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Columbia Business Monthly

Dawn Staley

Mar 09, 2020 03:33PM ● By Kiki Wooley
Catapulting South Carolina into the national spotlight, Dawn Staley has made the Gamecocks a mainstay in the battle for SEC and national championships. In 2017-18, she capped her first decade in Garnet and Black by leading her team to its fourth-straight SEC Tournament title, the first four-peat champion in league history, and celebrating the program’s first National Player of the Year and No. 1 WNBA Draft pick in A’ja Wilson. The Gamecocks went on to sign the first No. 1 recruiting class in program history, landing four of the nation’s top 13 prospects in the Class of 2019.
       While her coaching career is in full bloom, Staley is still recognized for her body of work as a one of the most decorated participants in United States women’s basketball history. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame solidified that legacy with her enshrinement as part of the Class of 2013. The Phoenix Club of Philadelphia established the Dawn Staley Award recognizing the nation’s top guard in women’s Division I basketball in 2013 as well. Staley was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012 and was one of the final nominees for induction to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame the same year. In the summer of 2011, the WNBA recognized her as one of the league’s “Top 15,” honoring the most influential players in the league’s history.
       In her 19 seasons as a head coach, Staley has amassed a 445-177 (.715) record, including her 273-97 (.738) slate in her 11 seasons at South Carolina. She has led her teams to nine 25-win seasons, a total of 16 postseason appearances (two WNIT) and 91 weeks in the Associated Press top 10, including 12 in the No. 1 spot. Also a force in USA Basketball, she was named the U.S. Women’s National Team head coach for 2017-20, already leading the U.S. to 2018 FIBA World Cup gold to earn USAB National Coach of the Year honors. Prior to that appointment, Staley led three other U.S. teams to gold medals – 2015 FIBA U19 World Championships, 2014 FIBA U18 Americas Championship, 2007 Pan Am Games – and served as an assistant on the Senior National Team 2006-08 and again 2014-16, during which the U.S. claimed gold in the 2014 FIBA World Championship and the 2008 and 2016 Olympics.
       At the helm of the Gamecocks over the last 11 seasons, Staley has been named National Coach of the Year (2014, Basketball Times), a Naismith National Coach of the Year Finalist (2014, 2015, 2016), SEC Coach of the Year (2014, Coaches and AP; 2015, Coaches; 2016, Coaches and AP) and BCA Female Coach of the Year (2012). She became the fastest coach to 200 wins in program history, needing just 277 games at South Carolina to reach the plateau.
       Under Staley’s leadership, five Gamecocks have collected 10 All-America selections, two have picked up five SEC Player of the Year honors, two have earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year recognition a total of three times, one has been the SEC 6th Player of the Year and five were named SEC Freshman of the Year. She has coached 15 Gamecocks to All-SEC honors a combined 29 times, including 12 first-team selections, and six Gamecocks have been selected in the WNBA Draft in the last four seasons, including 2018 No. 1 pick A’ja Wilson who went on to earn WNBA Rookie of the Year honors a year after Allisha Gray became the first Gamecock to capture the honor in 2017. Two other Gamecock draftees earned WNBA All-Rookie Team honors as well.
       On Staley’s watch, the Gamecocks are enjoying the most sustained success in program history. After posting back-to-back 25-win seasons in 2011-12 and 2012-13 for the first time in more than 30 years, the 2014-15 team broke the school record with 34 wins. South Carolina won more SEC games than the season before in each of her first seven seasons, culminating in the 2015-16 team recording just the second 16-0 conference record in league history. Staley’s 122 SEC wins account for 65.6 percent of the program’s total 186 wins over its 27 seasons in the league. She has delivered the only SEC championships in program history, and she has helped the Gamecocks to eight of the program’s nine top-four finishes in the SEC. Off the court, Staley’s Gamecocks have been active in the community and thriving in the classroom. Every student-athlete who completed her eligibility under Staley at South Carolina has graduated or is on track to graduate.
