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Longtime assistant coaches create stability, success and family

Niele Ivey and Carol Owens have coached with Muffet McGraw for combined total of 31 years. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics.

For many, if not most, the tireless job of a collegiate assistant coach is a stepping stone to a head coaching position. And to be sure, every great coach has a “coaching tree” of head coaches who once worked for them.

For others, however, the job in itself is a career. Some assistant coaches are as vital to a program as the head coach, and it would be hard to imagine a team running without them.

So it is no surprise that some of the most successful programs in Division I history have retained assistant coaches for a decade – or two or three. Members of this elite group are their head coach’s right hands and co-pilots. Their duties are many and their rest is hard to come by, but their hearts are big for the head coach, the players and the program.

Niele Ivey and Carol Owens have coached with Muffet McGraw for combined total of 31 years. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics.
Niele Ivey and Carol Owens have coached with Muffet McGraw for combined total of 31 years. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics.

Notre Dame Irish

Coach Muffet McGraw has seen her share of players come and go in almost 33 years at Notre Dame’s helm, but the same can’t be said of the Hall of Famer’s coaching staff. Associate head coach Carol Owens is in her 19th year with the Irish, and McGraw’s former point guard, Niele Ivey, is in her 12th season as assistant coach. Both were part of the program’s two National Championships – Owens as a coach and Ivey as a player – in 2001, and then in last year’s improbable title run after an injury-plagued season.

Owens was first hired in 1995, and helped recruit Ivey to South Bend. She was head coach at her alma mater, Northern Illinois, from 2005-2010, when she returned. Ivey came aboard in 2007, after injuries shortened her WNBA career. To say the staff has a family feel is an understatement.

“She will tell you that the reason our staff works so well together is we can be so competitive in the conference room, and then later we will go have lunch,” Owens said. “We can be transparent with each other, which is hard for a lot of staffs to do. And it gives us a voice. She’s been very good to us, and we care about her enough to want to work hard for her. We all have the same goals in mind.”

Owens said she will always be grateful to McGraw for hiring her for her first-ever coaching job. Her first assignment was to land highly-recruited Ivey.

“She said, ‘you have to get Niele,'” Owens said.

Ivey began her coaching career for the Irish after a stint as an assistant coach at Xavier. Initially she was a recruiter, because McGraw knew she had an eye for a good-fit player. Over the years, Ivey’s role has shapeshifted into other areas.

“Muffet has given me a lot of autonomy to wear a lot of different hats in a lot of different areas,” Ivey said. “I have been the developer, in trying to develop the point guard to having that voice with the team. I make sure that, X’s and O’s-wise, coach is comfortable with the (opponent) scout before a game.”

Owens is referred to as “the enforcer,” for taking the hard stance with athletes, when necessary. It is a role she embraces.

“I am the enforcer. I make sure, day-to-day, that they are responsible adults and that they’re learning not just how to perform on the basketball court, but academically and socially,” Owens said. “We have high expectations; everything we do is being watched. It’s life lessons too. It’s about being responsible and having accountability. I try to teach life lessons.”

She said she “can take” being the enforcer.

“I’m going to enforce those values day in and day out,” Owens said. “I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t.”

Ivey is more of a player’s coach.

“With Carol being the enforcer, I am more the coach who is relatable to players, who they feel comfortable talking to,” Ivey said. “I have that balance of being that person, but at the same time not being their friend.”

It has been quite a journey from playing for McGraw to working with her. Ivey said she has learned a lot.

“The way Muffet sees the game is very unique,” Ivey said. “I wasn’t as cerebral as a player as I was a hard worker, with great work ethic. I’ve seen it from her perspective, the way she picks defenses apart.”

“I have learned about her drive and her determination and passion to win. Seeing her behind the scenes and the time she puts in with the staff. It’s amazing for me. I knew she was passionate, but I see it from a different perspective as a coach. I try to be a sponge and take it all in.”

Assistant coaches Beth Cunningham, Niele Ivey; head coach Muffet McGraw; associate head coach Carol Owens. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics.

Owens said she “tries to take as many things off of the head coach’s plate” as possible. It means the world to McGraw.

“It’s the reason we’re successful – the continuity of the staff. They know me so well, and can go back to the player and say, ‘what she meant was,'” McGraw said. “They take care of so many little things before I even hear about them. They tell me afterwards.”

McGraw said the secret to a successful coaching staff is finding balance.

