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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer

Coleman: Eternally Irish — My love letter to Muffet and Niele

For as long as I can remember, I have been a Notre Dame fan. That’s just part of being from South Bend. My grandparents gave me Notre Dame onesies when I was a baby. At one point, I remember having a navy and gold cheer skirt when I was a toddler. As a child, I loved Notre Dame sports unconditionally and unquestioningly.

But the first Irish sport that I grew to love on my own was women’s basketball. For many years, my godparents bought season tickets and took me along to several home games a season. Purcell Pavilion was a short drive from their house on E. Angela Blvd. Back then, Notre Dame seemed like an enormous, nebulous campus that I thought I would always feel small on.

As of the publication of this column, I’m just over two weeks from retiring as one of The Observer’s assistant managing editors. Somehow, that smallness turned out to be not true. After I got over my initial culture shock, we’d stop at the Hammes Bookstore and grab some concessions — I always opted for a hot dog and popcorn — and found our seats. Those games, as the kids say, were like a movie. These were the early 2010s, so I got to watch future WNBA stars Skylar Diggins-Smith, Natalie Achonwa, Michaela Mabrey and Jewell Loyd at the start of their careers. Their grit and sheer talent always blew me away no matter how many times I saw them play in person or on TV.

No matter who was on the team or how I watched them, the one constant I could count on was Muffet McGraw. Even though Muffet has no idea who I am, I feel like we have a special connection. She won her first national championship in 2001, the year I was born. More importantly, she was one of my first tangible examples of women taking up space in traditionally male-dominated professions. Surrounded by all-female coaching staffs, Muffet remained a rock-solid leader, no matter if her team was winning or losing. Seeing Muffet’s team of coaches beside her at the helm of an objectively and consistently fantastic program would shape me as a female leader for years to come. I learned as much about what it means to be a strong woman from the sideline as I did watching the players in the game.

After hearing the news of Muffet’s retirement in 2020, I, like many Notre Dame fans, was heartbroken. How do you replace an institution like Muffet McGraw after over 30 seasons? Who would continue to lead this team to college basketball greatness?

The answer is Niele Ivey. After watching Ivey take the lead of the program for the last two seasons and considering her previous coaching at the University, I am convinced Ivey will carve out her own legacy and reach phenom status, just like McGraw. Though she had a rough go her first season, Ivey has had incredible success turning the program around over the last two years. I was thrilled to hear she was named ACC Coach of the Year at the beginning of this week. In addition to her incredible presence both on the sideline and on social media, I know I would have been equally blown away by Ivey's work as head coach when I was an Irish fan in the 2010s as I was by McGraw's coaching.

I can't wait to see where Ivey takes my favorite Notre Dame team next.