Ron Morris

Morris: Investment in Staley paying off for USC

AT DAWN STALEY’S introduction as the South Carolina women’s basketball coach in May 2008, there existed almost as much stir about her annual salary as her coaching skills.

USC fans, and even a few male coaches within the athletics department, thought athletics director Eric Hyman had lost his mind in securing Staley with a $650,000-a-year contract.

The Internet message boards accused Hyman of throwing fool’s gold at a sinking ship. Radio talk show chatter questioned the wisdom – OK, sanity – of paying the women’s basketball coach more than the baseball coach.

Staley has proved worthy of every penny she was paid then. She also is deserving of her current salary, which jumped to $725,000 two years ago when she entertained an offer to leave USC for Ohio State.

Staley has proved her merit – and beyond – through winning. Her USC teams have notched 25 or more victories each of the past three seasons, which concluded with NCAA tournament berths. Her latest edition won 29 games, captured the SEC regular-season title and advanced to the NCAA tournament field of 16.

In so doing, Staley has brought unprecedented national attention to the women’s basketball program and, in turn, to the USC athletics department and school. Her program is on the cusp of being mentioned with Connecticut, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Duke, Stanford and Baylor among the game’s elite.

All the success and all the attention is the result of Staley doing what the men’s basketball program failed to do at a critical juncture in its history: Keep homegrown talent at home.

“We’ve been spoiled, to a certain degree, to be able to have top recruits in the country right here in our backyard,” Staley says.

While, no doubt, that is a stroke of great fortune, Staley has seized the opportunity to secure that talent.

The string of instate recruiting bonanzas began four years ago when Aleighsa Welch, a South Carolina Miss Basketball out of Goose Creek, signed. The next year, it was Asia Dozier, a four-time South Carolina player of the year out of Spring Valley. Then it was Alaina Coates, a McDonald’s All-American from Dutch Fork.

Finally, last week, A’ja Wilson, the nation’s top-rated prep player out of Heathwood Hall, jumped on board along with previously signed Kaydra Duckett, a five-star recruit from Dreher.

“Getting A’ja has pretty much put the cherry on the top of everything because of her national exposure,” Staley says. “The No. 1 player in the country only brings more exposure to our program, and our ability to keep homegrown recruits right here in our program.”

The high level of women’s basketball talent coming out of South Carolina is reminiscent of an eight-year stretch during the 1980s when men’s players out of the Columbia area could have comprised a national championship contending team. Yet Tyrone Corbin (A.C. Flora) went to DePaul, Xavier McDaniel (A.C. Flora) headed to Wichita State, Danny Pearson (Eau Claire) to Georgia Tech, Glenn McCants (Eau Claire) to Clemson, Rodney Taylor (A.C. Flora) to Villanova, Stanley Roberts (Lower Richland) to LSU and Anton Brown (A.C. Flora) to Massachusetts. Later, Derrick Carroll (Eau Claire) went to Florida State and Jermaine O’Neal (Eau Claire) directly to the NBA.

During that period, USC landed Barry Manning and Joe Rhett out of Eau Claire, and JoJo English from Lower Richland, but for the Gamecocks it became much more about the talent that got away than the talent on hand.

Unfortunately for USC, the lost opportunity to corral much of that vast expanse of homegrown stock has resulted in the men’s program scrambling to recover ever since. Fortunately for the Gamecocks, Staley retained nearly all of the South Carolina-grown talent.

The one recruit who got away was Spring Valley’s Xylina McDaniel, who two years ago took her game to North Carolina. Even so, Staley has stockpiled enough native players to make USC a national championship contender next season.

Her latest recruiting class is considered the second best in the country, and one early preseason poll has USC ranked No. 2 nationally. Should USC reach one Final Four, Staley’s net worth to the athletics department and the school would further skyrocket.

That makes Staley laugh when reminded of those early critics.

“I didn’t hear a whole lot of (the salary talk) because I don’t do message boards,” she says. “Obviously, Eric saw something in me and in South Carolina and he thought it was a pretty good fit all the way around. It goes to show that when you see something and you have vision about something, sometimes the dollar figure doesn’t really matter.”

And how.