Compared to how she played, the demeanor is mostly calm.
It starts with her sitting down, a tube of paper clenched in her fist. At the first mistake, or if somebody’s not paying attention in the pre-game huddle, she’s out of the chair, pointing, glaring, yelling instruction.
If it’s quickly corrected, the game is going smoothly, South Carolina is way ahead, coach Dawn Staley is most often the picture of serenity, swapping the paper tubes for each new stat sheet that’s passed out and sometimes talking to her guards as they take the ball up the floor.
If not, she becomes how she was as one of the most decorated players in the game’s history – animated, sometimes fiery.
Over the past two seasons, as the Gamecocks have progressed from a program bidding for success to a consistent winner, Staley can often be seen in her seat on the sideline, watching, observing, filing. That’s a product of having more talent, of not having to micro-manage the tiniest detail.
But her intensity is a simmering fire – it will only take one missed assignment to stoke the embers back into a flame.“I think by nature, she’s an intense person when it comes to basketball,” said Cynthia “C.J.” Jordan, USC’s director of basketball operations. “She likes to see the game played the right way.”
Staley sits down, the sheet rolled in her hand, as the game begins. The Gamecocks know the sets or plays that are the best for them to run after the opening tip. Sometimes, Staley will stay seated until the first four-minute break.
More often than not, she won’t.
There will be something to improve on – spacing, adjusting to a defense, better ball-handling, better shot selection. Even with the new 10-second backcourt rule in the women’s game, Staley will talk to her point guard as she passes by the bench.
“I know she’s probably watching it as a point guard would watch it,” associate head coach Lisa Boyer said. “She sees the flow of the game, the things that are open. We see certain things like if a kid might need to come out, or kids that are open.”
Throughout the game, Staley will stand with her arms crossed, peering at what’s going on. That can end one of two ways – sitting back down with a neutral expression (“That’s how it was supposed to be done”) or sitting back down with a disgusted look, sometimes after a foot stomp (the opposite).
“She’s pretty calm,” said assistant coach Nikki McCray. “If someone’s not paying attention, before the tipoff, she’ll get loud. Or if we make a dumb foul, that will kind of send her over the top. She’s out of the chair, like, ‘Get her out!’”
The three on the bench see the gamut of Staley’s emotions during a game and have seen it for a while. All have been with Staley throughout her tenure at USC, and all have associated Staley before USC – Boyer coached Staley professionally for two seasons, McCray was a Team USA squadmate and Jordan played under Staley at Temple.
All agree that one thing is a constant – Staley is much calmer now than she has been.
As a player, Staley’s steel-eyed determination on the court was matched by a merry personality off it. Even sitting on the bench, she could take the pressure out of a situation.
“She was a jokester,” McCray said. “When I was playing with her, she always kept us laughing, for whatever reason. When she got on the court, it was serious business.”
Boyer got Staley as a pro with the Richmond/Philadelphia Rage and saw the same as McCray. She also saw the leadership qualities that would make Staley into one of the game’s best coaches.
“Just an outstanding vision when it came to any part of the game,” Boyer said. “I met her when she just got of the ’96 Olympics. She was on fire. She was really, really, really good. What a talent – in my opinion, the best that ever played at that position. She had verbal command of her team, and she had a lot of it.”
The professional game led to more Olympic appearances and then to a head coaching spot at Temple, where Staley quickly turned the Owls into a contender. Jordan was one of her players.
Coaching Philadelphia-area kids in Philadelphia, Staley could be tough on her squad. It’s something that she had to tame once she got to USC, since she had a broader recruiting base and a harsher league.
“For the coaches, I don’t think they have to worry about certain things that we worried about in Year 1 or Year 2,” Jordan said. “That part of it is gone. Now it’s just a matter of focusing in on execution. You don’t have to really be in everybody’s face to get results.”
The coaching style has evolved. Staley doesn’t have to instruct every play because trust in her talent has taken over. That doesn’t mean that everything is always peachy keen, though.
“We throw out different options, to change the defense, to match up depending on what you’re looking for,” Boyer said. “A lot of that happens way before the game. Anyone of us who makes a good call, she’ll say, ‘Good call,’ give you a high-five or pat you on the back. There are other times where it’s not so friendly. You just have to understand the heat of the battle.”
Staley’s had her moments, Jordan remembering a game as a player where Staley got so incensed she slammed her hand on the scorer’s table, earning a technical foul. As it turned out, Temple got energized and won the game.
McCray recalled a game at LSU where Staley was also teed up, arguing with an official over a series of what she thought unfair calls when the Gamecocks were playing their hearts out. “I didn’t have to pull on her, but coach Boyer had to grab her,” McCray said. “Our kids were playing so hard, and things were not going right, and coach was livid. She fought for our kids.”
Hypothetically, in a close game, USC down a point with the ball, 12 seconds left? The cool-customer approach takes over. “I think Dawn is extremely confident in those situations,” Boyer said. “She knows what she wants, knows what’s she looking for. She’s thinking like a point guard. I don’t think Dawn flinches in those situations.”
She has considerably calmed as her teams have gotten better, although a slow start and the constant eye on the point guards can raise her roof at any time. But practices can be just as fiery as some of those first sessions.
“When it comes to game time, I think coach is pretty calm,” Jordan said. “I think we got most of it in practice, that she has made sure she put us in position to win.”
Laughing is allowed in small doses.
“She’s interactive and they cut up and laugh and have fun,” McCray said. “We have fun and they understand when it’s time to have fun and time to be serious.”
There will always be times where her ire is raised, but it’s necessary to achieve the main goal.
“We’re all trying to win,” Boyer said. “Dawn certainly wants to win. She’s pretty animated. You can tell it by her face. Sometimes she’s like, ‘Why don’t they understand?,’ but it’s 18- and 19-year-old kids.”
Staley gets that.
At least until the first pass is rifled into the stands.
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