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Morris: Staley brings instant credibility

IT IS UNDERSTANDABLY difficult for South Carolina fans to have much foresight. For decades they have hung their hats on mediocrity and so wallowed in it that they don’t know a good thing when they see it.

Well, that might have changed Saturday when Dawn Staley was introduced as the USC women’s basketball coach. She brings to the USC program what Steve Spurrier brought to football: instant relevance.

Staley’s arrival in Columbia puts USC on the women’s basketball map. Her presence trumpets nationally that USC is serious about competing for SEC championships in all sports.

On her good name alone, Staley gains entrance into the living rooms of the nation’s top high school players. Once she gets in the door, Staley and USC can go toe to toe in recruiting with women’s basketball heavyweights Tennessee and Connecticut.

Staley carries that kind of clout.

In introducing Staley, USC athletics director Eric Hyman said she turns heads in the women’s basketball community across the nation and around the world. He said she will prove to be a role model for women’s basketball players in Columbia, at USC and throughout the state.

While the 5-foot-8 Staley barely could be seen as she spoke behind a podium and microphone Saturday, she stands 7-foot-5 in the stature she has earned in basketball circles. All you need to know about Staley is that the U.S. delegation selected her to carry our country’s flag for the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games.

Hyman saw for himself the reverence shown Staley when the two walked the streets a week ago in north Philadelphia. Hyman said Staley alternately hugged friends and waved to passing cars whose passengers pleaded with her not to leave her hometown.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of Staley in Saturday’s edition, not on the sports page but as the lead editorial. While the paper wished Staley the best at USC, it also recognized a tremendous loss to the Philadelphia community.

Staley’s desire to involve herself in the Columbia community will soon make her a more recognized goodwill ambassador for USC than even Darla Moore. No amount of money can buy USC that type of positive influence in Columbia.

Staley’s hiring could not have come at a better time for USC athletics. Its reputation nationally has lived on Spurrier’s name for the past three years. To a much lesser degree, baseball coach Ray Tanner has brought recognition to USC, and the grapevine thinking is that newcomer Darrin Horn is among the brightest minds in men’s basketball.

Staley’s hiring pushes USC athletics over the top. She already is among the five most recognizable names in women’s college basketball, just a notch below the likes of Pat Summitt at Tennessee and Geno Auriemma at Connecticut.

Mark my word, a decade from now folks around the country will scratch their heads, amazed that USC could land such a talent. That is precisely what Hyman was thinking when he first heard Staley had an interest in USC.

Hyman knew Staley carried an expensive price tag, though, more than USC has ever paid for a coach in a non-revenue sport. He also knew she would be worth every cent of the $650,000 annual salary the two parties settled on.

Hyman took his plea to the USC board of trustees because Staley will earn nearly three times that of her predecessor — and nearly double that of Tanner.

“You can get person A, but it’s going to cost a lot of money,” Hyman recalls saying to a board member. “Or, you can get person B or you can get person C, and it’s all based on dollars.

“If you’re going to do it from a business standpoint, economically you can’t justify it. Pure and simple, putting the pencil to a paper, you can’t do it on that perspective.”

Like all USC sports, except football and men’s basketball, women’s basketball loses money annually by the bucketful.

“If you look at it from a broader standpoint, the perception in what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to create winners, then you can justify it more,” Hyman recalls telling the board member. “I thought we wanted to be great here.”

The board of trustees concurred, and it verified for Staley that USC is committed to having a winning women’s basketball program. Her salary moves her into the upper echelon of the SEC. It represents what the market demands today, just as Tanner’s new, five-year deal two years ago placed him among the nation’s highest paid coaches.

“It’s a great time to be a part of this movement here at the University of South Carolina. It’s a great time,” Staley said. “I think the commitment is here. I’m truly joining a team of people who strive to be excellent. That’s what we’re going to do, starting today.”

Now, if Staley can consistently take teams to the NCAA tournament and possibly to an occasional Final Four, those USC fans who are so starved for a winner will no doubt provide unprecedented support for the program. Of course, USC fans first will have to recognize that foreign entity known as a big-time winning program.

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