Dawn Staley’s impact on basketball goes beyond her titles with South Carolina
In a sport traditionally dominated by white head coaches, Staley, a Black woman, has been able to disrupt the status quo in a way no other coach has for years
As Dawn Staley sat at the podium Sunday night with a nylon net draped over her neck and the trophy to her left following a 64-49 win over UConn in the national championship game, she was asked how important it is for her, as a Black woman, to be on top of the game for a long time.
“What I think is important as a Black woman and coach is the way you do it,” Staley replied. “The example you set for other coaches to follow. I am one that respects the game.”
The national title, Staley’s second, makes her the first Black coach in college basketball (men’s or women’s) to win multiple NCAA championships. With the men’s tournament dating to 1939 and the women’s tournament to 1982, it’s truly a historic achievement for Staley, who finishes her 14th season as the head coach of South Carolina in the winner’s circle.
While this achievement for Staley is undoubtedly monumental, it’s important to state that even if her team’s season hadn’t ended in victory on Sunday, a win wouldn’t have defined her impact on the sport.
In women’s college basketball, where the top ranks of the game have long been dominated and upheld by an exclusive group of white head coaches, Staley, a Black woman, has been able to disrupt the sport’s status quo in a way that no other coach has for years.
To examine the full extent of Staley’s impact on the sport, you need to go beyond the metrics. Her success on the court and advocacy away from it has changed the culture in ways that can’t solely be measured in stats. It’s not just about what Staley has done – it’s how she’s done it.
Adding another national title has reaffirmed that impact.
With a second national championship, Staley has kicked down the door to join women’s basketball’s most coveted group of head coaches. On occasion, a coach has been able to string together a championship run to stop the cycle momentarily. To do so twice is a rarity.
Staley became just the seventh head coach in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history to win multiple championships, joining Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer, Kim Mulkey, Muffet McGraw and Linda Sharp. In the past 20 years, only four coaches have won multiple championships: Auriemma, Summitt, Mulkey and now Staley.
Staley’s victory holds an added importance as Black coaches work to fight back and dismantle stereotypes that label them as less capable of coaching X’s and O’s. While media outlets gravitate to Staley’s pregame dance breaks or her untouchable designer game outfits, at the core is a coach who can go head-to-head with those who have been deemed the best basketball minds in the game. As this season showed, she beat them all.
Staley became the first coach to beat Auriemma, VanDerveer and Mulkey in a single season. She went 7-0 against title-winning coaches and South Carolina finished the season 14-0 against ranked opponents as the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the AP poll this season. Only five schools have produced wire-to-wire AP poll teams since 1976-77.
It’s an added emphasis that to win her second national title, she also had to go through Louisville’s Jeff Walz before defeating the third-winningest coach in college basketball history, Auriemma, for a second time this season – something only three coaches have ever done (the others being McGraw and C. Vivian Stringer).
“I think it solidifies how much of a great coach she is and how she can measure up with the other coaches that everybody talks about,” said Markeshia Grant, who played on the South Carolina team that appeared in Staley’s first Sweet 16. “I think it’s also setting a standard that you can be a Black woman and a dominant force in a sport. I think that second championship says all of that for her.”
To disrupt the blue bloods of women’s college basketball is an achievement that so few have been able to do successfully for decades. Staley accomplishing that as a Black woman, by not only taking the baton from her predecessors but creating her own lane in the process, will create ripple effects on the sport for years to come.
“I think it’s also setting a standard that you can be a Black woman and a dominant force in a sport. I think that second championship says all of that for her.”— Former South Carolina player Markeshia Grant on Dawn Staley’s impact on college basketball
As more eyes gravitate to the game and as the sport itself exhibits a level of parity it hasn’t seen in years, Staley has also shown she is the coach of the moment. Even as one of the top figures in the sport, there is an overwhelming sense of accessibility that the average fan or admirer of the game feels to Staley.
When a fan tweets that they have an old Charlotte Sting jersey of Staley’s that they were never able to get signed, she’ll ask them to send it to her office. When a player from Incarnate Word, which played in South Carolina for the First Four, expressed her disappointment after failing to get a picture with Staley, Staley set up a meet and greet with the team the following morning.
“It just speaks to her character and shows that you don’t have to be a common coach where you’re not accessible,” Grant said. “You can tell that she understands that. She’s all about community.”
The journey of building South Carolina began in 2008 when Staley was charged with resuscitating a stagnant program that in its previous five seasons hadn’t finished better than seventh in the SEC and posted a .456 winning percentage.
“When I was getting recruited, there weren’t 18,000 fans in the stands,” said Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray, a member of the 2017 South Carolina championship team. “Many people, they didn’t see how it was day one.”
As Staley made the program her own, the turnaround quickly followed. By her fourth season, South Carolina made its first NCAA tournament appearance and reached the Sweet 16.
