Sylvia Hatchell’s North Carolina women’s basketball team had just been dismantled in mid-December by Dawn Staley’s up-and-coming South Carolina team at Myrtle Beach, a 31-point beatdown that left the veteran Hatchell virtually speechless.
Yet in the few powerful words Hatchell did speak, she unknowingly signaled that Staley’s program had arrived. In Staley’s fourth season, her team had finally bought into her teachings and her system.
“They’re a bunch of street fighters,” Hatchell said.
It is the mentality Staley’s team takes into USC’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003 this weekend in West Lafayette, Ind. It is a mentality four seasons in the making, four seasons of players adapting to a demanding coach and four seasons of a coach willing to change the method of conveying her message.
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Away from basketball, Dawn Staley is shy. She prefers to eat lunch — always a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich — in the privacy of her practice facility office on the USC campus. Yet there is an easy way to break Staley out of her shell.
Talk basketball, a game she respects as much as she loves.
Staley played with passion and determination as an All-American at Virginia and in the WNBA, and now coaches with the same zeal and resolve. So it really is no surprise to outsiders that her basketball team is playing on the NCAA’s big stage in such a short period of time at USC.
Perhaps the only one surprised is Staley, and that’s because she did not believe it would take this long.
“I was sort of naïve. I really was naïve when I came here,” Staley said. “I (believed) I had the formula to success at Temple. It really is very similar to what we’re doing now, it just took a little bit longer.”
It took longer because Staley was forced, and was willing, to change. Having recognized that she was dealing with a different type of athlete at USC than at Temple, Staley altered her tone. Gone were the stare downs on the sideline that marked her first couple of seasons at USC. Gone were the looks of disgust and mini-tantrums when players failed to live up to her expectations.
“I’m the first person, if I’ve made a mistake, I raise my hand high and say, ‘I made a mistake.’ ” Staley said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
No one in basketball knows Staley better than Lisa Boyer, who served as Staley’s assistant coach for six seasons at Temple and followed her to USC. Along the way, Boyer has witnessed a couple of transformations in Staley’s coaching style.
Staley directed Temple to four Atlantic-10 Conference championships and six NCAA tournament appearances in eight seasons. Early on, according to Boyer, Staley faced the same challenge most superstar athletes encounter when they go into coaching: Expecting their players to perform at the same level and with the same fire as when they played.
Ray Tanner, USC’s baseball coach, vividly recalled sitting courtside at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum to watch Staley as a player at Virginia. She stood out, Tanner said, and not just because she was the best player on the court.
“The eyes,” Tanner said of Staley. “You saw it in her eyes. I thought, holy smokes, this is not a young woman here playing basketball. There is more to it than that.”
Staley initially expected the same “eyes” from her Temple players. She was fortunate on two fronts in dealing with Temple athletes. Most were star-struck by their young coach — she was 30 at the time of her hire. Most also grew up playing pick-up games in Philadelphia where they learned the same street fighter mindset of their coach.
By the time Staley arrived at USC, she had learned to accept that no player could match her level of play or desire to play the game. She still expected her USC players to have the same respect for the game and the same single-mindedness that she got from her Temple players.
“I was coming to the SEC with a team full of players who loved to play basketball and would do anything to play basketball. Yet, they had another life,” Staley said. “They wanted to be doctors and lawyers and psychiatrists and all of those things. We had to find the right balance to give them what they wanted to stimulate them from an academic standpoint as well an athletic standpoint.”
Even with that recognition, Staley said she would not budge in a couple of othere areas. She knew her system of playing basketball would work at any level, including the SEC, where teams annually compete for national championships. Also, there was no wavering on discipline, on or off the court.
Staley often talks about “basketball gods.” She believes if a player or coach takes a shortcut, or caves on a spur-of-the-moment decision, the “basketball gods,” will come back to haunt the team.
Thus, she does not bend when it comes to team rules. Case in point: With her assistants pleading for mercy, Staley suspended starting forward Charenee Stephens and left her home for the second game of the 2009-10 season at Clemson. Stephens’ absence could have been the difference in USC’s two-overtime loss, but Staley was willing to sacrifice the loss rather than take on the “basketball gods.”
She deals with every player in the same manner, even star-studded recruits such as 6-foot-5 center Kelsey Bone, considered by many as the top prospect in the country two years ago, and 6-foot freshman forward Kayla Brewer, another top-level signee a year later. Bone departed after one season and Brewer after one semester.
Yet Staley comes close to bristling at the suggestion that there is a cause and effect to the defections and her change in coaching style. She said Bone’s decision to leave hurt because the staff had invested so much time into landing the star recruit. Staley said Brewer simply did not give USC enough time before transferring.
Beyond that, Staley said the departures were more reason to believe she is dealing with a different kind of athlete these days. She has had discussions with Tanner, who recognized the change and a couple of years ago altered his dugout demeanor.
“Not being cynical, but times have changed,” Tanner said. “Back when I came through, if you didn’t get yelled at and screamed at and chastised, they weren’t coaching and you weren’t very important. I had to go through that.”
So did Staley. She has employed an outside firm to conduct team building sessions in each of the past three off-seasons. But the real turning point came following the 2010-11 season when USC failed to reach the NCAA tournament.
Staley and Boyer both recognized what was missing.
“You’ve got to communicate with them differently,” Boyer recalled telling Staley. “There is no shock value anymore. You’ve got to come down. You’ve got to figure out a way to get to them.”
Staley took Boyer’s talk to heart.
“Sometimes in the heat of battle you say things you want heard,” Staley said. “But sometimes it’s lost in your tone. For me, my message was being lost in the tone and probably my intensity and my passion for the game.
“So, when they’re not getting it, it goes from your passion and your intensity to anger. Then it’s lost in all of those things. I didn’t want it lost. I wanted to be heard. So, I had to step back and re-evaluate things. They weren’t hearing me the way they needed to hear me. Let me take it down a notch, so my message can be heard.”
The result is a USC team that now hears Staley, quietly and clearly.
The trademark of this USC team is its intelligent play with the basketball and its fierce attacking nature on the defensive end. Hatchell hit it right when she described the Gamecocks as street fighters.
The difference from previous teams is that if USC does not play that way throughout every game, the players no longer are on the receiving end of Staley’s wrath. They do know, though, that the “basketball gods” might get them.