       After a humbling beginning to Staley’s South Carolina tenure in 2008-09 (10-18, 2-12 SEC), the Gamecocks posted three wins over nationally ranked teams in 2009-10 and lifted their SEC record to 7-9, the largest one-season percentage jump for the program since the 2005-06 group turned a 2-12 mark the previous season into a 7-7 league slate. Staley’s postseason debut with South Carolina came the next season as the Gamecocks played into the second round of the 2011 WNIT. The berth was small consolation to a young team that, in late February, had been on track to earn an NCAA Tournament berth after defeating a pair of nationally ranked league opponents and finishing fifth in the SEC.
       The tide shifted significantly in 2011-12, as the Gamecocks proved they were odds-beaters in the image of their head coach. Staley rallied a team that had lost its top two scorers to a 14-2 record through the first week in January. South Carolina closed the regular season with 20 wins with four of those coming over nationally ranked opponents, including the program’s first ever win at Tennessee. The Gamecocks pushed their way into the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time in school history, which all but confirmed their place in the NCAA Tournament, where they were unfazed by the pressure of taking down a higher-seeded team on its home court en route to the first Sweet 16 appearance of Staley’s coaching career. Ranked No. 25 at season’s end, it was the first of three straight seasons with a final national ranking and the program’s first since 2002-03.
       Staley’s 2012-13 team posted a series of new milestones for the program in the SEC era – second-best overall winning percentage (25-8, .758), a school-record 11 SEC victories and the highest final ranking (17 by the Associated Press) since the 2002-03 team finished 16th. A loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament suddenly felt unacceptable for the program, and the 2013-14 team immediately set about righting that wrong. Despite their youth – no four-year student-athletes on the roster – the Gamecocks took a 12-1 record into SEC action and proceeded to rattle off four wins to open that slate. Winning 10 of their last 12 games, the Gamecocks secured their first SEC regular-season championship, which they celebrated with over 10,000 fans at each of their final two home games. South Carolina had surpassed its win total of the previous two seasons before the regular-season had even finished and spent four weeks ranked among the top five teams in the nation (AP), peaking at No. 4 to match the program’s highest ranking since Jan. 10, 1982. The Gamecocks dominated the league postseason awards, as Staley’s first SEC Coach of the Year recognition joined a chorus of others – the second sophomore to earn SEC Player of the Year honors in league history and the first SEC Freshman of the Year to also earn another of the highest individual honors with SEC Co-Sixth Player of the Year. The team experienced yet another program first when it earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the Gamecocks advanced to the Sweet 16 before their historic season ended – a new standard clearly set for the future.
       For 2014-15, Staley added the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, including the top-ranked player in the class, to a roster that lost just two letterwinners from the SEC championship campaign. The combination catapulted South Carolina to No. 2 in the preseason polls, and the newcomers blended seamlessly with the veterans to move the Gamecocks into their first No. 1 ranking on Nov. 24, 2014, making Staley just the second woman in history to both play for and coach a No. 1-ranked team. Staley guided her team through a perfect non-conference slate, including a win at No. 9/8 Duke that kept the program atop the national rankings heading into SEC action. The Gamecocks’ win streak more than doubled the previous school record of 10, stretching to 22 to extend their time at No. 1 to 12 weeks, the third-longest stay by any program in five seasons. A 15-1 SEC record secured a share of the regular-season title and put the Gamecocks into the SEC Tournament as the top seed for the second-straight year. The league coaches again showered South Carolina with awards – co-Coach of the Year, Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Scholar-Athlete of the Year and four all-conference selections, including three on the first team. The Gamecocks celebrated with a dominating run to their first SEC Tournament championship game, which they proceeded to win with a commanding performance that also set the stage for a second-consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The 2014-15 team was on a mission to surpass the program’s best ever finish in the event, and South Carolina overpowered its first two opponents despite the pressure of hosting games for the first time since 2002. The Gamecocks used the determination and guile they learned from Staley to rally past first North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and then Florida State in the Elite Eight to win the Greensboro Regional and advance to the first NCAA Final Four in program history.
