By Frankie Mansfield
On the court, USC women’s head basketball coach Dawn Staley leads her team with the same intensity and fiery passion that made her a three-time Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Fame player.
Staley’s voice echoes throughout the practice facility as players work hard to satisfy her tough demands. But they also know a different side, one that fans might not get to see at the arena or on TV.
It’s the caring and loving side that makes Staley so special as a person, junior point guard Ieasia Walker says.
“She has her days when she can be like the mean mom,” Walker said. “There’s other days when she can be like your best friend. You can talk to her about anything on or off the court.”
Staley took over the USC women’s team in 2008 and has improved its record each of her four seasons. This year, the Gamecocks made the Sweet 16, their deepest run into the Women’s NCAA Tournament since 2002.
She infuses a family relationship into her teams, one that begins with recruiting and only gets stronger throughout the years.
Senior guard Lakeisha Sutton says Staley is someone she looks up to as both a player and a person. She says Staley’s leadership has taught the team how to win and succeed, both on the court and in life.
“I feel like I can talk to her about anything. She’s all ears,” Sutton said. “Definitely not as mean as she may look when she’s coaching us on the sidelines!”
I caught up with Staley at USC’s practice facility to talk about her relationship with her players, her coaching career and the current state of USC women’s basketball.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the court, you’ve always been known as a tough, hard-nosed player and coach. But your players say they know a different side that has built a family atmosphere within the team. How would you describe your relationship with your team both on and off the court?
Probably a tale of two halves, you know, or two faces. In that, on the court, you know, I’m pretty much all about business. I think for our players, they need to understand these are their careers that are on the line. When they sign up to come to play at the University of South Carolina, or play for our coaching staff, they know the type of attitude that we have towards their careers. …
And then off the floor, you know, I think I’m probably, you know, a practical joker. I like to have fun. I like to kid around with our players. You know, it’s just who I am. I don’t portray just having a softer side just to have it. …
They get all of the good, the bad, the ugly. But I think what they do get is fairness, a realness and a place in which they can be themselves. …
How instrumental has the family atmosphere among your team been to the increasing success you’ve had over the past couple years?
Well I think with any family you go through some things. When we were having losing seasons two or three and four years ago, they were hard times. …
We just worked at it. We really worked at self-evaluation and tried to figure out the best way to approach our kids to get the best results.
Was there a particular coach or person at some point in your life that influenced the way you wanted to coach and the relationship that you wanted to have with your players?
No, I don’t think there was, you know, just one person or one thing. I think, you know I’ve always had a passion for kids. You know for me, my passion is to figure out what their niche in life is and kind of push them towards that. And for me it’s very simple. I think kids want to be wanted. Naturally I think they’re pleasers or they want to please. For me, I just want them to have a great experience as a college player. …
What goes through your mind when Athletics Director Eric Hyman says he wants the men’s team on the same level as your program and compares you with revered coaches Steve Spurrier and Ray Tanner? …
When your athletics director is, you know, using women’s basketball as an example for, probably, one of the biggest hires of our men’s program, I think it’s always a great thing. He’s vested in our program. He comes, you know, to all our games. He sits courtside, and you know he really believes in what we’re doing.
I think it’s up there. … I think coaching is probably one of my biggest highlights of my life because I’m able to affect lives on a daily basis, you know, just be able to shape them. … We’re changing generations in that we’re going to make sure that they graduate. We’re going to make sure that their life after college will be very successful through the experiences that they’ve had with our team.
Your players have said that they, and you, are changing the culture of women’s basketball at USC. In what way do you see this change or improvement and what’s gone into that?
Well I think, you know, the changing culture is winning. … They’re vested in their craft. When you see that happening, the culture is changing, and I think it makes them want to be better players. It gets them in the gym and working out when the coaches aren’t around. And that’s changing the culture, so I think it’s very true in that we are trying to change the culture, we are trying to do something that’s never been done here at USC, and we’re well on our way.
You’re involved so much in the community with humanitarian work. What inspires you to put such an importance on that and is that something you try to teach your players as well?
I think it’s important to always give back. I think I come from a place in which, in Philadelphia, the projects of North Philadelphia where we didn’t have people who went to college or we didn’t have college coaches coming in to lend us or share some stories about higher education. And anytime that you’re able to share your story any kind of way that touches someone then to see their future a little bit differently I think it’s necessary.
You’ve become so well known for what you’ve accomplished as player and a coach, but who is Dawn Staley away from the game?
I’m pretty boring, actually. I think I’m pretty laid back. You know, I don’t do much. I go to the same restaurants. I enjoy being at home watching TV. And that’s me. I don’t stray too far from the norm.
At the end of your coaching career what would you have to have accomplished for you to consider it a complete success?
I think winning a national championship. Anything less would be failure.