When Dawn Staley was Virginia’s point guard, Cavaliers coach Debbie Ryan would stack the practice teams against Staley by pairing the All-American with the last four players on the bench.
The idea was to get Virginia’s other starters to step up their games.
Staley took the scrimmages as personal challenges.
“She’d look at me and say, ‘OK, that’s fine,’ ” Ryan recalled. “She would just take whoever we gave her ... and coach them and have them play to a point where they won every single time. You just couldn’t beat her.”
Friends and colleagues say Staley is at her best when faced with a test.
She has another one in front of her.
After reviving a lifeless Temple program in her hometown of Philadelphia, Staley has been hired to energize a South Carolina team that has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2003.
The 38-year-old Staley, introduced Saturday at USC, moves from the Atlantic 10 to the SEC, arguably the toughest conference in the country. She moves from Temple’s campus in north Philadelphia, near the public housing project where she grew up, to the state where her mother was born.
“I think this is a bold move for me as far as coaching. It’s going to challenge me on a lot of levels,” Staley said. “But challenges are something that I’ve never shied away from.”
That drive has taken Staley from the Raymond Rosen Homes in north Philly to Athens, Greece, where she carried the American flag for the U.S. contingent at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics.
Staley has played in three Final Fours, three Olympics and five WNBA all-star games. As a coach, Staley has made the NCAA tournament six times in eight seasons and twice was named the Atlantic 10’s coach of the year.
Not bad for someone who never wanted to coach until someone challenged her.
DRIVEN BY THE CHALLENGE
Staley grew up in a rough section of Philly and attended Dobbins Tech, the same high school that produced Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount basketball stars who were three years ahead of Staley.
But Staley made her own name at Dobbins as USA Today’s national player of the year in 1989.
When she was recruiting Staley, Ryan arrived at Dobbins for a 6 a.m. practice and saw Staley walking into the gym with a package of Hostess donuts and strawberry milk. Not exactly a breakfast of champions, but it did little to slow Staley.
“She was an icon at Dobbins,” Ryan said. “She was a tremendous high school player, head and shoulders above the high school game.”
Staley gained a reputation at Virginia as a selfless player who worked to get others involved.
“She had no ego. She had no agenda,” Ryan said. “She just had one thing she wanted to do, and that was win.”
Besides the three Final Four appearances, Staley left Charlottesville ranked sixth on the NCAA’s career steals list. The national player of the year in 1991, Staley is one of two players in ACC history to reach 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 700 assists and 400 steals.
Staley’s pro career was highlighted by trips to the finals in the now-defunct ABL and WNBA. Staley was still active in the WNBA when Temple contacted her.
When teammates or coaches would tell Staley she would make a good coach, she responded by saying she did not want to be “one of them.”
That changed when Staley learned Temple had not had a winning season in 10 years. At 29, she became the Owls’ coach without having worked a day as an assistant.
“When I went in and spoke with the athletic director, he put it in a way of challenging my leadership and me turning the program around,” she said. “That’s the thing that got me.”
The Owls won four Atlantic 10 tournament titles and became postseason fixtures under Staley, whose 172 wins are the most in program history.
“Temple wasn’t even on the map. We’re on the map now at Temple,” said assistant coach Lisa Boyer, who will accompany Staley to USC. “We’re hoping we can do that same thing here now, and it’ll be even more of a challenge because it’s the SEC.”
Staley’s coaching style has been described as a mix of on-court intensity tempered by a laid-back demeanor off of it.
“She picks her times,” said Kamesha Hairston, one of two first-round WNBA picks who played for Staley at Temple. “On the court, she really means business, but everything is not so uptight and serious. You have to have fun playing basketball.”
Mel Greenberg, who covers women’s basketball for The Philadelphia Inquirer, recalled stopping by Staley’s office one day and finding her behind her desk with several players stretched out on the floor watching soap operas.
Said Hairston: “You come by, you’re going to laugh, you’re going to have fun and you’re not going to want to leave.”
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
Many questioned whether Staley would ever leave Temple, given her Philly roots and community involvement.
At 26, she started the Dawn Staley Foundation as a way to give back to at-risk youth in her old neighborhood. The foundation sponsors a summer basketball league and an after-school program that has cared for 550 middle school girls since its inception.
But the lure of competing in the SEC and the opportunity to move her 65-year-old mother back home provided the impetus.
Angelia Nelson, the director of Staley’s foundation, believes the young girls and boys who benefit from Staley’s largesse will understand the move.
“She’s a Philadelphian. Her heart will always be in Philadelphia,” Nelson said. “But her vision is so big that the kids understand that there are so many kids like them that need to be touched, that she’ll go on to do great things in South Carolina.”
Staley’s friends believe she will do great things for the Gamecocks’ basketball fortunes, as well. USC went to the NCAA tournament twice in Susan Walvius’ 11-year tenure.
“I’m excited she’s in the SEC,” said Fox Sports analyst Teresa Edwards, a former Georgia point guard who played with Staley on two Olympic teams. “That’s a testament to a lot of great coaches in the SEC. She’s just joining the crew because she has the tools and what it takes.”
Hairston, the former Temple star now with the Connecticut Sun, said the rest of the SEC should be on alert once Staley has a year or two to recruit.
“I think she’ll do great. She’ll get the players she wants,” Hairston said. “I believe South Carolina will be the top team in the SEC in the near future. That’s how much I believe in her system.”
Staley sees USC as the next step in what has been an amazing journey.
“I look at myself as an odds-beater, from growing up in the projects to winning three gold medals to carrying the flag,” she said. “It shouldn’t stop there.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.