Dawn Staley takes her fourth-ranked South Carolina basketball team to face No. 7 Ohio State on Monday.
If situations had been different three years ago, it could’ve been Staley’s team welcoming South Carolina to Columbus.
“They did call. They called Ray,” Staley said. “It’s just a business.”
In March 2013, Ohio State parted ways with longtime coach Jim Foster, now at Chattanooga. One of the names on the Buckeyes’ list was Staley, who had just finished a 25-8 NCAA Tournament season at USC.
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Staley was in her native Philadelphia when Ohio State contacted USC athletics director Ray Tanner, then in his first year on the job. They asked for permission to contact Staley and he granted it, then got to work.
Tanner knew Staley’s budding program was about to bear heavy fruit. The Gamecocks had improved from 10 to 25 wins in Staley’s first five years, made back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament and recruiting had landed three straight South Carolina Miss Basketball winners (with a future fourth, A’ja Wilson, grouping USC in her top four schools).
It was Easter weekend, but as Tanner knew, athletics decisions don’t observe holidays. He called Staley and asked for a meeting before she went to Columbus.
Ohio State called that Friday. By Sunday, Tanner and Staley had met.
By Sunday evening, Staley had told Ohio State thanks, but no thanks.
“I don’t know how serious Ohio State was,” Staley said. “But I do know how serious South Carolina was in not wanting to lose me. They made it worth my while not to take the trip.”
Staley soon received a contract extension, and another in 2015 made her the first woman coach in USC history to make more than $1 million per season. Her teams have kept improving, with five straight tournament trips, three straight SEC regular-season championships and two straight SEC Tournament championships.
USC games became must-see theater and Colonial Life Arena has led the country in women’s attendance over the past two years, the same amount of time USC has ranked in the weekly AP top five. The NCAA changed its postseason rules to award merit-based regionals as well, meaning the Gamecocks could stay at home for the first two rounds of the tournament.
Ohio State turned to Kevin McGuff, who assisted at Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame before leading Xavier to six NCAA Tournaments in nine years (coincidentally, McGuff replaced Melanie Balcomb, now a USC assistant, at Xavier). He logged two years at Washington before coming back home and taking the Buckeyes to two straight tournaments and a preseason top-10 ranking this year.
It’s worked out for Ohio State and South Carolina. Staley has built a phenomenon with the Gamecocks, which like Tanner in 2013, she saw coming.
“Honestly, what we were doing here at South Carolina was much more significant than taking a trip to look at what Ohio State had to offer,” Staley said.
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One ranking of the 10 best active women’s college basketball coaches
1. Geno Auriemma
11 national titles
2. Tara VanDerveer
Should win her 1,000th game this season
3. Sylvia Hatchell
Former coach at Francis Marion
4. Muffet McGraw
Irish are preseason No. 1
5. C. Vivian Stringer
971 wins over three stops
6. Jim Foster
Latest project is the Lady Mocs (82-16 in three years)
7. Kim Mulkey
National title as a coach and player
8. Dawn Staley
Turned Gamecocks into one of the country’s elite
9. Gary Blair
Won more than 700 games, all after age 40
10. Barbara Stevens
Closing in on 1,000 wins