When Niele Ivey was named the next head coach of Notre Dame’s women’s basketball program last Wednesday, many players she coached as an assistant under retiring Irish coach Muffet McGraw, such as WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith — and even players she didn’t coach — put the world on notice that Notre Dame’s program will ascend to even greater heights under Ivey’s leadership.
And Diggins-Smith might be right because outside of McGraw, Ivey, is the only person who has a connection to both of Notre Dame’s national titles. She was Irish’s point guard in 2001, and she was the associate head coach in 2018.
But there is something even more significant at work here.
Over the past three decades black women have not only broken the glass ceiling in Division I NCAAW they have shattered it.
“Y’all gotta realize how historic Niele getting this ND job is. Trailblazer!” tweeted Diggins-Smith.
If you look around the college game today — specifically at power five schools — there are a dozen black head coaches, and ten are women. If you scroll back even further and look at all of Division I, that numbers swells to three dozen. According to the NCAA Demographics Database, 25% of Division NCAAW coaches are black. And 10 of those 12 coaches leading power five programs have been hired since 2012.
But being a black coach in the NCAAW does come with its challenges, such as knocking down stereotypes.
“Every time we played we wanted to present ourselves like professionals, everything we did we were looked down upon,” Stringer said last week on ESPN’s around The Rim podcast. “I knew that we were always going to be on stage, and I knew people would make a comment about anything and everything. The way that we play the game. We wanted to go away from stereotypes, it was the way that we presented ourselves.”
Watching all the showering of praise for Ivey’s work highlights the reality that college women’s basketball is the most progressive league when it comes to providing a pathway for black women to access premier jobs.
Three of the top four NCAAW basketball programs are now led by black women — which has never happened before. Ivey joins Mississippi State’s Nikki McCray in being black women at two of the nation’s top programs.
After the news about Ivey was announced, WNBA Chicago Sky star Diamond DeShields asked on twitter if she could practice with the team.
And within 24 hours, the No. 2-ranked player in ESPN’s class of 2021, high school point guard, Olivia Miles, verbally committed to Notre Dame.
The reason? Ivey
Just three decades ago, Rutgers head coach C.Vivian Stringer was the lone black woman leading a power five school. At that time she was at Iowa after starting her career at Cheyney State. And even while dealing with racist comments by radio shock jock Don Imus, during the sports’ largest stage, the 2007 Final Four, when he grossly called her players, “some nappy-headed hos there,” Stringer has endured, and thrived, focused on providing more opportunity to the black women coming up behind her.
Coaches like Stringer and former Purdue head coach and national champion, Carolyn Peck, paved the way for the next wave of black championship coaches such as South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and Ivey.
“I know that if I do well, someone is going to get a chance because of the success that we’ve had,” Staley said last week on the same podcast. “A black coach will get an opportunity because of our success and that responsibility was passed on to myself.”
Black women constitute 45 percent of Division I NCAAW players in 2019, according to the NCAA Demographics Database. Black coaches have a unique ability when they are coaching a team of black athletes to connect in a way that coaches of other backgrounds may struggle with. The prime age of 18 to 23 is when many adults go through self-discovery and struggle with how they will be seen in the world. As a black individual, maneuvering through this world takes a lot of guidance.
“We’re trying to prep you for the rest of your lives,” said Staley, who this past season was named AP coach of the year and her South Carolina squad finished No.1 in AP’s final poll. “Whether you have a big black body, small black body, short black body or girth to your black body, you’re going to be a black person, old adult, and you’re not going to be seen like everybody else. You’ve got to learn and create habits that transcend race so that people can see you for who you are — if they have a heart to do that.”
For far too long there has been a cry of, “just give us an opportunity,” and it seems that many other sports teams, both college and professional, could take some notes from NCAA women’s basketball.
It goes deeper than being a coach and mentor. The best person that can show you how to navigate this world is someone who looks like you and has walked the road you’re traveling.