Staley beats the odds on journey to help others
At age 47, Dawn Staley has already achieved almost everything there is to achieve in basketball. One thing she hasn’t done before — defend an NCAA championship — occurs this year as the South Carolina head coach attempts to lead her team to a second consecutive title.
Staley knows all about winning, both as a player and as a coach. Her playing career included three trips to the Women’s Final Four from 1990 through 1992 at Virginia. She earned National Player of the Year honors twice in college.
Q&A with … Dawn Staley,
women’s basketball coach, University of South Carolina
From there, she went on to become a five-time WNBA All-Star and led the 1996, 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic women’s teams to gold medals. And, long before she retired from the WNBA in 2006, Staley had already begun her next career, taking over as Temple’s women’s coach in 2000.
In 2008, she accepted the coaching job at South Carolina, inheriting a women’s basketball program that was struggling for relevance. Under Staley, the Gamecocks have become a consistent contender, winning the last four SEC titles, reaching the Final Four twice and making substantial gains in home attendance along the way.
Staley discussed making the transition from player to coach, the stress relief of having a loyal dog and how she escaped professional suicide by yelling less and listening more.
In a piece you did for The Players’ Tribune, you wrote about how you didn’t really want to be a coach, but you wanted a challenge. What were your expectations going into that first job?
I wanted to impact lives through basketball. I know how impactful the game of basketball was to me, and I wanted every young person that I coached to come away and feel the same way about basketball that I did.
In terms of the day to day, what did you think it would be like?
I had no idea. I knew what a practice looked like. I didn’t know what the administrative part looked like. That’s why I tried to hire people that were experienced. I hired my old college assistant coach, who had been in the business for a long time, and I hired some other people who had more experience than I did.
When you took the job, you were still playing in the WNBA. How did you balance those two things?
I had to get my workout in for the WNBA, I had to get that in early.
The rest of the day, we had a standing meeting with the coaches. That kind of organizes your day once you have that. Practice or workouts took up a big [part] of the day. And then there were things like paperwork you had to fill out.
What did you do during the WNBA season?
Now, that’s where having a great staff comes into play. We were extremely organized. And once you get into a system of how it works and me not being there five months out of the year, we used the WNBA as a recruiting tool. Because I wasn’t able to go out and watch kids play during the recruiting time, so we would ask them to come watch me play. I couldn’t talk to them [because of NCAA recruiting rules]. Just come watch me play. And that way, we knew they had some interest in Temple.
That’s a pretty powerful recruiting pitch, “Come watch a professional basketball player who could also be your coach.”
Yeah, come watch your dream take place. Come see your dream. It somewhat worked. We didn’t always get the players we wanted to get, but it was a helpful tool to keep Temple in everybody’s mind that we were recruiting.
Fast forward to 10 years ago: When South Carolina hired you, the women’s team had missed the NCAAs five straight years. What made you think it would work?
I’ve always been an odds-beater. From growing up in the projects in North Philly, to graduating from college, to going to the Olympics, to winning gold medals, the odds were against me to do all of those things. So, I like to stack myself against the odds. It’s basketball, it’s something I truly love. And if you dive into it, and you do it the right way, you do it with the right people, you’re going to be successful.
What was the shape of the program when you got there?
I thought it was professional suicide.
Because we didn’t have the same likenesses. [The players] didn’t love basketball. And I absolutely adore basketball, so, for someone who loves something, and to those players we inherited, they were using basketball as a means of advancing themselves to get through college.
They weren’t passionate about the game?
Not at all. And I thought I would put the same type of energy that we put into Temple and — voila — it would turn out great. But it took us a good two, three, four years for us to even make inroads and to see what our vision would be for South Carolina.
You mentioned growing up in the projects of Philadelphia, which is a big part of your story. What were the best and worst things about that experience?
The best is it gave me a foundation of who I am today. I never think I’m in a losing battle with anything because of where I grew up. I always think I have a chance of winning. That’s the outlook I have, the mindset that I have, because of where I grew up.
The worst part is probably the people there won’t get to experience all the wonderful things I’ve experienced in life. I’ve been able to explore and learn about different cultures because I was given an opportunity. My friends that still are there won’t get that opportunity. There are people in the projects and that’s all they’ll ever know. And I think that’s the worst part of it.
You’ve been gone many years, but I wonder whether you think about how different your life is now versus where you were.
My life is much different. My mother passed away in August. I was able to take care of my mother — she died from complications from Alzheimer’s. I was able to give her a life of comfort, hopefully. And that’s a lot different than the people I grew up with. They’re just struggling paycheck to paycheck. I made a life for myself and I’m able to take care of my family.
Here’s what I know about you off the court: You have a dog named Champ that likes to play basketball, you dressed up as Beyoncé for Halloween last year, your Christmas tree had its own Twitter account and you’re borderline addicted to Life Savers. Can you confirm?
All true. My boy Champ, who’s a Havanese, he’s supposed to be hypo-allergenic. He’s not. I’m allergic to him, but I’m keeping him. We’re going to have to figure out a way in which I cannot sneeze for the rest of my life. But he’s my joy. After a loss, you go home, and he makes everything feel better.
How did you go to a football school and manage to turn it into a place where women’s basketball games are campus happenings?
Well, first of all, I didn’t know it was a football school. If I had known, I think I would’ve added that to the challenge of turning this program around.
When I got here, those players, they really didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand them. So, I yelled a lot. And when you yell a lot, you’re not listening. You’re only yelling.
I’m, like, “Look, I’m tired of yelling, how do you want to do things?” And then I got feedback from them and they felt like they were part of the process because they had a voice. And from there, it just took off.
But, I’ll say this, those players who I coached 10 years ago, they follow the program, they’re always around, they come to the games — they now say if they had known what they know now, they would have approached it differently. That makes me feel good because the challenge to what we do is to get people to a place in their lives where they have complete understanding and not to regret anything.
What do you do to clear your mind, to escape the pressure of coaching?
For the longest, I never went on vacation. It took me five or six years before I actually had gone on a vacation from basketball, but now I do. I don’t think they’re huge vacations, although I did go to London last year. I think I’m more of a destination person — the beach. Although I don’t swim, I just like to veg out.
Last year you reached the top as a coach. What does it feel like as a coach as opposed to as a player?
I think it’s much more gratifying because it connects so many people. You’ve got your staff, your players, you’ve got a community, you’ve got the university, you’ve got parents, you’ve got grandparents — all of these people are part of our program. When we win, it impacts so many people.
Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.