       In 2015-16, Staley became the first SEC coach to earn league Coach of the Year honors in three straight seasons after she led the Gamecocks to just the second 16-0 conference record in league history. South Carolina also became the first SEC program to capture league Player of the Year honors in three straight seasons and answered the barrage of awards by repeating as SEC Tournament champions. The Gamecocks recorded a school-record 13 wins over ranked opponents and were ranked among the top three in the nation throughout the season. The program posted its first official sellout of Colonial Life Arena, welcoming 18,000 rowdy fans for the No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle against UConn on Feb. 8, 2016, and the Gamecocks played in front of no fewer than 10,000 fans in any of its 17 home games on the season.
       The program’s climb reached its pinnacle in 2016-17 with its first NCAA National Championship. The Gamecocks proved their resilience throughout the season, learning and adapting after each of their four losses and overcoming what proved to be a season-ending injury to First-Team All-SEC center Alaina Coates in the final game of the regular season. Staley’s commitment to having her team focus on what it could control paid off as the Gamecocks capitalized on nearly homecourt conditions to win their third-straight SEC Tournament in Greenville, S.C., with a dominant fourth quarter in the title game. Staley adjusted her tactics with her abbreviated lineup in the NCAA Tournament and, after avoiding a second-round scare against under-seeded Arizona State, the Gamecocks stormed through the next four games to earn the program’s first NCAA National Championship, an underdog all the way.
       After losing three top-10 WNBA Draft picks from the national title team, the Gamecocks again played the role of the undervalued in 2017-18, but Staley once again drove her team to thrive in the role. Injuries hampered South Carolina at key points in conference play, hampering Staley’s quest for a fifth-straight SEC regular-season title. Once again, the odds-beater mentality took ahold of the Gamecocks heading into the SEC Tournament, seeded No. 2 for the first time in five seasons. Facing the nation’s No. 12, No. 19 and No. 2 teams in the nation, South Carolina became the first team in league history to win the event four consecutive times, topping those teams by an average of 14.7 points per game. The momentum carried over to the NCAA Tournament where the Gamecocks overpowered upstart Buffalo to advance to the Elite 8 for the third time in four seasons.
       Staley led her team into what outsiders perceived to be a rebuilding year in 2018-19, but the “odds-beater” struck again. After opening the season 4-4 against a schedule laden with top-10 opponents, the Gamecocks won 13 of their next 14 games to put themselves in position to battle for a fifth SEC regular-season title – a goal was still in play in the final game of the regular season as a win in that outing would have delivered a share of the championship. Three Gamecocks were named to the All-SEC Second Team and two others were recognized on the SEC All-Freshman Team. South Carolina picked up the No. 4 seed in the Greensboro Region of the NCAA Tournament, and Staley coached her squad to the Sweet 16for the sixth-straight season.

       Prior to taking the helm of the Gamecocks, Staley made her coaching debut at Temple, helping the Owls reach the postseason seven times in her eight seasons on the bench, including six NCAA Tournament appearances. Temple posted 20 or more wins in a season six times, collected the first A-10 Tournament title in school history in Staley’s second season (2002) and captured the program’s first national ranking. The Owls became just the second team in A-10 history to collect three straight conference tournament titles, winning the event in 2004, 2005 and 2006, as well.
       With a 172-80 record, Staley left Temple as the winningest coach in its women’s basketball history and was the fastest to reach 100 victories. En route to that .683 winning percentage, Staley earned WBCA Region 1 Coach of the Year honors in 2005, was twice named A-10 Coach of the Year (2004, 2005), and guided the team to a share of the regular-season A-10 title in 2007-08. She built that success on a foundation of discipline and caring.
       “A lot of people think that X’s and O’s are the biggest part of coaching, but it’s actually very little,” Staley said. “It’s about relationships and discipline. I truly believe that the disciplined person can do anything, so I try to set up a platform on which student-athletes can be disciplined. With that, I want to build a family atmosphere that includes both the staff and the student-athletes. Once those things are in place, the basketball part becomes very easy because everyone wants to win for each other. We want to work for one another; we want to prepare people to be successful.”
