You can win a national championship, four consecutive SEC tournament titles and advance to five straight Sweet 16s, but in the brutal world of college recruiting, nothing comes easy for anyone, even South Carolina’s Dawn Staley.
“I wish it was an easy process, but it’s never easy because it’s so fluid. Kids are so fickle. One week they like you, one week you get one-word text responses, the next week you get paragraphs. It’s so fluid, it makes it difficult,” Staley told The State in an interview in August.
Granted, things are easier for Staley now that she has all the above-mentioned accomplishments compared to when she first came to USC more than a decade ago. In addition to on-court wins, she can also sell the Gamecocks’ high attendance numbers and the city of Columbia itself, she said.
“Columbia is growing every day,” Staley said. “A lot of times, some of these parents like to move to where their kids attend school, and it’s a great place to raise a family. We’ve had players’ parents move here and enjoy it and they still live here.”
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Staley’s overall approach to recruiting starts from the outside in — she and her assistants hone in on a prospect’s “entourage,” she said, and attempt to ingratiate themselves with the most important people in a recruit’s circle.
“You got to get the majority of their entourage, and if it’s three, that helps us because that’s less work for us and we can concentrate on who we need to concentrate on. But in having conversations with all of them, the recruits and their parents, they’ll let you know who’s going to make the decision, who’s going to help make the decision, and then we do our due diligence,” Staley said.
The big challenge in recruiting, as Staley sees it, is that she and her staff don’t promise high school players too much and try to be upfront about their expectations.
“How we are in the recruiting process is pretty much how we are once you get here. There’s not a whole lot of drop off. I am a straight shooter. I ask tough questions, I ask direct questions. I expect the answers to be the same, and our players have direct questions for me and I’ll answer them directly. Some kids embrace that. Certainly their parents do. I don’t think it’s always like that,” Staley said.
Staley credited that approach of not putting players “on the pedestal” as a reason why South Carolina has had a high transfer rate — since 2014, six players who signed National Letters of Intent have transferred from USC, but the Gamecocks have taken in eight players from other schools.
“If you’re doing all this on recruiting and there’s a letdown once you get here, the recruit is like, ‘This is not how it was.’ And granted, there has be to be some transition, but it’s a little bit harder to take being up on the pedestal being someone who has to come off the bench and play an insignificant role in terms of points, rebounds and playing time. So that’s hard,” Staley said.
To help avoid that, Staley said she’s stuck with a simple rule for recruits, one she formed after a bad experience at Temple, her first coaching job.
“I have never promised a player that they will start. Never. Not A’ja Wilson, not Alaina Coates, not Tiffany Mitchell,” Staley said. “I’ve actually given a starting position to one player in my entire 18-year career. It was my first year. I just started her based on talent and based on a future projection, because she was talented, but she didn’t work harder than the people she was around, and I vowed never to do it again, because she didn’t deserve it.”
In Staley’s 11 seasons at South Carolina, just four freshmen have recorded 25 or more starts — Bianca Jackson, Tyasha Harris, Tiffany Mitchell and Kelsey Bone. That’s not the case with every program, assistant coach Jolette Law told The State.
“I think sometimes people guarantee spots. There are some programs out there that promise … they have their own approach to things,” Law said. “I’ve heard it from other people, but that’s not what the programs I’ve been a part of have chosen to do. I’ve recruited against it. In my experiences as a recruiter, I’ve heard some players say that they were guaranteed starting spots, that they were guaranteed a certain amount of minutes. To each his own, but that’s not what we’re about.”