TAMPA, Fla. — When Dawn Staley added the title “Final Four coach” to her lengthy résumé last week, it really didn’t surprise anyone in the basketball world. It had just been a matter of time.
Staley has succeeded at every level in everything she has done, so when she took over as head coach at South Carolina in May 2008, Gamecock Nation was just biding its time until she turned the program into not just a winner, but a national contender.
“We’re not here off of luck,” Staley said. “Our team worked to get in this position, and it just goes to show some of those other programs, if you continue to work and you continue to recruit and you continue to do things the right way, I think the basketball gods will put you in this position.”
And why not? Staley was already a proven winner.
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She is a former All-America point guard from Virginia who led the Cavaliers to three Final Fours and was named Most Outstanding Player in 1991. She was WNBA All-Star, and named to the league’s All-Decade Team for her stellar play with the Charlotte Sting and Houston Comets. As if that wasn’t enough, Staley also collected three gold medals with the U.S. Olympic Team in 1996, 2000 and ’04, and earned herself an induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
It wasn’t too difficult to take the ingredients of what made her a force on the court as a player — hard work, dedication and a love of the game — and use them to become a top-notch coach. And being a former point guard didn’t hurt.
“Point guards are a position of service,” Staley said. “You’re always serving other people, and it’s easy to make that transition. When you’re a point guard, you see how it all works and how it all should flow. You have a different pulse of the game. And to make that transition I think is a little bit easier for point guards than other positions.”
In her first foray as a head coach, Staley turned Temple from a bottom dweller in the Atlantic 10 into a program that made six NCAA tournament appearances during her eight-year tenure. South Carolina was in the same type of situation when Staley got to South Carolina in 2008.
“I knew nothing about besides they were probably the doormats of their conferences,” Staley said. “What you had to do was change the culture. You had to get your players to stop thinking about where they’re going to spend spring break besides in the gym prepping for postseason play.”
The first year in Columbia wasn’t easy. The Gamecocks won just two games in Southeastern Conference play. But as players bought into her system, the program steadily improved.
“I’ll be the first to say, if you don’t love basketball, we’re probably not the coaching staff for you, because we ask you to do things out of the love of the game, and when you love it, you’re able to accomplish things like we’ve been able to accomplish,” Staley said.
In 2012, South Carolina earned an NCAA berth for the first time in a decade. The Gamecocks haven’t missed the NCAA postseason since and are making the program’s first appearance in the Women’s Final Four.
“I think we’ve done it the right way, we’re patient, we’re worked our tails off to get talent in our program,” Staley said.
And homegrown talent has helped. Eleven players on the team’s roster are from either South Carolina or neighboring states.
“She’s got a tremendous reputation in the game and she does a great job, so I think that helps,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “But I think it’s difficult [building a national contender]. I think the thing that helps you is when you have great in‑state talent. That is probably the thing that can really get you going because when you have local players who want to stay close to home to play and have their families watch them, it makes it easier to recruit them. I think they were fortunate that there was so much talent in the state of South Carolina. And then when you start to win, that attracts more good players. I think good players want to play with good players, so I think it’s really been flourishing for Dawn.”
One of those players was junior guard Tiffany Mitchell, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, who grew up idolizing Staley during her years with the Sting.
Mitchell loved Staley’s straightforward approach plus Columbia was just 90 minutes from her hometown. When it came time to choose a college, South Carolina was a natural fit.
“I didn’t really like passive coaches and I knew she was far from passive,” Staley said. “That stood out to me.”
But Mitchell says the hard-nosed coach has also softened over the years.
“I think she’s had to adjust with different players in the fold,” Mitchell said. “She’s kind of changed her coaching style and backed off some because everyone learns a different way. I think she realized that and that definitely helped our team.”
And as much as Mitchell loves Staley’s intense coaching style, she and her teammates really enjoy her fun side, too.
“She’s really a big kid at heart,” Mitchell said. “She jokes all the time — probably more than the players sometimes. I think that’s a big part of her coaching style. We know when she’s serious and then she has a time when she’s not serious at all. People only see the hard, intense side, but we see the nice and goofy part of Coach Staley.”