       Staley has carried that coaching philosophy to USA Basketball, where her presence on the coaching staff has become as ubiquitous as it was on the court for nearly a decade beginning in 1994. In an international coaching tenure that began in 2006, Staley has thrived both in the head chair and as an assistant, helping the U.S. amass seven gold medals. After two terms as an assistant coach with the Senior National Team, first joining that group in 2006, and three head coaching assignment in the organization, Staley was named head coach of the Senior National Team for 2017-20.
       “USA basketball has always been like utopia for me because it creates an environment where it doesn’t really matter what you’ve done personally in your career,” Staley said. “You set all of that aside for one common goal, and that is to win a gold medal. To be part of the coaching staff there now feels like the natural progression for me. I’ve given a lot to USA Basketball, and USA Basketball has given a lot back to me. I would do anything to ensure that our country is successful, because other countries are catching up. It’s in my blood to be part of USA Basketball.”
       Her first coaching role on a national team level was as an assistant with the 2006 World Championship team, and, following that team’s success, she was asked to stay with the team through the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The U.S. won its fourth-straight Olympic gold medal -- all with Staley involved in some capacity -- that year. In between those two events, she helped the U.S. to a gold medal at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship in Chile. While she worked with the Senior National Team, Staley also took on a head coaching role for the 2007 USA Pan American Games Team, leading the college players to a perfect 5-0 record and a gold medal against more veteran international squads.
       After stepping away from USA Basketball during the next Olympic cycle, Staley returned to the fold in 2014, again taking on dual roles within the organization. She kicked off the stretch with her second head coaching gold medal, leading the U.S. to gold in the FIBA U18 Americas Championship and closed the year as an assistant on the 2014 FIBA World Championship gold-medal team. In 2015, she added to her coaching gold-medal count with a U.S. victory in the FIBA U19 World Championships, which earned her USA Basketball Co-National Coach of the Year honors and made her the first person to earn both Coach and Athlete of the Year selections from the organization. In 2016, Staley picked up another gold medal as she was an assistant on the Rio Olympic team that captured its sixth-straight Olympic gold medal.
       As a player, success came early in Staley’s career, beginning with being named USA Today’s National High School Player of the year in 1988 as a senior at Dobbins Tech. She went on to a four-year career at the University of Virginia that featured three trips to the NCAA Final Four, including a championship game appearance in 1991 after which she was named Most Outstanding Player. A two-time National Player of the Year (1991, 1992) and three-time Kodak All-American (1990, 1991, 1992), Staley was the ACC Player of the Year in 1991 and 1992 and the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1989. Finishing her career as the only player in ACC history – male or female – to record more than 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 700 assists and 400 steals, Staley is one of three players at Virginia to have her jersey retired. She was named to the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Women’s Basketball Team in 2002 and earned a spot on’s “Top Players of the Past 25 Years.” In April 2008, she was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
       On the international scene, Staley made her first appearance in a USA Basketball uniform as a member of the 1989 Junior World Championship Team and 15 years later played her final international game after helping the organization to a 196-10 record. Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 highlight her collection of 10 gold medals and one bronze on the world stage.
       “When I was standing on the podium receiving my gold medal, I got a vision of young people who are less driven, who think that their opportunities to succeed are bleak,” Staley said. “I try to equate it to the things I’ve gone through growing up in the housing projects of Philadelphia. I want those young people to feel what I’m feeling, because it’s an incredible feeling to be able to realize your dream. There is no better feeling in the world than to accomplish something you worked so hard for and the people told you that you couldn’t do just because of the color of your skin or the place you grew up or maybe just bad luck.”
       Staley was also on two FIBA World Championship gold-medal teams (1998, 2002). Twice named USA Basketball’s Female Athlete of the Year (1994, 2004), Staley counts carrying the U.S. flag in front of the United States delegation in the 2004 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony among her most gratifying moments on the international stage.