In the 2013-14 season, Staley put the sport on notice. From at least 2006 to 2013, the top high school players in the country committed to the college basketball elite: programs such as UConn, Tennessee, Stanford or Baylor – all of whom were coached by the faces of college basketball.
That changed in 2013 when No. 1 recruit A’ja Wilson, a South Carolina product, chose Staley and the Gamecocks over North Carolina, UConn and Tennessee. Wilson’s commitment, coupled with the program’s first SEC regular-season title and another appearance in the Sweet 16, was Staley’s announcement that her South Carolina program had arrived.
Since the 2011-12 season, Staley has led South Carolina to six SEC tournament championships, 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances, four Final Fours and two national championships. Once meager crowds morphed into a fan base. By 2015, South Carolina led the nation in attendance, a title that had belonged to either Tennessee or UConn the previous 19 seasons.
While it’s one thing for a coach to build a program into a national power with its community’s full and unwavering support, for Staley to do so at South Carolina is a nearly immeasurable feat.
“She is building a powerhouse team being Black in a predominantly white city that, when she first got there, had the Confederate flag hanging at the capital, which was five minutes from the gym and office,” said Tyasha Harris, a member of the 2017 championship team and point guard for the Wings. “She turns doubters into believers.”
In many ways, Staley represents the next iteration of the Black coach in women’s basketball, one that we hadn’t previously seen. She’s managed to combine the consistent and sustained excellence of a coach like Stringer and the championship triumph of Carolyn Peck and has spearheaded a new era for Black coaches, particularly Black female head coaches, in the sport. She’s done so boldly and unapologetically.
For many Black coaches, Staley — the second-highest paid coach in women’s basketball, and the highest-paid coach in the South Carolina athletic department — is a beacon of hope for what is possible.
It’s a responsibility she stewards proudly, but that’s not to say it doesn’t come with immense pressure to succeed.
“I felt a great deal of pressure to win because I’m a Black coach,” Staley said of the national championship. “If you don’t win, there’s so much other scrutiny … you feel all of that. You feel it probably 10 times more than anyone else.”
While Staley continues to carve out her place in the sport’s history, she’s done so as one of the most vocal advocates for the advancement of Black coaches in the game. She has long been outspoken in pointing out the inequities Black coaches experience during their careers: opportunities to become a head coach, a lack of institutional support for Black head coaches, or Black coaches getting second opportunities.
“I feel like she feels like she owes the next generation and Black women that opportunity to do what she does,” Grant said.
Staley took her commitment to uplifting the Black coaching community a step further in November 2021 when she decided to send a piece of her national championship net to every Black female head coach in Division I. After gaining another net Sunday, Staley said she plans on sending this net to Black male coaches and Black journalists.
“I think that what I love and respect about her is that she’s in the game – she’s not in it for money, she’s not in it for this and that – she’s in it to help people,” Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes said. “She wants to elevate other people and most people don’t do that. For her to do that means a lot.”
“For her to just have the courage to continue to speak up, continue to be the leader, especially as a woman of color, it’s just amazing to watch.”— South Carolina junior guard Brea Beal on Dawn Staley
As Staley’s program and footprint in the sport have grown larger, so too has her platform. Perhaps one of the more impressive aspects of Staley’s legacy has been her willingness to use that platform as a tool for advocacy.
In the position that she occupies and the stature that she holds, Staley is well aware that her ability to speak on particular issues and matters is an opportunity not afforded to most other coaches in the sport, particularly Black coaches.
“Just watching her and just seeing her speak up and not be afraid to speak up – you see it on social media, she gets a lot of stuff thrown at her,” South Carolina junior Brea Beal said Saturday. “For her to just have the courage to continue to speak up, continue to be the leader, especially as a woman of color, it’s just amazing to watch.”
Last year, Staley posted a letter calling out the inequality between the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments. In 2020, she penned an essay titled Black People Are Tired in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police. She pushed back against politician Nikki Haley over her support of former senator Kelly Loeffler, who criticized the WNBA’s decision to honor the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s spoken on numerous occasions about gender pay disparities and pushing institutions to invest in their women’s basketball programs.
“Dawn has had a huge voice, more than anybody else in our game,” Barnes said. “She is not afraid to say tough things. She is not afraid to get on the platform and make people very uncomfortable. That is a hard space to navigate.”
There are no signs that the excellence of Staley and her South Carolina program is slowing down anytime soon.
Next year, South Carolina will return much of its core that won a national championship, while welcoming another top-10 recruiting class.
It will be business as usual for the top team in the country. That’s been Staley’s goal since she arrived in Columbia.
Said Harris: “Once you finally win your first one, it’s like you’re here. Once you win more than one … it’s like you’re here to stay.”