Dawn Staley Takes the Reigns at USC

The Gamecocks officially introduced new women's basketball coach Dawn Staley Saturday afternoon to a standing room only crowd at the basketball practice facility. Staley's hiring was announced on Wednesday, but Saturday marked the first time she has spoken publicly since the decision was made.

Staley replaces former coach Susan Walvius, who resigned after 11 seasons in Columbia. Under Walvius, the Gamecocks missed the NCAA Tournament each of the last five years. Over that same span, Staley's Temple teams played in the NCAA Tournament every year, winning the Atlantic 10 tournament championship three times.

A Philadelphia native, Staley comes to Columbia after eight seasons at Temple, where she compiled a record of 172-80.

Like new men's basketball coach Darrin Horn, Staley quickly won over the room at her press conference. After University President Andrew Sorenson gave Staley a Gamecock ballcap for a photo-op, Staley approached the podium and looked around.

"Should I keep the hat on?" she asked with a smile. The room chuckled at the question, so Staley wore the hat for the remainder of the press conference, her new colors taking precedence over her fashion sense.

Staley comes to South Carolina with an impressive resume. As a player at Virginia, she took her teams to three Final Fours. She played professionally in the ABL and then the WBNA, where she played six years for the Charlotte Sting and was a five time all-star. She also won three Olympic gold medals with the U.S. National team, and carried the United States flag during the opening ceremonies in 2004.

Concurrent with her playing career, Staley also became the head coach of the Temple Owls. She had no intention of becoming a coach, but in 2000 she was convinced to take the helm of her hometown team.

"I never wanted to be a coach in my life," said Staley. "I didn't want to be one of them. I looked at it like I'm 29 years old and I didn't really want to be responsible for 15 young people. I wasn't ready for that. But when he said, "I challenge you to turn our program around," that's the thing that got me. I'm driven by challenges."

Coaching soon became her passion, and in 2006 she added duties as an assistant coach on the U.S. National (Olympic) Team, and hopes to one day become the head coach. Coaching initially appealed to Staley's competitive side, but she now appreciates the opportunity to positively influence her players. She said the hardest part of deciding to come to Carolina was having to leave her team, describing the decision as "bittersweet."

"The downside was Tuesday night when I had to tell my team I was taking another position," said Staley. "That was probably the worst (thing). The best part was that the reason why they were crying and disappointed was [that I had] affected their lives on a daily basis."

Staley cited two primary reasons the Gamecocks appealed to her. Although Staley is a Philadelphia native, and she has a number of charitable causes in the city, her mother is in ailing health, and was born in Swansea, South Carolina (although Staley accidentally said "North Carolina," before laughingly correcting herself). The chance to move with her mother back near her family was very important for the 38-year old Staley. Also important was the opportunity to compete in the SEC, which she described as the premiere conference for women's basketball.

"I know [Carolina] is committed to the women's basketball program," she said. "I want to coach against what are considered the best coaches in the country, in one of the best conferences in the country."

"It was a very, very difficult decision," Staley continued. "My mother's health had a lot to do with it. I felt like if I came down here I would get a lot more help in ensuring that she is okay when I travel and go on the road. Professionally, I like to be challenged. I like to do things that the very best are doing just to measure myself as a coach. Temple University afforded me the opportunity to hone my skills as a coach, and it was time to move on and do something different. This situation fit perfectly for where I am in my life."

Staley's goal is to play an up-tempo style of basketball, and press on defense, the same style she used so effectively at Temple. However, she noted that the Gamecocks' style of play next season will be dictated by personnel, and there may be growing pains. She will have to adapt her style until she brings in the talent that suits her preferred style, although she joked that when it comes to winning, "I'm patient, but not that patient." When asked about her style, though, she preferred to talk about how she hopes to create well-rounded student athletes.

"The University of South Carolina women's basketball team is going to be synonymous with working hard and doing things the right way," Staley said. "I can't make decisions for our student athletes, [but] what I can do is help to give them the consequences to any decision that they make."

Staley's hiring makes her the first "major sport" African-American head coach at South Carolina. Track and field coach Curtis Frye is also an African-American, but Staley's national reputation and her role in a much more visible sport make her the highest profile African American coach at Carolina. Staley admitted some pride in knowing that she is a groundbreaker, but said she thinks too much us made of the color of her skin.

"The color of my skin is black," she said, "but my outlook on life is just people. It's just basketball. I think it's a wonderful thing that the University of South Carolina chose me for […] what I've done regardless of the color of my skin."

Staley was already one of the highest-paid coaches in women's basketball, and her five-year contract with Carolina raises her salary even further. She will make at least $650,000 a year, with incentives for up to $340,000 more. Additionally, Carolina will help pay Staley's buyout from Temple. The contract will pay Staley more than baseball coach Ray Tanner, who makes $345,000 a season. That level of financial commitment from athletics director Eric Hyman means there will be pressure for Staley to win and get fans to attend games, but Staley is not feeling it.

"I don't coach for money," she said. "[The pressure] won't be from a standpoint of I have to win basketball games because they are paying me a certain amount of money. I'm going to work regardless. I would coach and I would play basketball for nothing because it's my passion."

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