“I do like to hire complimentary people whose differences fill in some weaknesses that I have,” she said. “Carol and Niele are very much into the relationship part of coaching. Carol naturally fell into the disciplinarian role, but players know she cares about them. Niele is the same way, and you can see that in recruiting. I need to hire that, because I’m more straight to the point.”

Last season saw four Notre Dame starters suffer year-ending injuries before conference play, yet still ended in a Championship. That bonded the coaching staff, which also includes former Irish guard Beth Cunningham, for life.

“If there was any doubt about who we were as a staff, the adversity we faced last year made it apparent,” Owens said. “If we didn’t have the chemistry, it wouldn’t have worked. We had to take it all in stride, even though it was so much. But the kids had to know we believed.”

McGraw said she and her coaches had to lean on each other throughout the season.

“I want someone on that staff that I would want to be around after a loss,” McGraw said. “This is a staff when we’re in our war room we can vent and scream and let it all out. Carol especially would give me a hug walking down the hall and say, ‘you look like you needed it.’ It’s the little things that are so important.”

Every spring when head coaching jobs become available, speculation arises that Ivey will take one of the positions. She said any new job would have to be an exceptional fit.

“I’m really big on timing, and I’m looking for the right situation,” Ivey said. “I’m in a dream job being here, so the next opportunity would have to be fulfilling for myself and my son. I have interviewed for great positions with great athletic directors, but I’m leading with my heart, rather than what people think I should do.”

Associate head coach Lisa Boyer and head coach Dawn Staley both stand at the end of a game. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Lisa Boyer might be the first associate head coach to have once coached the head coach. Dawn Staley was Boyer’s star point guard for the ABL’s Richmond Rage from 1996-1998. When Staley took her first head coaching job at Temple in 2000, she contacted Boyer to be her assistant coach right away – even though Boyer was then coaching the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers.

“When the opportunity arose, I wasn’t ready to leave professional basketball,” Boyer said. “So began a three-year dance.”

Staley was playing for the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting while coaching the Owls, but she always had time to pester Boyer.

“She said she would wait, and she called me every day: ‘you coming to Temple?'” Boyer said. “She needed me, and we’re good friends, so eventually I said, ‘let’s give this thing a whirl.’ But I told her, ‘we have to win a championship.'”

Boyer joined Staley at Temple in 2003, and followed her to South Carolina five years later. Their title goal was realized in 2017 when the Gamecocks won the National Championship, after nine seasons of hard work that began with a rebuild of the program. Part of that reconstruction happened after Boyer suggested her friend change her approach in working with student-athletes to be more collaborative. The rest is history.

Staley said her resolution to hire Boyer wasn’t based on their friendship.

“A lot of times people hire friends just to hire them because they’re close to them, but they have to be the type of friends that really understand this business and know you,” Staley said. “(We) have to be cut from the same cloth when it comes to philosophy, and being good people. Boyer checked off on all those qualities.”

Coming to South Carolina was a challenge, to put it mildly.

“It wasn’t a fairy tale when we got there – it was a tough road,” Boyer said. “But we stayed after it.”

Boyer helped Staley understand how to parlay her vision to her team.

“Dawn is different from 99.9 percent of the coaches out there in that she played at the highest level. She was a professional athlete,” Boyer said. “When she communicates with them, she’s talking to them more as a player than a coach.”

“She’s unique in that she knows exactly what it’s supposed to look like. Her expectations are so different. Yes, we want them to do well and have a good skill set, but Dawn is very much into the being good teammates. We want them to be good teammates and good people.”

Staley said Boyer fulfills many roles, and differs from her in a complimentary way.

Dawn Staley conducts a timeout under the eye of Lisa Boyer. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

“I’m very comfortable with Boyer, on the court, off the court. She is somebody that will not allow anybody to mess with me,” Staley said. “She is someone that thinks like me. We’re similar in our thought process, but we’re different in our approaches. She brings great balance to me. I think she’s more high strung than I am, but we balance each other. I trust her with my life.”

Their differences play out into coaching very well.

“She can be the bad guy at times, and I can be the good guy; and it works vice versa with us,” Staley said. “I think we’re – and I’ve said this before – we’re like an old married couple. She knows what buttons to push and I know her buttons to push. It’s an odd couple. Sometimes, she’ll say ‘Why are we friends?’ For some people, it’s divine – divine in linking up with someone that you grow so close to.”

Both say that the honesty in their relationship is what makes it work.

“Dawn is very real, and she tells me the truth,” Boyer said. “There are no head games. There has to be a comfort level to share your opinions, and she may not agree with me but she’s thinking about it.”

