Noie: How will second time be smoother for Notre Dame women's coach Niele Ivey?

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND – Standing at midcourt as she offered instructions at practice Friday, second-year Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey held only a single sheet of paper – likely the practice plan – in her right hand. 

The irony was obvious.

Last year at this time, it was hard for Ivey to do anything as freely. Not in the middle of a global pandemic, which tossed normal out the window and left the then-rookie head coach with not enough free hands for all she had to carry and hold and juggle.

Seldom could she simply lock in on what she was there to do – coach, teach, lead, motivate. It wasn’t so much about working on defensive positioning drills as it was following pandemic protocols. It wasn’t about running a specific halfcourt set as it was worrying about the latest contact tracing results. The Irish lost games. They lost players. They lost practice time. They lost. 

Second-year head coach Niele Ivey looks forward to a more normal year on the sideline for Notre Dame.

Last season was a mess, for myriad reasons. Ivey and the Irish didn’t live day to day. Sometimes, they existed hour to hour. Or minute to minute. It’s a wonder how the program even got to 10-10, the first time the Irish finished .500 since 1983-84. Piggyback that off the previous year’s 13-18 slog and it marked the first time in program history that Notre Dame had gone .500 or worse in consecutive seasons. 

Unacceptable? Absolutely. Understandable? Certainly. 

The whole season seemed a circus. Look hard and you could almost see the clowns; you could hear the Calliope music. All under the big top that was Purcell Pavilion. Without elephants, though look closer and they also were in the room.

Every day was a new day. Sometimes fulfilling, often frustrating, but all part of being a first-year coach for one of the nation’s premier women’s college basketball programs. It wasn’t going to be easy, and it wasn’t. Ivey knew that before she fled the NBA and her job as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies to return to the alma mater to succeed a certain Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer who refused to look over her protégé's shoulder. 

Ivey had a plan. Then the pandemic had one.

The pandemic won.

“For me, I just learned on the fly, to be honest,” the 44-year-old Ivey said Friday during a 12-minute meeting with local reporters that passed for Media Day. “I had to adjust. I had to adapt. That was the part where I felt like I really grew by the end of the year.” 

It was a year to grow and adjust and adapt and learn some hard lessons, tops being that it wasn’t going to look as it did late in Ivey’s tenure as an assistant coach when Notre Dame averaged a ridiculous 34.8 victories over an eight-year span (2012-19), made two trips to the NCAA Tournament championship game and won the school’s second national title in 2018. Thanks again for that heart-stopper, Arike. 

Eventually, that run was going to run its course. The magic would disappear. It did. That cast of characters maxed out their time at Notre Dame. So did the Hall of Fame head coach. It was fun while it lasted, even if that 2018-19 outfit often acted like it all was a burden/bother. 

If you know, you know. 

That group is long gone. So is the coach. The program's streak of 24 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament? Also gone under Ivey's watch. Time for a new core to start their own streak and make their own climb. Nobody knows where it might lead. But it will be fun to find out if the NCAA tournament, the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, the Final Four all again become routine or more a pipe dream. 

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Last season was a struggle for myriad reasons for then-first year head coach Niele Ivey at Notre Dame.

Everything again feels like normal 

Give this program time under normal ones. Give Ivey time. Last year certainly wasn’t much of it and not enough of it to make any definitive declarations about the future – immediate or otherwise. 

Still, there were no excuses, offered or accepted, from Ivey. It’s not like she awoke on March 5 – the day after the season ended – and thought, wow, that was hard. Pandemic or not, she tried to make it all work. 

“She never took it easy on us,” said junior forward Sam Brunelle. “She always pushed us. It was that championship mindset that we want to have here.” 

Instead of chasing championships, Notre Dame was losing its opener to Ohio — Ohio!?! — then bouncing back with a win. That’s how the first few weeks would go — lose, win, lose, win. Four losses the first 23 days. Remember that staggering eight-year run? Notre Dame lost as many as four games all season only three times. And never more. 

It didn’t deter Ivey. It couldn’t. She refused to use it as a crutch when she well could have and was determined to better because of it. 

“I knew the landscape of last year was going to be difficult for everyone,” she said. “I just wanted to navigate through it. Try to take the positives from each loss, the positive from every less and try to move forward.” 

Move toward a normal year, which finally showed signs of returning in the summer. That’s when Ivey and the Irish could have an actual offseason. Together. On campus. In the classroom of the basketball court. Away from it all as well, at the head coach’s home for lunches and dinners where Ivey could finally get to know her players without having to worry about reading body language behind masks. 

The Irish spent so much time together in June and July and August that they actually started to feel like a team, not those perfect strangers of last season. The Irish played for Ivey last season, but it many ways, they didn't know her.

That changed in the summer.

"I think they have an even better understanding of who I am and how I'm leading this program," Ivey said. "I want my players to know my passion. I want them to know my why."

That has carried over to the practice court, where all they have to concern themselves with is basketball. With getting better. With getting back to the standard that this program expects. With maybe even raising the bar. As much as Ivey learned about herself last season, her players also learned something about their head coach. 

“The way that she approached every day knowing what a challenge it was, and knowing all the unknowns and uncertainties of what last year was, her approach every day was incredible,” said sophomore forward Maddy Westbeld. “It was inspiring to see and play for somebody who has that mentality.” 

Everything now seems so much fresher. Pure. Organic. Nothing’s forced, and everyone’s vaxed. The season feels like a season. Prior to Friday’s workout, the Irish gathered at center court of Purcell to practice/perfect their handshakes with one another. Couldn’t do that last year. Can now. 

Ivey still feels like a rookie coach. Kind of. Save for having run through her initial round of firsts — first loss, first home win, first league win — she can’t wait for what Year Two brings. She can’t wait to see the home arena filled with 9,000 fans wearing their gaudy green T-shirts and waving those glow sticks. She can’t wait to go on the road and see how her team responds to — and maybe even quiets — a crazed crowd. She can’t wait to be in tough moments and see Notre Dame figure it out. 

She can’t wait for any of it. She wants all of it win, lose or otherwise. 

“That’s what you love about basketball,” Ivey said. “That’s what I love.” 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI

2021-22 ND WOMEN'S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE

(Purcell Pavilion homes games in ALL CAPS; all times Eastern)

NOVEMBER

1: EMPORIA STATE (exhibition), 7 p.m.

9: OHIO, 7

11: WESTERN ILLINOIS, 7 

14: At Syracuse, noon

18: FORDHAM, 7

21: BRYANT, 5

26: Georgia, 4:30, (Daytona Beach Invitational)

27: Oregon State, 7,  (Daytona Beach Invitational)

DECEMBER

2: At Michigan State, 8 (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)

5: At Connecticut, noon

8: At Valparaiso, 7

12: PURDUE-FORT WAYNE, 2

19: PITTSBURGH, 2

22: At DePaul, TBA

30: At Virginia, 7

JANUARY

2: At Duke, 2

9: N.C. STATE, 2

13 At Wake Forest, 7

16: NORTH CAROLINA, 1

20: At Boston College, 8

23: At Pittsburgh, 2

27: SYRACUSE, 8

30: BOSTON COLLEGE, 2

FEBRUARY

3: VIRGINIA TECH, 8

6: At Florida State, 2

10: MIAMI, 8

13: At Louisville, 2

17: At Georgia Tech, 8

24: CLEMSON, 8

27: LOUISVILLE, TBA