Dawn Staley and the sting of losing a championship season
Why South Carolina’s head coach is hurting for her No. 1 ranked team
Dawn Staley was furniture shopping to get away from the news cycle, but her phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Parents were texting her worried about their daughters returning to Columbia, South Carolina, after spring break amid the coronavirus outbreak. The NBA had suspended its season, and all eyes were on the NCAA.
“I’m looking at Twitter and I’m just seeing the things simmering,” Staley said, “and then it gets to a boil.”
Staley prepped to quell the fears of her program, then the news came:
“I saw that the NCAA canceled everything.”
The 2019-20 women’s college basketball season was supposed to end with South Carolina joining women’s basketball elite. It was supposed to end with the program showing its 2017 national championship wasn’t a fluke. It was supposed to end with Staley changing the narrative and proving her team was worthy of the No. 1 ranking.
Instead, South Carolina’s season ended with a group text from Staley to her players, who were many miles and state lines away. A season defined by victory – 26 straight wins, 13 against ranked opponents, and a Southeastern Conference championship – was now consumed by defeat. A season of promise, now a world of hurt.
For Staley, who has solidified herself as one of the top coaches in college basketball, the lost chance to compete in the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed for the first time in her coaching career stings. But even harder for Staley to accept is South Carolina not receiving full recognition as the best team in the country, a title that has become just a hypothetical for many with no NCAA champion to crown.
“There’s a lot of ‘we’ll never know,’ ” Staley said.
But Staley, who was named SEC Coach of the Year for the fourth time and AP coach of the year for the first time this season, knows her truth. Gamecocks vs. everybody.
Staley has been unhappy throughout the season for the lack of attention her Gamecocks have received, often feeling obligated to let the sports world know why her team was the best. Even after winning their 23rd straight game in South Carolina’s regular-season finale, Staley, during her postgame news conference, called out an article that previewed March Madness but failed to mention her team.
Following the NCAA tournament’s cancellation announcement, her frustration continued as many analysts and fans mourned for No. 2-ranked Oregon and Sabrina Ionescu, while few referred to South Carolina or its players.
“I’ve got to answer to why do they disrespect us like this. That’s what came across my phone, and I don’t have answers for them,” Staley said. “But I know that the people who decide on what narrative to write about women’s basketball, they got it wrong.
“We were the No. 1 team in the country longer than anybody this season. We didn’t get treated like the No. 1 team in the country.”
Others around the country noticed too.
“For South Carolina to do what they’ve done this year, to be the No. 1-ranked team for pretty much the majority of the season, people should be talking more about them,” Old Dominion head coach Nikki McCray-Penson, a former Staley assistant, said.
Added ESPN and SEC Network analyst Carolyn Peck: “I think that she has had to be successful and 150% better to get the attention. And to really be recognized that this is not a one-hit wonder.”
Staley is clear that she’s not invalidating Oregon’s season or Ionescu’s career, both of which she praised, but said that there was room for others to receive more attention: contenders such as defending champion Baylor, coaches such as Northwestern’s Joe McKeown and Arizona’s Adia Barnes, and mid-majors such as South Dakota, to name a few. And, of course, her top-ranked squad.
Staley had brought in the top recruiting class in the nation. Three of those freshmen started the entire year along with two seniors, Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the only remaining members of the 2017 title team. And South Carolina finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in program history.
The NCAA tournament, meanwhile, would have been the Gamecocks’ chance to stick it to those who have overlooked them. But that opportunity is now gone.
“I feel for our players who are in pain,” Staley said, “and I have nothing, I have nothing to ease their pain.”
To understand Staley’s heartbreak, you have to go back to the day she accepted the job in 2008.
Staley commonly refers to her first few years at South Carolina as “professional suicide” after guiding Temple to six NCAA tournament appearances in eight seasons. She recalls being able to hear herself call out instructions on the sideline during games, her voice echoing off the vacant arena seats.
“They say 2,000. I mean c’mon,” Staley said of the reported attendance during her first two seasons at South Carolina. “Two thousand people may have paid for tickets, but they sure didn’t show up. It was more like family and friends.”
At one point, a South Carolina administrator wanted to start selling tickets to home games for a dollar. Staley refused. “It’s not worth it to cheapen your product,” she said.
During Staley’s first three seasons, the Gamecocks went 42-48.
“When we got there, it was tough,” said McCray, who served as an assistant at South Carolina from 2008 to 2017. “We were in uncharted territory from the standpoint of rebuilding. We had to start from scratch.”
It would also require Staley to change her approach with players.
At Temple, Staley’s players demanded her expertise, as she also doubled as an active WNBA player during the college offseason. “Whatever I said it was, ‘Hey, we’re trying to get into the league, and she’s in the league, we better listen to her,’ ” Staley said. But by the time she got to South Carolina, Staley had been two years removed from the league and found players who weren’t afraid to express their opinions.
“I’m an old-school type of thinker, I’m a more traditional ‘this is what must take place.’ Whereas the kids were like, ‘Not really. This is how we do things, this is how we think.’ ”
While Staley’s coaching ideology remained unchanged, she saw the value in meeting players where they were. She emphasized listening more than talking, and nurturing the natural chemistry of her players.