Boyer said she always saw great potential in Staley, and is not surprised by her success.

“I used to tell her she’d be a really good coach. She’d say, ‘I don’t want to be one of you.’ Now she is,” Boyer said.

“She doesn’t need me now in the same capacity that she did before. She’s a seasoned head coach now.”

Associate head coach Johnnie Harris and head coach Vic Schaefer conduct a timeout. Kelly Price/Mississippi State Athletics.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

When Vic Schaefer took the head coaching position at Mississippi State in 2012, after 15 years as an assistant coach, he knew he had to bring someone with him to make it work: Johnnie Harris, whom he had coached with for eight years. They arrived in Starkville as a package deal.

“We worked together for many years and had great chemistry, and I knew she was the only person in the country who could help us get this done here,” Schaefer said of the elite program the two have built together. “I’ve said it many times: I wouldn’t have come here without her. She fills so many roles for us, and in so many capacities. She’s a special talent and a special person. She’s family to me, she’s like my sister. And we work well together.”

Under Schaefer, the Bulldogs went from SEC bottom feeders to elite status in relatively short order, and were National Championship runners-up in 2017 and 2018. He and Harris work symbiotically on the sidelines during games, often conducting dual coach timeouts, and conferring constantly.

Harris said they see eye to eye, which begins with a shared love of the same style of play.

“We have a mutual respect for each other,” she said. “I’ve had opportunities to leave, but I want to stay here and to make sure he is successful. I want to make sure the goals we set when we came here are fulfilled. I haven’t thought of leaving….I come to work looking for a championship with coach Schaefer.”

Harris said her duties as associate head coach are diverse.

“I do a little bit of everything: I do scouting, I do recruiting,” she said. “One of my main things is making sure the players are taken care of, (and) developing them as young women, as well as on the court. Basically, I would say my job is to make his job easier.”

That duty is of the utmost importance.

“We know each other, and I think it’s very important that you know what your boss wants,” Harris said. “I have made it my business to know what he wants and how he wants it done. When I’m in a position to make a decision when he’s not around, it might not necessarily be a decision that I would make, but it’s one that he would make.”

“We don’t agree on everything, but this is his program, and I’m going to help him run it the way he’d run it.”

Schaefer’s trust in Harris is unwavering.

“If I’m not here and there’s a critical decision that needs to be made, she knows what decision would be made if I was here, and she’s able to handle that in the blink of an eye,” Schaefer said. “I have the utmost confidence in (her).”

Both are extremely competitive and want to win, but they differ in other ways.

Vic Schaefer and Johnnie Harris high-five upon arrival in Columbus last March for the Final Four. Kelly Price/Mississippi State Athletics.

“He’s probably a lot louder than I am,” Harris said. “We are both very driven and motivated to win, but we also want to make sure we are building champions on and off the court. He always says we’re in the kid business. We’re very motivated to make sure our kids are developed both on and off the court, and to make sure they’re ready for the real world when they leave here.”

Schaefer appreciates the balance that Harris’ presence brings.

“She’s a mother, she’s a grandmother, she understands the role model piece,” he said. “She understands what young people are going through in today’s world, and she’s able to mentor not only young assistant coaches but young ladies at a very critical time in their lives. Her advice and her experiences allow her to really provide insight that a lot of people can’t give.”

As Mississippi State prepares to battle for SEC bragging rights in the season’s closing weeks, Schaefer and his team stand on a granite foundation.

“She’s family to me, and we’re blessed to have such a unique and special relationship that goes far beyond the court,” he said of Harris. “I’m blessed to have her in my life, and again, we’re family. Family comes first with her and I, and that’s the way it’ll always be.”

Chris Dailey is honored before a game last fall for her induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Athletics.

Connecticut Huskies

If there is a gold standard for longtime assistant coaches, it is called Chris Dailey.

Geno Auriemma hired her in 1985, shortly after he was named Connecticut’s head coach. Each had short-term goals in mind, with no idea of what the future in Storrs would hold.

“Neither one of us took the job thinking we’d be there as long as we have,” Dailey said. “We thought we would stay a few years, grow the program and then maybe we’d get a good job and win the National Championship.”

More than 1,000 wins, 47 conference titles and 11 championships later, Auriemma and Dailey have co-created a dynasty that has yielded countless All-Americans, and more professional players than any program in women’s basketball history.

Last year Dailey became the first assistant coach to be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and a handful of former Huskies flew to Tennessee for the ceremony, including the Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart.

