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Dawn Staley diary: ‘We’re making them talk about us’

Staley discusses the significance of having two Black coaches in the Final Four and more

Throughout the season, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley has shared her thoughts with The Undefeated, chronicling a season that has been unlike any other in college basketball history. In this installment, Staley discusses the significance of having two Black coaches in the Final Four, her team’s battle with adversity in the NCAA tournament bubble and keeping the Gamecocks on the path to win a national championship.

We’re making them talk about us

I want to be intentional about what I would like to see. Making history alongside [Arizona head coach] Adia Barnes was something that was front of mind for me – a breakthrough that I hoped would happen in this tournament.

It’s nothing against other coaches. We’ve seen them dominate this stage for years. What it does is it makes them seem like they’re the only ones that can get here, they are the best coaches. They are the best representation of our game. When players only see Geno [Auriemma], and they only see Kim [Mulkey], or they only see Tara [VanDerveer] – if you look at the history of our game, those three coaches make up a great deal of Final Four appearances. If that’s all you see, you may take a Black child that lives for going to the Final Four and winning a national championship, those are the only three schools that have dominated appearances in the Final Four.

Now, you change the narrative a little bit. I’m here, now Adia is here. 

Storylines are going to be, two Black women, two former WNBA players, have taken their teams to the Final Four. It looks much different from any other Final Four in the history of our game. That’s powerful. Representation matters.

I want to celebrate all of the Black women head coaches in the game today. I want to celebrate Coach Mox [Missouri State head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton] for standing up and making a controversial move to not play in the MVC tournament because she didn’t want to put her program in a place where they couldn’t get to the Sweet 16. She knew if they played well enough they could get to a place where they could be history makers. [Ole Miss] Coach Yo [Yolett McPhee-McCuin] got her team going and put on the map being in the finals of the WNIT. Look at Wright State and Katrina Merriweather. Katrina got her a job at Memphis because of her performance in the NCAA tournament and beyond. What Joni [Taylor] has done at Georgia, what the coaches in the SEC have done. Look at Adia and the job that she’s done in Arizona. There are incredible stories all across college basketball.

We have a women of color coaches group chat that, anytime any one of us does something, we have a thread where we congratulate each other for our successes. We have to, we have to lift each other up in that way because people don’t lift us up overall. We make them lift us up. We’re making the narrative writers, the decision-makers, we’re making them talk about us because we’re on the biggest stage of college women’s basketball.

The fact that it is happening right now makes it bigger, and it’s bigger than basketball. I’m hoping, with these opportunities, we’ll see more women of color in these positions, because once you give us an opportunity, you see what happens. With each success, we rewrite the narrative and we give hope to other Black coaches who are out there trying to rid themselves of being labeled as just a ‘recruiter.’

When people talk about Black coaches, oftentimes they don’t talk about our actual ability to coach and to be great coaches. The adjectives that are used for white coaches are different from the adjectives that are used for Black coaches to describe them, their teams and their style of play.

For me, in particular, people talk about offense. ‘Our offense stalls. Our offense doesn’t know what it’s doing.’ You can go through every game across America, women’s and men’s games. People scheme against us, they have to scheme against us. So for someone to talk about offense, I let them talk because the results are there. 

We’re a colorful team, meaning we’re not one-dimensional. We don’t run a system. I don’t run a system. I didn’t grow up in the game running a system. Who in the WNBA runs a system? Nobody. We look at mismatches.

So I’m only going to go with what I’m good at, what I’ve been good at as a player. It worked well for me then, and it’s working well for me as a coach. So I don’t care what people say about our style of play. Proof is in the numbers, proof is in the winning percentage.

‘And we’re not done

There’s something about being dissatisfied with just getting there.

After our team defeated Texas in the Elite Eight on Tuesday to advance to the Final Four, Zia Cooke and I embraced at center court. We embraced and she was like, ‘And we’re not done.’ She wasn’t saying congrats, she said, ‘And we’re not done.’ That’s pretty cool for such a young person. I like hearing that. You know what it’s going to take to win – to win the next game and the following game. You know it takes that kind of grit, that kind of knowing, that kind of innocence of not knowing what’s in front of you. And you know what it took to get to that place. You need a little bit of both. If you let the expectations of winning get out in front of you, it may trigger something that you don’t want, it may have a trickle-down effect in not letting them perform at their peak level. It was comforting for me to hear that.

My feelings after the win was just elation. I’m just happy for our players. As coaches, obviously you want to be among the best and compete for a national championship, but you reflect on the journey and those that have been with you all season long. To see their faces, our players, our coaches, our staff – to see their faces in that moment, it’s nothing but pure joy. This is seeing young people realize their dream. I did it as a player, I did it two times as a coach. This is their first time. This is the first time you have these raw, pure emotions. To sit back and see it for them, it’s priceless.

One thing about this team, we are a resilient group. We’ve been that all season long. This team has been driven to win a national championship from last season. They’ve had to deal with so much adversity. They’ve had to deal with so much sacrifice that they weren’t going to let anything get in the way of that. We had an assistant coach lose her mother while being in this bubble. We had a player lose her uncle the other day. These are family people, family-oriented people that if we weren’t in this situation, they would be home. We would have flown them home, and we gave them an opportunity to go home. But they said, ‘I’m going to stay here. I’m going to compartmentalize. I’m going to give you what I have. And then we’ll pick up after we’re done winning a national championship.’

We probably are the epitome of compartmentalizers. We are incredibly, mentally tough people. Athletes are just that. They have to be, because everybody’s got something going on. And if you’re not able to, if you don’t have enough mental strength to deal with it, you will break. You will break. We definitely had hard conversations. But if we weren’t a tight-knit family, if we didn’t communicate about things that happen throughout the year, all of those players and coaches would’ve gone home. They would have gone home in a heartbeat. But they stayed. They stayed, and we’re helping them through it. It’s hard, though. It’s hard.

I feel good about where we are, in this mental space. You can see the focus on their faces. They just want to win. They feel like they’re really close to their goal and they’re going to do everything. You build up to this place. You can’t just, as a team, not have gone through some stuff and get here and have to deal with being in a hotel, 20 hours out of the day, and not feel that. They’re staying really focused on winning the national championship and nothing’s getting in the way of that. They won’t allow anything to get in the way of that. I’m not going to allow anything to get in the way, in their way.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.