South Carolina’s Dawn Staley becomes force on, off the court

Dawn Staley swore over and over during her playing days that she would never become a coach. Apparently, everyone could see it in her future, everyone but her.

In his role as an elite point guard, he was always training.

Reluctantly, Staley finally accepted her fate and became the head coach of the Temple women’s basketball team.

Now, 22 years later, she is the first black female coach to win two NCAA national championships. Aside from Staley, there have only been five to win one in Division 1 men’s and women’s basketball history: John Thompson, Georgetown, 1984; Nolan Richardson, Arkansas, 1994; Tubby Smith, Kentucky, 1998; Carolyn Peck, Purdue, 1999; Kevin Ollie, University of Connecticut, 2014.

Staley’s success has also given her the platform to champion issues off the court and she continues to speak out about gender equity, diversity and opportunity for women.

“I’m not looking for it,” Staley recently told The Associated Press. “If they ask me, I will answer. Why? It’s the right thing to do.”

While Staley isn’t looking for notoriety, basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said she’s inspired and everyone is listening to what she has to say.

“It’s a voice that’s not just about South Carolina,” said Antonelli, who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June.

“When you are a young coach, you talk about yourself and your team,” Antonelli continued. “When you are a veteran coach, you become a servant of the game… she has accepted it.”

Not that it came easily.

Staley repeatedly told the late Temple athletic director Dave O’Brien that she didn’t want the coaching job until she changed her mind in 2000.

Then, after eight seasons with the Owls, Staley worried that his move to South Carolina might be “career suicide” if he couldn’t move up quickly against Southeastern Conference powerhouses like Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, and Georgia.

It turned out to be the best move he could have made.

Last year, he guided the US women’s national team to Olympic gold last summer, beat UConn 64-49 in the NCAA title game and has a collection of coach of the year awards, including The Associated Press, Naismith and SEC. She heads to Los Angeles with the Aliyah Boston Center for Friday’s Wooden Award ceremonies.

There is no doubt that Staley is at the top of his game; South Carolina lawmakers honored the Gamecocks on Wednesday and next Wednesday they will be the stars of a parade in downtown Columbia.

It all culminates in a hectic 12-month stretch during which Staley became champion of the sport, and for it.

On the court, the Gamecocks fulfilled their one-year goal of a national crown after falling to Stanford in the semifinals of the 2021 Final Four.

Staley barely had time to unpack before her duties as coach of the US Olympic team kicked her off with training camps, playing in the AmeriCup to qualify for the FIBA ​​World Cup in Australia this September, all before heading to Japan for the Olympics delayed by COVID-19.

She spoke to the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers in June about their coaching vacancy, saying they were treating her like “a real candidate” and not a token interview.

Staley led the US team to the gold medal last August.

“When I came back, it was time to start with them,” Staley told the AP as he prepared for his run to the bluebird in Minneapolis, nodding to his players during a team dinner.

However, before the season began, Staley received a long-term contract from South Carolina worth $22.4 million. He earned $2.9 million this season, one of the highest salaries in the game.

It wasn’t about the money, Staley said, “but it takes money to make this recognition revealing.”

Recognition that came when South Carolina began the season No. 1 and never relinquished that ranking despite a couple of upsets, including a 64-62 loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship game.

“We knew we had to keep our focus,” Staley said. “The big picture was still out there.”

South Carolina was never seriously challenged in its six NCAA Tournament games. The closest game was a 69-61 win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16 when AP Player of the Year Aliyah Boston scored all 13 of her team’s points in the fourth quarter to hold off the Tar Heels.

Staley is often challenged off the court.

But Staley has combined her success as a coach with her views on how best to grow the game. She said she had several Zoom calls with other top coaches, including Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and UConn’s Geno Auriemma, during the offseason about how to continue to grow the game.

“They were informative,” Staley said. “Mostly I listened.”

She also listens to her players, connecting with high school students with an easy style. During a Final Four award ceremony, all the Gamecock players were looking at her phones with their heads down. Nearby, Staley was also typing on her phone.

“That’s Dawn,” said Lisa Boyer, a longtime assistant from South Carolina.

Guard Zia Cooke, 21, added: “Sometimes she’s like a mother figure and other times a best friend.”

Then there are times when she is an activist.

Rebecca Lobo believes Staley is the strong female voice the sport needs, women like the late Pat Summit in Tennessee or Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame’s recently retired head coach.

“She’s not afraid to talk about what she feels is right, what she feels is wrong,” said Lobo, a teammate of Staley’s on the gold-medal-winning American team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “Even if it may be 100 percent her personality, she’s sliding into that very naturally.”

As South Carolina assistant Boyer says, that’s Staley’s style.

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top

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