April 8, 2024 

Dawn Staley continues to set standard of inclusivity and excellence

‘When you can treat people good, they treat you better’

CLEVELAND — Dawn Staley was intentional, thoughtful and direct.

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The question about her thoughts came to her like a curveball. Yet, after taking a sip of water from her blue Powerade cup, Staley knocked her response out of the park on whether transgender women should be able to participate in sports.

“Yes,” Staley said in measured tones during Saturday’s pregame press conference. “I’m of the opinion that if you’re a woman, you should play. If you consider yourself a woman and want to play sports, or vice versa, you should be able to play.”

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As usual, Staley met the moment in making a statement about inclusivity. Staley has always stood out as one of the most influential voices in sports, especially since there’s been a documented history of women and people of color being excluded from athletic competition.

Staley’s response was authentic. She never wavers in her beliefs. She has a platform to speak in front of a broad audience on national television. She may have received criticism from the online army for her postgame interview with Holly Rowe after beating Oregon State to win the Albany 1 Regional championship when she used it as a pulpit to express her religious beliefs. She didn’t care. 

Staley’s faith grounds her, and she’s not afraid to share that. She cried after South Carolina beat Iowa, 87-75, to secure its third national championship at a sold-out Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in a game that exceeded the hype. It was a rare moment when her players saw the first Black head coach to lead a college basketball team to a perfect season shed tears for the first time. 

It’s the only way Staley knows how to be. She learned it growing up in north Philadelphia. It’s a philosophy that’s guided her successful coaching career. It continues to help her excel as she celebrates her second national title in three years. South Carolina is a remarkable 109-3 under Staley over the last three seasons. 

“It’s a two-way street,” Staley said. “When you can treat people good, they treat you better. It’s something that’s innate in me and has been part of my upbringing to treat people well. I am very fortunate that, you know, I probably got the better end of it because of it.”

Yet, here’s where Staley shines. She is constantly aware and present. Staley is a guardian of women’s basketball. When she won her first national championship, in 2017, she diligently sent a piece of the net to every Black head coach in women’s college basketball at the time. Staley makes time to support other coaches with a quick text or a recognition tweet, which she did this year when Jackson State under Tomekia Reed received a vote in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. 

Staley as a game-changer

Staley always gives flowers. After receiving the national championship trophy, one of her first remarks was to praise Caitlin Clark’s excellence as confetti rained down during the postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe.

“I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting our sport,” an emotional Staley shared. “She carried a heavy load for our sport. You are one of the GOATs of our games, and we appreciate you.”

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Staley added later in the postgame press conference: “You can see the numbers when Caitlin plays in a game. You see the numbers. They’re real numbers, and a lot of people like to deal in those real numbers. I hope we were able to attract some more people by the amount of eyeballs that probably watched our game just because Caitlin was appearing in it.”

Aside from treating people well, Staley adjusted her leadership style this season. It’s been uncomfortable sometimes for Staley, but she understood that learning occurs outside her comfort zone. She also understood that delivering the message so her players could receive it was the main thing, so she needed to be flexible with a young team.

Losing five players drafted into the WNBA from last season’s phenomenal team created immediate challenges for the legendary Staley. Yet, despite a roster with two seniors and plenty of underclassmen, Staley knew she would have to do things differently this year without compromising her standard of excellence. 

“I am drawn to challenges,” Staley said earlier last week. “I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for lateness. I wasn’t ready for no communication. I wasn’t ready for everything that comes with having a younger team. I wasn’t used to not having a leader just really taking hold of situations and handling them. So the transition was hard, but once I started to look at it as a challenge, I wasn’t going to let them get the best of me, our staff, our program or what we’ve built. And that’s when it started clicking in, like, Hmm, this must happen.”

In her 16th year leading the Gamecocks, Staley has enjoyed learning plenty from her team this season. 

“They’ve taught me how to fall back some and that there’s a number of ways to be successful,” Staley said. “They taught me that I have to pivot and do things differently than we normally do. It’s a new normal, but I still appreciate the standard. They’re pleasant to be around because they’re better listeners when locked in. And their families are good. Their parents are good. They tell me what they don’t like, what they do like. They’re very appreciative of the process.”

Staley’s trust was evident immediately against Iowa. Her team fell behind, 10-0 and 13-2, and Staley never moved from the bench. She didn’t jump up and call a timeout, continuing to allow her Gamecocks to play through Iowa’s initial surge. It was something her players appreciated in that moment because it helped them to remain calm. One of Staley’s mentors, the legendary late Temple coach John Chaney, used to the do same thing.

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Staley has done everything in the sport of basketball. She has many titles — from daughter to Hall of Famer to mentor to trailblazer to dog mom to savant — but to Staley, they are irrelevant because the best part of her can’t be quantified with a title. She’s an outstanding human who has used the world as a giant canvas to transform lives, create change and uplift others.

“I just want our game to grow,” Staley added. “I don’t care if it’s us. I don’t care if it’s Caitlin. I don’t care if it’s JuJu [Watkins] or Hannah [Hidalgo]. I want our game to grow, no matter who it is. Because there are a lot of people out there growing our game. There are a lot of programs out there growing our game. We need to continue to uplift them and take our game to the next level.”

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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