Her value to Auriemma is just as immeasurable. At the 2016 Final Four, when he was presented the national Coach of the Year award, Auriemma stunned the newsroom into silence when he became teary-eyed and said he couldn’t have done what he’s done without Dailey.

“I believe the program has a reputation now….(which) is basically the way people see Chris and the way they envision her running a program,” Auriemma said. “If you were going to take my position and say you’re not going to be there for six months, how much would your program change? And I’d say not at all.”

“Going in, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to have that kind of trust and appreciation for somebody, but that’s the highest compliment that I can think of is that if I wasn’t here, I don’t think we’d miss a beat one iota. Maybe I need to take six months off. I think I should.”

Dailey’s background was in teaching. At UConn, she learned to diversify her strategies.

“I’ve always been able to break it down in a way that is understandable to players,” she said. “I have grown in that, in my own world, I like routine; I can do the same thing over and over and it would never bother me.”

“I’ve learned that mixing it up is a good thing. I’ve had to work at finding different ways to do the same thing. Repetition is important in teaching….I’ve learned a different patience that when you’re young, you don’t have.”

Chris Dailey talks to Geno Auriemma on the sidelines of a game. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Athletics.

Dailey and Auriemma’s relationship has worked because their personalities clicked, allowing them to grow together.

“We challenge each other,” Dailey said. “He doesn’t want a ‘yes’ person, and he doesn’t want a micromanager.”

Early in her tenure, Dailey said she realized Auriemma was giving her tasks that he didn’t want to do himself, including scheduling.

“I gave it right back to him, because I didn’t like that,” she said. “We formed a perfect partnership because we recognized each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We get after each other but respect each other’s opinions. We don’t always agree, but we are united in what is the best philosophy in how we want to do things.”

Auriemma said their differences spring from the same values and vision, and from their complimentary symbiosis.

“From the beginning, it was always about that we share a similar view of how a program should be run, how it should look, what characteristics we want in a player and what standards we want to hold our players to,” he said.

“That’s a big part of success is surrounding yourself with people who share the same vision as you do…..Her strengths, and how well-organized she is and how thorough she is, they compliment mine. The things Chris really enjoys doing are things that I either struggle with or don’t feel comfortable doing. It’s been an incredible partnership in every way you can imagine.”

Dailey said she appreciates Auriemma’s trust.

“Geno and I have worked together for a long time, and he’s given me ownership,” she said. “Not a lot of head coaches would give their assistants as much credit, ownership and responsibility as he has.”

Auriemma said the Husky program wouldn’t be the same without Dailey’s influence.

“When you’ve been around someone for so long, it’s really difficult to say definitively that there’s one area where CD has definitely had an impact, because it’s every area,” he said. “In every area, she’s had an impact. The success we’ve had wouldn’t have been possible without her.”

Accolades and titles aside, Dailey is amazed at the journey.

“Only when I do interviews do I realize how long it’s been, and I say ‘wow,'” she said. “That’s the great thing about coaching every year is that it’s a different team. It’s been difficult and challenging, but it’s been a fun ride, and I never would have expected it.”

“Some of the things our team and program has done is mind-boggling to me. Some of the numbers have been mind-blowing. Some day I’ll sit back, when I’m retired and we’re done, and I’ll appreciate it. It’s hard to put into words when you see the numbers.”

Tara VanDerveer and Amy Tucker confer before a game. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.

Stanford Cardinal

Amy Tucker was Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer’s assistant coach from the time she was hired at Stanford, in 1985, until she retired from coaching at the end of the 2016-2017 season to become the Cardinal’s women’s basketball administrator.

Tucker was promoted to associate head coach when VanDerveer was named coach of the 1996 Olympic team. Tucker served as interim head coach in 1995-1996, and guided Stanford to a Final Four appearance.

VanDerveer said Tucker’s continued involvement with the program is a benefit to all.

“Amy’s contributions to Stanford’s success have been immense,” VanDerveer said. “She’s incredibly knowledgeable about the game, was a wonderful teacher and fantastic communicator. Her strong interpersonal skills were key to her ability to bring out the best in players. Amy was also a gifted in-game strategist and her ability to recognize the right play to run in tense situations was very special.”

“Her work ethic is second to none, and she has an amazing eye for talent as well. Amy really found the players to put Stanford women’s basketball on the map. We were extremely fortunate to have her on the bench at Stanford for 32 years, and are really glad that she is still a part of the program.”

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