivey sees a lot of herself in the promising young women running up and down the floor.

Building strong relationships based on authenticity and integrity is key to her leadership style.

“I can be very caring and personable, but I can also flip the switch and be very demanding — it’s tough love.”

“When players know you care about them, they’re going to run through a wall for you,” she said. And that’s important because she knows from personal experience that success on the court and in life comes only through hard work, passion and dedication.

A native of St. Louis, Ivey is considered one of the best point guards ever to wear a Notre Dame uniform. She’s had a hand in all nine of the women’s program’s Final Four appearances — two as a player and seven as an assistant coach.

After graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in history, Ivey played five seasons in the WNBA, four of them with the Indiana Fever, whom she helped take to their first-ever trip to the playoffs. She did so while a single parent raising her son, Jaden, now a star basketball player in his freshman year for the Purdue Boilermakers.

She later played for the Detroit Shock and Phoenix Mercury, and spent a year playing professional basketball in Spain before turning her attention to helping develop others through leading and coaching.

Ivey joined the Notre Dame women’s basketball coaching staff in 2007, took over as recruiting coordinator in 2012 and was promoted to associate head coach in 2015. She has been key to recruiting and developing talent, including her work with some of the most recognized names in Notre Dame women’s basketball history, such as All-Americans Skylar Diggins, Jewell Loyd, Lindsay Allen and Arike Ogunbowale. Under her guidance, the Irish have set new standards as an offensive scoring machine.

An excited basketball player hugs Coach Ivey on the court.
Building strong relationships based on authenticity and integrity is key to her leadership style.

Prior to being named the Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Coach of the Fighting Irish, Ivey spent the 2019-20 season as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, making her one of just nine women coaching in the NBA at the time.

Returning to South Bend, she inherited a young team looking to make its own mark after the entire starting lineup moved onto the WNBA a year earlier. As if that were not a big enough challenge, she and her team have faced a season that, like the entire planet, has been turned on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s no playbook for what we are trying to do this year,” Ivey said. “We’ve had to navigate on the fly this entire season. Even so, I feel like I was made for this moment and this opportunity, coaching for a school and a team that I love so much and that has been so good to me.”

Hall of Fame former Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw, under whom Ivey played for five years and coached for 12, agrees.

“Niele has all of the traits that great leaders have,” McGraw said. “She’s honest, smart, empathetic and charismatic. Niele has the vision to see where she’s going and the plan of how to get there. She will be a superstar in the coaching profession.”

Coach Ivey sits in her office looking at her computer.
Coach Ivey in her office in Rolfs Athletics Hall.

Notre Dame Provost Marie Lynn Miranda has considered Ivey a role model for young women, her own daughters included, ever since watching Ivey play against Duke when Miranda was on the faculty there.

It was a relationship Miranda, also in her first “season” at Notre Dame, renewed as soon as Ivey was named head coach.

Coach Ivey's office shelf displaying books, decorated 'BLM' basketball shoes, and a wooden sign that says 'A good coach can change a game, a great coach can change a life'.
Sneakers and books in Coach Ivey's office in Rolfs Athletics Hall.

“Niele is a special person,” Miranda said. “She has an energy, a personality and a passion for her work that make her a great leader. She believes that she has been presented with opportunities that have lifted her up and in turn feels a responsibility to lift others, whether on the court or in the community. She also has a great sense of humor, which we all need to successfully deal with life’s fast breaks and turnovers.”

Ivey credits much of her leadership style and work ethic to playing and working for McGraw.

“A lot of who I am is a reflection of the values she instilled in me as a player,” Ivey said. “The way she led with integrity has really influenced who I am as a person and who I am as a coach.”

Away from the court, Ivey considers herself first and foremost the proud mom of a son who is coming into his own as a student, a young man and a standout point guard at Purdue.

“I am just so proud of him and the young man he is becoming,” Ivey said. “He has worked hard for his success. Nothing has been given to him — he has earned it.”

Beyond basketball, Ivey said she hopes to be more involved in the community, both here in South Bend, where she previously worked with a women’s homeless shelter, or maybe in her hometown of St. Louis. She is passionate about empowering women and helping them through tough times, and seeing them reach their potential.

Reflecting on her first season, disrupted time and again by the pandemic, Ivey considers herself fortunate.

“I have a very flexible team that has done a great job accommodating the situation we’ve been handed,” she said. “I’m also blessed to have a very supportive athletic department, a great staff and a great community that have helped us along the way.

“This season is definitely something I will reflect on in a couple of years. I know that the experience has already made me a different person, a stronger person for having had to go through it.”

Written by Patrick Gibbons
Portrait photography by Barbara Johnston

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