Dawn Staley aims for ‘generational impact’ ahead of South Carolina’s fourth Final Four appearance

Dawn Staley
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When South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was named Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year for the second time this week, the three-time Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Famer was quick to share the spotlight.

“It really does take a village,” said Staley, who called associate head coach Lisa Boyer and assistant coaches Fred Chmiel and Jolette Law to stand beside her while posing with the trophy.

RELATED: South Carolina defeats UConn to win 2022 national title

Staley’s humble but significant gesture is indicative of the 51-year-old’s “don’t know how else to do it” persona, which is characterized by this signature move: Lifting up those around her.

But no deflection can dim the glow of Staley’s achievements ahead of her fourth Final Four appearance with the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks, who’ll face fellow top seed Louisville on Friday night in Minneapolis. She kicked off the season by securing an historic seven-year, $22.4 million contract, making her the highest-paid Black head coach in women’s college basketball and one of the highest-paid coaches in all of women’s college basketball, and to celebrate, she sent a piece of South Carolina’s 2017 national championship net to every Black female basketball college coach in Division I (nearly 70).

South Carolina’s second consecutive bid for a national title could provide the perfect ending to a 29-2 season that featured a dazzling campaign by junior forward Aliyah Boston, who was named the Naismith Women’s National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. It also could serve as a bit of personal revenge after last year’s heartbreaking semifinal loss to Stanford. With the Gamecocks down by three with less than two minutes remaining, a missed kicked-ball call resulted in a fast-break bucket for the Cardinal, who won 66-65 and went on to win the championship.

“Last year is in the past,” Staley said Tuesday, displaying a Zen-like approach to the controversial call. “It is there as part of your journey. So good, bad or indifferent, it’s a part of who we are. Like it was supposed to happen. Our paths are divinely ordered, so we’ve got to take the good and the bad and the disappointments just like we take the celebratory experiences.”

Making those experiences a reality for her players are part of Staley’s mission.

“I want to be a dream merchant for young people because my basketball career as a player was – my cup runneth over, and I wanted other people to feel that,” she said.

Staley’s own story is one that bears repeating ahead of South Carolina’s bid for a second national title. She burst onto the scene during her four years as a player for Virginia, where she was a two-time Naismith Player of the Year and led her team to three Final Four appearances – including the 1991 national championship game. She elevated her legacy as a professional, winning three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA in 1996, 2000 and 2014, and her eight-year WNBA career was highlighted by a trip to the 2001 finals with the Charlotte Sting.

But Staley’s legendary status was galvanized after she found her calling as a coach. At the 2000 women’s Final Four in Philadelphia, Staley was on hand as a spectator when she was approached by Temple University’s athletic director, Dave O’Brien, who made several attempts to woo her into coaching. She was finally swayed after O’Brien changed his tactics, challenging Staley to identify ways to improve the program.

2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball: Final Four schedule, March Madness results and scores

That fall, while still playing for Team USA as well as the WNBA, Staley took her place at the Owls’ helm and led them to their first winning season in 11 years and first postseason appearance – at the 2001 WNIT – since an NCAA tournament appearance in 1989. Staley’s teams advanced to the NCAA tournament six of the next seven years, highlighted by a 2004-05 squad that won the Atlantic 10 regular-season and conference titles and went a perfect 15-0 in conference play.

Staley admits that she was “blind” to the fact that she was a Black woman trying to make her way in the collegiate coaching ranks, and simply approached her job with the same love of the game she had as a player.

“You get into coaching, and I truly believe other people make you look at the color of your skin, by how they treat you, by how you aren’t top-tier when it comes to opportunities to coach,” she reflected. “Somebody has really failed for Black women to get an opportunity, and then when they get an opportunity, if they fail, you’re reduced to being an assistant coach. You don’t get recycled to another head coaching position.”

Her perspective sharpened as her coaching gig turned into a full-time career following her retirement from the WNBA in 2006. She left Temple for South Carolina in 2008 and has reached the NCAA Tournament 10 times with the Gamecocks, guiding the program to its first Final Four appearance in 2015, then again in 2017 and 2021. Last summer, Staley coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, winning all six games and extending her record to 45-0. Staley also coached Team USA to gold in the 2018 World Cup in Spain as well as the 2019 and 2021 FIBA AmeriCup.

“I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do,” said Staley, who on Thursday was honored with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Pat Summitt National Coach of the Year award. “I’m comfortable in my skin, and I’m comfortable being uncomfortable and making other people uncomfortable when it’s for the right thing.”

Of the 14 SEC women’s basketball programs, five are coached by Black women, and Staley revealed the group has formed an informal network of mentoring and solidarity via group texts and zoom meetings.

“We talk about it. We lift each other up,” said Staley. “When anybody gets a big win, we’re texting, because we know that if we don’t – if we aren’t successful, we go back down – got to wait another 10 years to get another go at it.

“I just feel like Black female coaches have been the voiceless, the ones that don’t really get the opportunity to fail. It is win at all costs, and if you don’t, don’t seek another opportunity.”

Staley’s knack for building relationships has undoubtedly been the “secret sauce” behind Gamecock fans’ overwhelming support for their women’s basketball program. South Carolina has led the nation in attendance every season since 2014-15, averaging more than 10,000 fans in 92 consecutive regular season home games. A sellout crowd of 18,000 was on hand for this year’s home matchup vs. Tennessee.

“We took matters into our own hands,” Staley explained Thursday. “We invited our fans into our offices. We create opportunities for them to get to know us as people, and then in return, word of mouth, they bring friends. They buy season tickets just to have, just to invite people to our games. … We give our fans access to us, and in return, they fill our arena.”

Plenty of South Carolina fans are expected to be on hand Friday at the Target Center, where the Gamecocks are the odds-on favorite vs. the Cardinals. But Louisville comes in with its own star in sophomore Hailey Van Lith. The 5-7 guard is the first Louisville player with four consecutive 20-point games in the NCAA tournament, and her 22-point performance in the Elite Eight carried the Cardinals’ offense in their 62-50 win over Michigan.

Whether or not the weekend ends with Staley donning another “netlace” – she wore the 2017 championship net as an accessory so often that her players gave it a nickname – Staley already has an idea of how she wants to be known regarding this chapter of her career.

“I want to be remembered as an odds beater – that’s one,” she said. “Then the other … I think what I want is to have generational impact. That’s what I would like to have: generational impact. Not to just impact my current players and my players, but to have impact on people, who will have impact on people, who will have impact on other people.”

NCAA Women’s Basketball – Final Four Schedule

Women’s basketball semifinal round games on Friday, April 1, 2022:

Teams

Time (ET)

TV Channel

Location

No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Louisville 7 p.m. ESPN Minneapolis, Minnesota
No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 2 UConn 9:30 p.m. ESPN Minneapolis, Minnesota

2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship Game – Sunday, April 3, 2022

Teams Time (ET) TV Channel Location
TBD vs. TBD 8 p.m. ESPN Minneapolis, Minnesota

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