       “Being asked to carry the flag into the opening ceremony caught me off guard,” Staley admitted. “It’s not something I ever dreamt of or aspired to do, but it was so meaningful. It was such a prestigious thing to be able to do. I believe that if you live right and try to do the right things, things will happen to you that will catch you off guard but that are so gratifying for you. Being chosen to carry the flag for the whole United States team is one of those moments in the story of my life.”
       Following the 1996 Olympic Games, Staley joined the Richmond Rage of the ABL, one of two women’s basketball professional leagues started in the wake of USA Basketball’s success on the world stage. After two all-star seasons with the organization, she switched leagues, signing with the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting in 1999. Including the 2005 and 2006 seasons with the Houston Comets, Staley played in the WNBA All-Star game five times and was the first player in league history to represent both the East and West teams during her career. A member of the WNBA’s All-Decade Team, as selected by a panel of national and WNBA-market media as well as the league’s players and coaches, Staley twice earned the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award (1999, 2006) and won the WNBA Entrepreneurial Spirit Award in 1999. Following her retirement from the league, the WNBA began awarding the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award in 2007, honoring the player who best exemplifies the characteristics of a leader in the community in which she works or lives.
       Staley lives that mantra daily not only through individual appearances and in encouraging her teams to pursue community services opportunities, but also through co-founding INNERSOLE. Since her arrival at South Carolina, she has continually invested time with various projects in Columbia, but found that she craved one hallmark initiative that could provide sustained assistance and create lasting change in one of her favorite constituencies – children. In July 2013, Staley found that in the creation of INNERSOLE, which aims to provide new sneakers to children who are homeless and children who are in need. Remembering the feeling of confidence and pride she felt as a child whenever she wore new sneakers, Staley initially launched the organization via social media, and her broad network of friends, fans and colleagues immediately leapt into action. Shoes poured in from all around the country, and a movement was born.
       “It is important for me to give back because I have been given so much,” Staley said. “I am blessed, and I want to share my vision. I want to share my hope with people who are under-privileged and think they can’t be successful with what they have. I was given some God-given talent to play basketball, but I think everyone has God-given talent to do something. It is important to help young people figure out what that is.”
       Local and national organizations have recognized Staley’s commitment to giving back, most recently with the Columbia Chamber naming her its 2017 Ambassador of the Year. In 2013, then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley tabbed Staley to receive the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor from the governor bestowed on those who have displayed significant achievement and service to the state. Staley has twice been presented the Wanamaker Award (1997, 2005), presented annually to the athlete, team or organization that has done the most to reflect credit upon Philadelphia and to the team or sport in which he/she excels. She is the only individual woman to ever win the award and joins Joe Frazier and Steve Carlton as the only individuals to capture the honor twice. In 2007, the Rotary Club of Tulsa named Staley its female recipient of the Henry P. Iba Citizenship Award, which is presented annually to the male and female athlete who has excelled in both their sport and their service to others.
       Staley was honored by the University of Virginia Women’s Center in 2006 with the Center’s Distinguished Alumna Award, which honors a female graduate of the University who has demonstrated excellence, leadership and extraordinary commitment to her field and who has used her talents as a positive force for change. The University further recognized Staley’s standing in the community when it asked her to give the valedictory address at the 2009 Valedictory Exercises.
       Following the South Carolina’s National Championship, both of Staley’s hometowns renamed streets in her honor with Columbia Mayor Steven K. Benjamin renaming Lincoln Street from College Street to Blossom Street Dawn Staley Way, which leads directly to the Gamecocks’ homecourt, Colonial Life Arena, in April 2017. In December 2017, the City of Philadelphia named the two-block stretch of Diamond Street from 23rd to 25th Street, which was the path from Staley’s house in the Raymond Rosen Projects to the Moylan (now Hank Gathers) Recreational Center where she began her basketball career, Dawn Staley Lane.