For Her Players, Dawn Staley Is a Basketball Coach and Much More


This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that coincides with global events in March celebrating the accomplishments of women. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

As coach of the University of South Carolina women’s top-ranked basketball team, Dawn Staley is a dynamic leader at a time of surging global popularity in women’s sports. At 53, she is a Hall of Fame point guard who guided the United States to three Olympic gold medals as a player and one as a coach. And in her 16th year at South Carolina, Coach Staley just led the team to its second straight undefeated regular season. Now she seeks her third national collegiate title. A proud Philadelphia native, Coach Staley is an outspoken advocate for gender and racial equity in sports and beyond.

Her secret to guiding young people today? Honesty and discipline, lessons she learned from her mother.

You make statements with your coaching wardrobe, and a hoodie you recently wore declared, “Everyone watches women’s sports.” What’s different now?

I just feel like there’s more access to our game. There’s more demand. I think it’s OK to tell the stories of our game and people in our game. I hope it’s not a fad. I don’t think it is. Because the fabric of our game is strong. It’s bursting at the seams right now on all levels, not just collegiately, but the W.N.B.A., even high school. Younger girls have grown up on the W.N.B.A., and during my time in college, we didn’t have that. We’ll get a big bump when the Olympics roll around.

For the first time, there’s going to be the same number of female athletes as male athletes at the Olympics. Are you amazed it took that long?

No. I’m not. I think we have been held back, intentionally, and the numbers and the demand today prove that.

Have you ever caught yourself saying “back in my day” to your players?

​​No! They had no idea what my day looked like.

Do they care?

No. This is all about them. It really is OK; I get it. I’m so used to it. So this is all about me meeting them where they are. It changes every day.

The best leaders are the best communicators. How have you adapted your communication style over the decades?

I think I’m very consistent with who I am. As a young person, I didn’t really talk. I was the youngest of five kids, so I sat back and observed. Once I got older, I started figuring out the things that have to be said. I govern my life, being a leader, a coach, a colleague, on how something looks, feels and sounds. If something looks or sounds or feels wrong, I’m going to say something. I can’t not say anything. And then the same, if something looks, sounds or feels great, like, I give it the same energy the other way.

Enforcing discipline is central to your leadership. Did you get that from your mother, Estelle?

Absolutely. I am more like my mother. As a youngster, I loved her, but I didn’t like her because she was very strict. And it’s hard for young people to see what your parents are trying to shield you from.

How do you approach your leadership beyond the basketball court?

If young people come to play for you, you have to give them your all, give them their wants and needs. One of my former players, when she was on her official visit here, her mother was a little skeptical about South Carolina. If you look at the history books, you get a not-so-pleasant picture. Until you come visit. And then at the end of her visit, the mother actually said something that no other parent has said to me. But it’s the very thing that guides me, that allows me to have the stamina, that allows me to meet young people where they are and try to take them where they want to go. She said to me, “I give you my child.”

Whether I have to love them or show them a little bit of tough love along the journey, ultimately I keep that line in perspective.

You are always generous in sharing credit. After your two national championships, you mailed snippets of the net to other young Black coaches. Why?

I feel like I’ve been put in the position where I owe basketball. So I’m really trying to repay my debt. I want people to feel what I feel about basketball. The people that I meet in men’s and women’s basketball, they tell me what I mean to them and what I mean to the game. I’m inspired by their aspirations.

Besides winning another championship, what aspirations do you have left?

I want to be the best dream merchant I can be. That’s it, simply. I want all my players to check off all of their goals. I want our assistant coaches, if they want to be head coaches, to check off their goals. I don’t have a want for anything. Well, actually, I’ve got one want. I want to go in the Hall of Fame as a coach.

Why is that so important to you?

Because you’re amongst the best. And that means you’ve impacted lives.

The Phoenix Club of Philadelphia sponsors the annual Dawn Staley Award for the best female guard in Division I. Caitlin Clark, who just passed Pete Maravich to set the N.C.A.A. career scoring record, has won it three years in a row. How do you feel about that, especially after Clark’s Iowa team eliminated yours last year?

Well, I get a vote! In her first year, nobody was giving her the credit. But Caitlin was throwing these numbers from year one. And you know, I like to do things differently. I almost like to go against the mainstream and find young people who are doing things quietly and aren’t getting the publicity that they deserve.

So you knew. You had it first.

Absolutely. It’s not hard to see. She’s a generational talent.

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