Her new approach paid off, no more than against Stanford in the 2017 Final Four. South Carolina found itself down nine heading into halftime – a spot in the national championship on the line. The Gamecocks entered the locker room quietly. Staley was frustrated.
“Why can’t you get it, why can’t you execute the game plan?” she asked.
South Carolina redshirt junior Kaela Davis, the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 12.7 points per game, raised her hand.
“I don’t know, because we’re millennials!” Davis said.
The entire locker room erupted in laughter.
“I started cracking up,” Staley said. “I said, ‘Are you serious? That’s an answer?’ ”
According to Davis, nothing else needed to be said after that.
“I think it was just kind of a reminder that we had gone back to this serious mode that never really worked for us,” said Davis, who now plays in the WNBA for the Dallas Wings.
The Gamecocks would go on to outscore Stanford 21-8 in the third quarter and ultimately win the game. The school’s first national championship would soon follow.
“Win a national championship, and you look back on that 2008-09 season,” said McCray, who went on to coach Old Dominion after that season, “there’s joy in that.”
Staley had envisioned winning national championships. She had envisioned South Carolina being a national powerhouse. But what Staley didn’t foresee were the crowded gyms, the sellouts, the loyal fan base that comes to see them play. She never anticipated having a group of diehard fans called “puppets” who will protect Staley with loyalty as strong as the Beyhive.
This season, as the final seconds of the clock ticked down on the Colonial Life Arena scoreboard on Feb. 10, Staley found herself looking up at the crowd. Before her stood 18,000 fans in a sea of garnet and black, the largest crowd to watch women’s basketball this year, celebrating the first win against Connecticut in program history.
“Every time I go into our gym I’m just really taken back. I don’t take it for granted at all,” Staley said. “Little old Columbia, South Carolina, has led the nation in attendance for six years.”
For anyone who noticed, Staley had put the program on the map.
Women’s college basketball is a sport defined by titans, programs that have become synonymous with snipped white nets and trophy fingerprints spanning decades: Geno Auriemma and UConn, Pat Summitt and Tennessee, Kim Mulkey and Baylor, Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame, Tara VanDerveer and Stanford.
“South Carolina has not been one of the traditional powerhouses,” said Peck. “Dawn took a program that hadn’t been there and now they’re in that conversation.”
A second title in four seasons would have put Staley closer to the sport’s pantheon. But that accomplishment will have to wait.
As a black coach of the nation’s top collegiate team, however, Staley presents a new face for college basketball and sustained excellence in the sport. The significance isn’t lost on Staley, who could become the first person in NCAA history to win the Werner Ladder Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year Award and Naismith player of the year honors.
“People outside of here make you look at that. I don’t look at that. I play basketball, I coach basketball. It’s my safe haven. I play it with a pure mind because I love competition,” Staley said. “When you see things happen that don’t happen to other programs, that makes you think, was that intentional. … The only difference is that I’m black, and there’s not another black coach that’s at this level as far as competing No. 1 in the country. So it makes me aware of it.
“Do I like it? No, because I don’t like when someone else outside of us really makes you think about the color of your skin. … In sports, you shouldn’t have to deal with it. You shouldn’t at all. But it’s a microcosm of the world.”
Based off coaching demographics statistics provided by the NCAA, just 15.6% of coaches in the Power 5 are black. Conferences such as the Pac-12 and Big Ten have just one black coach, the Big 12 has zero. In contrast, when it comes to assistant coaches in the Power 5, black coaches accounted for 53.3% of Power 5 coaches in 2019.
“We’ve got to make it more diverse,” said Staley, who added she is open to mentoring up-and-coming coaches regardless of color, but takes it upon herself to make sure she is helping other young black coaches.
Peck, who was the first black women’s head coach to win a national championship while at Purdue in 1999, gave praise to some of the recently hired black head coaches who are “making their way and carving their path.” Coaches such as Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, who in her first season led Missouri State to a 26-4 record. Another is McCray, who in her third season was primed to lead Old Dominion to its first tournament appearance in 12 years.
“Dawn is carrying the torch now for us African American coaches and doing it the right way and setting the standard,” McCray said.
And Staley, whose contract with South Carolina runs through the 2024-25 season, has no intention of going anywhere, even with the rise of female coaches on NBA sidelines. (Two of those coaches, Lindsay Gottlieb and Niele Ivey, joined the NBA from the collegiate ranks.)
Staley said she hasn’t been contacted by any NBA teams for assistant coaching positions and said she has no interest in coaching professional basketball. “Never,” she said. “It’s never been my desire, not one ounce of me.”
That sentiment extends to the WNBA as well.
“I just think my impact is younger people,” said Staley, who added that she interviewed with the Chicago Sky for a head coaching position while at Temple, but then shut the door. “I just relate more to younger people, in that my career is the example of what they want and what they desire and I can better navigate them through that.”
These days Staley finds herself just trying to keep busy. She’s organizing her house instead of watching film on an upcoming tournament opponent, driving around her neighborhood instead of busing her team to a tournament game. Sit too long and the emotions of the abrupt end to her season race to the forefront.
Eventually, Staley will turn the page. But first she wants to make one thing clear:
“Every team, every fan base, can say they’re the very best,” Staley said. “Every team can’t say they’re the No. 1 team in the country.
“Crown us the national champion.”