Women's Championship Game • Perspective
Dawn of an era: Staley and South Carolina now set the standard
Women's National Championship • Perspective
Dawn Staley was a great player. She might be an even better coach.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dawn Staley was a great player. She might be an even better coach.

South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley was named Naismith Women's College Coach of the Year on Wednesday. (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune/AP)
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MINNEAPOLIS — Dawn Staley repeated the question to buy time. It stumped her, or rather, it asked the consummate competitor to go against herself.

“Am I a better coach than I am a player?” Staley said. “God. That’s a good question.”

Great players don’t often make great coaches, and that’s a truism for every sport. Staley is on the short list of the greatest point guards in women’s basketball history. And at just 51 years old, she is a coach with 537 career victories and one national title (the first in the history of the South Carolina women’s team). She won three Olympic gold medals as a player and coached Team USA to gold in Tokyo last summer. On Sunday night, if the Gamecocks can defeat a Connecticut program undefeated in its 11 title game appearances, Staley would become just the seventh Division I women’s coach to capture multiple national championships.

In the most exclusive wing of the Naismith Hall of Fame, five people bask in double transcendence for their skills in sneakers and with the whistle: Bill Sharman, John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens, Tommy Heinsohn and Bill Russell. That’s the list, all men. No woman has been inducted as a player and again as a coach.

For South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, true equity is about more than swag bags

Staley could retire tomorrow and get there. It should be inevitable. Assuming she remains active, she will be eligible for induction as a coach in four years, after her 26th season in coaching. She was elected for her playing career in 2013. If logic wins, she will have her clipboard immortalized less than 15 years after her initial recognition.

It’s unprecedented to achieve so much long before turning 60. Staley’s plurality in the game amounts to a singular status in history.

“Coach, she’s the GOAT,” South Carolina guard Zia Cooke said, and even though young people hand out the Greatest of All Time designation like napkins, Cooke spoke with so much conviction it seemed to be novel praise.

Staley had no interest in coaching until she found herself so fascinated with the challenge of building a program at Temple that she took the job while still playing in the WNBA. She was 30. The final seven years of her playing career coincided with the beginning of her run in coaching.

She made Temple a perennial NCAA tournament team, and then she left Philadelphia, her hometown, for South Carolina in 2008. Now the Gamecocks are a consistent top-10 team, and they have grown into one of the strongest brands in women’s basketball.

“That train is going,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said of Staley’s program. “And it’s not going to stop as long as she’s there.”

As extraordinary as Staley was at running a team, her knack for running a program is an even better story. She’s forging a career that already holds its own next to any women’s coach not named Pat Summitt or Auriemma, and she did it while having to create an infrastructure for success at two very different schools, all during a time of increased parity in the sport. She didn’t arrive and dominate because of her name. For all the winning Staley has enjoyed, South Carolina didn’t make its first Final Four until 2015, which was her seventh season in Columbia and her 15th in coaching.

She hasn’t taken the easy route. Unlike former players of her caliber, she hasn’t become frustrated with the process and the inability to simply take the basketball and impose her will.

“I’m a point guard,” Staley said. “I’ve always looked at the game differently than a shooting guard or a post player. I’ve always been able to see the big picture, and I’ve carried that. It doesn’t matter if it’s basketball or if it’s just life. I’m a point guard, so we’re trained to see it all. We’re trained to see the big picture.”

Sometimes you can still see the player in Staley. She will tell stories. When shooting around, she will turn competitive and accept challenges. But while her team employs a hard-nosed and defensive style that mirrors the way Staley played, she’s not coaching to live vicariously through her players. On the sideline, just like on the court, she’s all about the assist.

She is genuine in wanting to make people better through basketball. It has been 34 years since the flashy floor general from Philadelphia came to Virginia to play for Coach Debbie Ryan. Over more than three decades in the public eye, her leadership has remained a defining trait.

“I just try to meet people where they are,” Staley said. “Not be judgmental. Just meet them where they are. Then I talk to them to figure out what they want, and then we figure out a plan to make that work. Sometimes when you work with young people, you let them talk. I’m not telling them what to do. I’m just listening to them.

“Then they’ll start asking questions. When they start asking questions, that’s when you can really move the chain. So I’ve done that with teams that I’ve played with as a point guard, and I’ve found my second skin in coaching.”

Staley keeps joking about a premature ending. At the Tokyo Olympics, she declared she would not return to lead the team in 2024, but later she softened the Team USA retirement talk. On Saturday, when reminded that Auriemma and Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer are both 68, Staley declared, “I won’t be here at 68.” Then she laughed.

How the NCAA women’s Final Four was born

As much as she may not want to grow old in coaching, she knows her importance to the game. She embraces all that comes with being the most outspoken voice for progress in women’s hoops. She knows she receives more than she gives, and she appreciates everything about her blessed life in basketball. It’s crazy to her that two members of her first recruiting class at Temple now work on the South Carolina staff: Ariana Moore, special assistant to the head coach, and Cynthia Jordan, director of basketball operations.

“My players are, like, my best friends now,” Staley said. “It’s that type of relationship.”

When considering all the factors, she isn’t shy about making the grand admission: Staley, the player, could go with the best who have ever dribbled. But Staley, the coach, is eclipsing her.

“I’m probably a better coach,” she said. “Probably a better coach. I say that because I’ve had a longer career as a coach. That’s one. Two, I think my impact is far [greater]. Like, I can make more of an impact as a coach than I did as a player.

“So that’s your answer.”

She laughed and let the last bit of her playing bravado go.