South Carolina’s Dawn Staley reveals the secret sauce behind Gamecocks’ newfound success

There’s a certain buzz around the University of South Carolina women’s basketball program. It started about eight years ago and has only grown louder ever since.

For the first 34 years of the program, the Gamecocks sputtered along, compiling a less-than-buzzworthy 508-429 record. Then, in 2008, Dawn Staley was hired as head coach.

Hiring someone whose credentials include three Olympic gold medals as a pro point guard gave Gamecock fans something to crow about. That she also had a 172-80 coaching record at Temple University didn’t hurt, either. 

At the time, many South Carolina fans were ready for change. The Gamecock athletic program as a whole had long suffered an identity crisis of sorts. Fans often referred—and still refer, in the instance of some programs—to the school as either USC or Carolina, leading to the inevitable and often annoying question in response: “Which USC” or “which Carolina?”

Out West, the other USC—the University of Southern California—enjoys a strong basketball program that includes two NCAA women’s basketball titles and a list of famous coaches like former WNBA stars Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper, as well as ex-Los Angeles Laker Michael Cooper. Three-and-a-half hours north of Columbia, S.C. in Chapel Hill, N.C., is the other Carolina, with a rich basketball tradition on both the women’s and men’s side.

[More from Excelle Sports: The crazy synergy between Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray that could lead South Carolina to a title]

But after Staley took over as head coach at South Carolina, there was hope that the women’s basketball program would finally come into its own as the USC, the Carolina—at least in terms of women’s basketball. And the new coach didn’t disappointed. After posting losing records her first two seasons at South Carolina as she found her footing, Staley’s teams have since gone 131-40 and made five straight NCAA appearances. Last season, the Gamecocks went 34-3 and advanced to the Final Four for the first time in school history.

Now, when it comes to women’s basketball, everyone knows that both USC and Carolina mean University of South Carolina.

(Credit: Tracy Glantz/The State/MCT via Getty Images)
(Credit: Tracy Glantz/The State/MCT via Getty Images)

How did Staley turn a program with a history mediocrity into a national contender with one of the largest and most engaged fan bases in the country?

By just being Dawn Staley—the same Dawn Staley who, as a college player, thrust the University of Virginia into the national elite in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who still owns the NCAA record for most career steals, who made three Final Four appearances, won an NCAA title and helped Team USA to three Olympic gold medals as a player before helping it grab two more as an assistant coach. The 2016 women’s Olympic basketball team, coached by University of Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma and assisted by Staley, was named USA Basketball’s Co-Team of the Year with the men’s Olympic team on Wednesday.

[More from Excelle Sports: U.S. women’s basketball named USA Basketball co-team of the year]

Staley has also helped propel USC to success with her personality. Athletic teams often take on the characteristics of their coach, good or bad, and the most dominant aspect of Staley’s personality is discipline. She learned the trait early from her parents, Estelle and Clarence Staley, who raised five children in the high-risk public housing project Raymond Rosen in north Philadelphia. Estelle and Clarence didn’t let their kids get away with anything. The stakes were too high.

Now, Staley approaches her responsibilities as a coach with the same parental-like concern and diligence.

“Very early on each year, we have a team meeting about our team rules and how we want to operate and what our culture is like,” Staley, 46, said. “It gets put to the test—a lot. We are dealing with young people— 17- to 23-year olds. You want to make sure you are holding them accountable for their actions and leading them down the path to success. And sometimes that’s a hard job.”

Yet as much as she holds her players accountable, she also encourages them to speak their mind—a personal trait that she says helped her as an athlete.

[More from Excelle Sports: Q&A: South Carolina basketball coach Dawn Staley on her storied career and her ultimate goal]

“As a player, a leader, a point guard or a steward of the game, if I saw or heard something that didn’t quite fit I addressed it,” she said. “I wanted it to be right. I might be wrong about it, but I’m going to find out. I don’t want to assume that everything is good.”

Her experiences with the U.S. Olympic team, where she played with some of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time, including Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Sue Bird, also provided a unique insight.

“When I got into coaching, I drew on my experiences with USA basketball to create this culture,” she said. “Everyone stripped down their personal accolades for one common goal. We didn’t let any one thing or any one person detract from the goal of winning the gold medal. From day one to receiving our gold medals, everyone held everyone accountable— for their actions, communication, everything.”

In the past five seasons, Staley has led the Gamecocks to go 56-8 in Southeastern Conference games, to win two SEC titles, to make those five consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament and to advance to the Final Four in 2014-15.

As impressive as her USC tenure has been so far, there’s one statistic by which all Gamecock coaches are measured: their record against in-state rival Clemson. On Dec. 15, USC defeated the Tigers 84-61 in front of 11,916 fans at USC’s Colonial Life Arena. It was the team’s sixth straight win over Clemson under Staley.

Off the court, Staley’s players are equally impressive. Her players have become involved in the Columbia community—and the community has repaid that effort. The Lady Gamecocks have led the nation in home attendance for the past two seasons, averaging over 14,000 fans per game last season, up 8,000 per game from three years ago.

Regular game attendees include former USC football coach Steve Spurrier and his wife, as well as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Earlier this month, when USC ventured to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. for the Gamecock’s only loss so far this season, four busloads of fans went with them. The game’s attendance—6,036—doubled what had been the largest crowd the Blue Devils had seen for the year.

Staley understands the fanfare and the pressure that can put on players. She also knows that there are potential pitfalls that come with popularity.

“I don’t think our players understood how much power they have in our community—how much people looked up to them, how many people really identified with them,” said Staley, referring to the team’s outlook several years ago. “Once we started getting more support from our community, we had to make it a priority. We made it important to us. We had to let [the players] know that people are affected by them.”

They talk about success a lot at USC, a subject Staley certainly knows well, too. “We say success has a certain look. It has a certain sound and it has a certain feel,” she said.

And at USC, success has a certain buzz that doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

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