Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw’s surprise announcement yesterday that she was retiring was followed quickly by the naming of her successor.
Longtime assistant coach and former Irish standout Niele Ivey’s appointment to the job, replacing her Hall of Fame coach after 33 seasons, was met by as much excitement as McGraw’s retirement caused shock waves. But athletic director Jack Swarbrick said today that the hire was the result of two years of planning.
“She was a coach in waiting when she became the head of recruiting for Notre Dame women’s basketball, and she was a coach in waiting when we made her the associate head coach several years ago,” Swarbrick said.
“The real question was whether we could hold on to Niele, and I think that’s really a measure of how good a fit this is. (It was) not only that we identified for so long that she was the right successor to Muffet.”
The conversation began about two years ago, when Swarbrick asked McGraw whom she would want to replace her when she eventually retired.
“Coach McGraw identified coach Ivey, but that wasn’t news to me,” Swarbrick said. “I had attended enough practices and saw enough of her interaction with the student-athletes to know what Niele was a future head coach, and hopefully a future head coach at Notre Dame.”
Swarbrick began an open dialogue with Ivey on the subject.
“She and I talked a lot over the past two years, as other opportunities came her way,” Swarbrick said. “And as we were thinking about our future, (I) encouraged her to hold on for this moment.”
Ivey helped the Irish win their first of two National Championships in 2001, and she returned to South Bend in 2007 as McGraw’s assistant coach. But last spring she surprised many when she departed to be an assistant coach for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Yet, it was a move that Swarbrick liked.
“When the Grizzlies opportunity came along, we thought it was the perfect sabbatical,” he said. “We loved the notion of Niele seeing a different program and learning from the NBA level of expertise and bringing that knowledge back.”
McGraw made her decision only recently, according to Swarbrick. He didn’t consider anyone else for the job besides Ivey.
“She has a tremendous future,” McGraw said. “She’s going to be a great head coach, and she’s really ready to take that on.”
Ivey said it wouldn’t be easy following in her mentor’s footsteps, but she knows that the right way for her to lead will be to use the strengths she has in building relationships.
“I try as hard as I can to bring the best out of my girls, and to be there for them to grow,” Ivey said. “I think my mission is to love and to serve as a mentor, and I’m going to live by those values.”
For all the differences between McGraw and Ivey, their playing philosophy is very similar.
“You’re going to see a lot of the same style of play…..up tempo,” Ivey said.
She has spoken with many Notre Dame basketball alumni, and said they are excited for her. She has also spoken with players on the current roster, which she described as “emotional.” Ivey is also looking forward to interacting with fans.
“We have such great support here. That is, I feel like they’ve embraced our program from the beginning,” Ivey said. “It’s going to be great to….immerse myself in the community, because some of our fans were there when I was a player.”
She said she wants fans to understand they are part of the program.
“They are the sixth man,” Ivey said.
Her year in the NBA taught her many things, but there was also a benefit to not being gone too long.
“Fortunately I’m not foo far removed, and I still have those relationships,” Ivey said of recruiting new players. “I’m just going to hit the ground running.”