Her purpose has been seven seasons in the making, yet Dawn Staley has instilled a mindset that South Carolina women’s basketball is a national championship contender.
Establishing that line of thinking sometimes has been a two-step forward, one-step backward process for Staley and her coaching staff.
Through it all, Staley said she never wavered in her belief that her program would be among the nation’s elite.
“I didn’t have any doubts, but the struggle was very real when you’re not winning as much as you’re working hard. What we put ourselves through as a staff is we had to understand it’s a process.
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“The same things we ask each freshman as they come into our program, it’s a process. There are going to be ups, there are going to be downs. If you just stay the course, things will work out.”
Embedding this approach in her program was rooted in Staley’s playing days at Virginia and further established during her first head-coaching job at Temple.
“You have to have core values,” Staley said. “You have to have principles about how you coach the game. For our coaching staff, they stayed disciplined, stay disciplined to the recruiting, stayed disciplined to how basketball should be played and stayed disciplined to just out-working people.”
When Staley arrived at USC for the 2008-09 season, she could not realistically talk to recruits about someday playing for conference or national championships. Initially, it was difficult convincing top high school recruits to take a chance on a program that had not experienced sustained success since before those players were born.
Staley’s first recruiting class of six players included one who transferred in and had to sit a season, three who played one season before transferring, and La’Keisha Sutton and Charenee Stephens, who proved to be solid contributors over four seasons.
Then Staley made a splash with her second recruiting class, landing the nation’s No. 2-rated prospect – 6-foot-4 center Kelsey Bone out of Texas. It was believed to be the signature signing for Staley’s program, the one that would push it forward and lead other recruits to sign.
Bone, the SEC Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, dealt what first was believed to be a huge blow to Staley’s building process when she left the program for Texas A&M. Eventually, Bone’s departure showed that Staley was not willing to change course or make concessions for any player, no matter her talent.
“There’s a certain way to do things,” Staley said. “Sometimes you want to take shortcuts. But for us, we’ve never taken a shortcut.”
That meant not changing the way Staley wanted her team to play, even if it resulted in losing games along the way. Over her first three seasons, USC was 42-48 overall and 17-29 in the SEC.
Then came the breakthrough.
Staley’s fourth recruiting class included five players, the most noteworthy being 6-4 center Elem Ibiam of Fayetteville, Ga., and 6-foot forward Aleighsa Welch of Goose Creek.
While recruiting the two, Staley recognized a line of top-level talent from South Carolina forming behind them in Myrtle Beach guard Khadijah Sessions, Dutch Fork center Alaina Coates, Spring Valley guard Asia Dozier and Heathwood Hall forward A’ja Wilson.
Staley began talking to recruits about national championships.
“It was something she definitely pitched to us,” Welch said of herself and Ibiam. “It was something she wanted us to really believe in. It was something we talked about on my home visit. ... It was something we talked about and also something she wanted us to be able to build together. She wanted us to come in and start this legacy and keep this legacy once we left.”
Since the arrival of Ibiam and Welch, USC has posted a 113-25 record, including 50-14 in the SEC, to go with two conference regular-season titles and one SEC tournament crown.
USC’s appearance this weekend in the women’s basketball Final Four means Staley now can pitch to all recruits that the Gamecocks are an annual national championship contender.
It is a mindset she has created for her program.