USA Olympic head coach Dawn Staley: Changing the face of women's basketball

Staley led the South Carolina Gamecocks to the NCAA March Madness national championship crown, adding to a list of accolades that includes three Olympic titles as a player and one as head coach.

By ZK Goh
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

"I can make more of an impact as a coach than I did as a player."

When you consider the identity of the woman saying that, you start to understand why Dawn Staley is changing the face of women's basketball beyond the traditional.

A three-time Olympic champion as a player at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, and Athens 2004, Staley was already a legend in the sport. But now, her coaching exploits mark her out as one of the best coaches around. Staley, who was appointed the national team head coach in 2017, has led Team USA to the Basketball World Cup and Olympic Games titles.

And, on Sunday (3 April), she led her University of South Carolina Gamecocks to the NCAA Division I national collegiate title – her second, having also achieved the feat in 2017 – making her the first black coach to win two national Division I titles, male or female.

It was this past weekend that she made the comment – and, looking at her growing list of achievements as a coach, it becomes apparent why Staley feels she is better as a coach than she was as a player.

Dawn Staley's coaching style

"It means a great deal to represent all of women's basketball on the last day, in the national championship game – it means we did things the right way when we were faced with some adverse moments," Staley told the NCAA in a preview before the final.

And "the right way" for Staley means connecting with her players on a personal level while demanding a level of discipline and commitment from them.

That is not something everyone can pull off, although Staley has done it successfully both at the college and international level.

But, speaking to ESPN earlier this year, Staley added that she did not simply want to be seen as a coach who's able share a connection with her players.

Instead, she pointed out, that disregards her basketball brain, built up over a very successful playing career during which she split time playing in the Women's National Basketball Association with coaching at Temple University.

"For people to even say that is disregarding me as a player," she said. "And I think it's coming up more now because we're winning on a bigger stage. You can't have the same success without knowing the game and X-ing and O-ing.

"It's flattering when you can make the game look as easy that anybody can do it. That's when you've arrived."

Dawn Staley wins second national title as coach

At Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Sunday, Staley led the Gamecocks to a 64–49 win over the University of Connecticut Huskies.

The win was not only her second national title as head coach, it also ended an unbeaten 11-game run for the Huskies and their coach Geno Auriemma in NCAA championship games.

South Carolina was ranked number one for the entire season by the Associated Press.

Before the final, Staley used that as motivation for her team, telling the NCAA: "Our team is super hungry. Our team is super focussed. Our team has been targeted in a way that you're the number one team in the country, you were that from start to finish, and the expectation is for you to win."

And winning the title, for Staley, "means you represent all the great things about our game."

Dawn Staley cuts down the net at Target Center in Minneapolis after the 2022 National Championship game
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Repaying and inspiring others

Staley's playing career culminated with her election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 as a player – something she is on the path to repeating as a coach.

For her, now the face of her sport from a coaching perspective, it's a platform she wants to use to both give back and inspire others.

In 2017, after leading the Gamecocks to their first national title (a team that included future WNBA Most Valuable Player and Tokyo 2020 Olympic champion A'ja Wilson), Staley cut down the net.

Prior to this season, she sent pieces of that net to black women coaching in Division I.

Now, after her second title win, she's planning to repeat the gesture. She cut the nets from Target Center, and wants to send pieces to black male coaches and journalists.

"I owe basketball," Staley told ESPN earlier this year. "I'm forever indebted to it.

"It engulfed my life for the positive. The game has gotten more of my time than my friends and my family. I feel like on a smaller or larger scale, it can impact my players' lives in some kind of way."

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