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Morris: Fate, Spurrier brings Staley to USC

Indirectly, and unbeknownst to him, Steve Spurrier had a hand in the hiring of Dawn Staley as South Carolina’s women’s basketball coach.

Shortly after Susan Walvius announced her resignation, Eric Hyman began compiling an “A” list of candidates to replace her. These were names Hyman recognized as pipe dreams, coaches certain to command too high a salary for USC’s budget or coaches who would not leave their current team.

Hyman began making indirect contact with everyone on that list. He gathered what he likes to call the “byline” on every candidate. The “byline,” or read, on Hartford’s Jennifer Rizzotti was that she wanted to be the next coach at her alma mater, Connecticut. The read on another coach was she would not leave the West Coast because of her ailing mother.

The read on Dawn Staley was that getting her to leave her native Philadelphia would be difficult. Only the lure of her alma mater, Virginia, could pull Staley away from Temple.

Hyman then scrolled further down his list, all the while accepting phone calls from others who were interested in the job. One such call came unexpectedly from Ralph Cross, whom Hyman remembered meeting last fall in Knoxville, Tenn., on the Neyland Stadium sideline before USC’s football game against Tennessee.

Cross is the CEO of Patient Physician Network Holding Co. in Dallas. He also is a childhood friend of Spurrier. The two were teammates in Johnson City, Tenn., on a Babe Ruth baseball team coached by Spurrier’s father, Graham.

Cross kept in contact with Spurrier, even when Cross was at Florida State and his buddy was winning the Heisman Trophy at Florida.

When Spurrier moved on to the NFL, Cross obtained his master’s degree at George Washington then joined the Army and served one year in Vietnam. All the while, Cross kept in touch with Spurrier.

Because they remained friends over the years, Spurrier began giving Cross a sideline pass when Spurrier was the coach at Florida. Cross joined Spurrier’s brother, Graham, as well as friends Joe Cowell and Steve Grills, on the Florida sideline for home and away games.

The foursome continued the reunions when Spurrier coached two seasons of pro football with Washington. The tradition continues at USC, and the four seldom miss a game.

So when Cross called, Hyman was intrigued. Cross said his son, Tom, was Staley’s agent. Cross told Hyman that Staley was interested in the USC job.

Hyman nearly dropped his phone. He was surprised. Stunned. Thrilled. He had a leading candidate for the job.

“Steve and Eric Hyman brought class and major credibility to South Carolina, and I urged my son to aggressively pursue getting this job for (Staley),” Ralph Cross said. “I would not have become involved if Steve hadn’t been there.”

Tom Cross and Staley first connected when Staley played for the Houston Comets of the WNBA and Cross served as an assistant coach and director of player personnel. Their friendship morphed into a business relationship, and Cross now represents Staley as her agent.

“There was a general perception that Dawn would never leave Temple,” Tom Cross said. “It was our job to let her know what is going on and what’s available. ... Dawn’s always wanted to coach in the SEC. She wants to be on the biggest stage and be challenged against her peers at the highest level. This was an opportunity that I knew that if they were curious, I knew she’d listen.”

Staley eventually returned from her trip to China as an assistant coach with the U.S. National Women’s Team and visited Columbia. Then Hyman spent a day with Staley in Philadelphia, even visiting the neighborhood where she was reared.

Both sides believed Staley was the perfect hire for USC. The holdup was contract negotiations, and Tom Cross waited patiently as Hyman convinced the USC board of trustees that a $650,000 package for Staley was justified if USC wanted the best.

Somewhere along the line, Hyman mentioned to Staley that Spurrier had a great interest in women’s basketball. In fact, Hyman told Staley that Spurrier and his wife, Jerri, often attend USC home games.

Spurrier’s support for women’s basketball further piqued Staley’s interest in USC. It proved to be another way that Spurrier indirectly and unknowingly helped get Staley to Columbia.