Dawn Staley: "We are the Sleeping Giant"

Dawn Staley soon leaves to help coach the US Women's Olympic Basketball team in China. Then she returns to the USC to continue shaping the school's program to the new head coach's satisfaction. What has occurred "in between" playing and coaching in the Olympics matters most to her, just like the work "in between" taking shots on the basketball court is what matters most to her as a coach.

Staley's main focus as an Olympic assistant coach is to help Head Coach Anne Donavan get the players to focus on the goal of winning a Gold Medal among the distractions of thousands of athletes gathered for competition in a foreign country.

"I know that a lot of things around, on the peripheral, are going to be distracting, but (the players) are going to have to maintain some focus," said Staley.

Staley had the singular honor of being elected by her fellow Olympians to carry the flag into the Opening Ceremonies at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games before tens of thousands of people. The US Women won the gold there. She also won gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. "That's my job as an assistant coach, to reach the players, because I'm just removed from playing (in the Olympics)."

In between these Olympiads, she graduated from college, played in the WNBA, became a head women's college basketball coach, and now has been hired to coach in the toughest women's college basketball conference in the country, the Southeastern Conference. The stages of her success may be separated by Olympic appearances, but there is a common theme.

Like many coaches, Staley understands that players who grow up to excel at basketball always know how to shoot and score. Therefore, she preaches defense. What happens "in between" her players taking shots in a game, she believes is the key to winning the game, even thought most fans center on the scoring.

"I emphasize defense. Defense is my statement. Defense is the thing that has gotten me this far in my coaching career. Defense has won a lot more games than offense. Maybe it was the personnel that I had, but you're not going to win a lot of basketball games with your emphasis just being on offense," said Staley in a calm, even voice. "That's my style."

Staley says USC will be content to play with the players recruited by former Coach Susan Walvius this coming season, but will be looking to practice, play and recruit her type of player.

"If you love to play and it's your passion and you work hard - those are my favorite players. A lot of coaches say they don't have favorite players. The hardest workers are my favorite players."

Staley‘s success at Temple – four Atlantic 10 Tournament titles, six NCAA appearances while in her hometown of Philadelphia – makes one wonder why she chose to come to Carolina. Family was a big consideration for her taking the USC job. Staley's mother currently lives near Saluda, and will likely move in with her brother and sister-in-law in Columbia, big factors in her decision to leave a successful program in comfortable surroundings.

"I tell the players I'm recruiting, 'Any big decision you make, there's going to be some sacrifice,'" said the 38 year old. "It brings our family together - a part of our family that we don't get to see as much as we like." Her sister, living in Raleigh, N.C., also made the decision easier.

Staley also realized it was an opportunity to compete as a head coach in the best women's basketball conference in the country, the SEC.

"I just felt like, as a coach, I would like to challenge myself - challenge myself to compete with some of the best coaches in the country, to compete in the SEC, which I've been told is the best conference in the country. When you have those two things, which are very important to me, then I get the best of both worlds."

But if winning a national championship is every coach's goal, Columbia South Carolina is a logical next step. And she thinks Carolina can win in women's basketball.

"I think we have the key ingredients to be very successful. We have it all. We have a tremendous coaching staff, we have an A.D. (Eric Hyman) who is changing the outlook on this whole campus, and I think it's a wonderful movement."

"We're not Tennessee. We haven't won a national championship or been to a Final Four. But if you're that type of kid that wants to be part of something different and that is special, I think we are the sleeping giant."

"I think the bottom line is, we've got to win," she said, pointing to the success, and thus the popularity, of the programs at Tennessee and Georgia. "I don't expect us to fill this arena with us not winning basketball games. We have to win. We have to be patient with winning as well. You have to do things the right way."

Staley believes the keys to success at Carolina will be organization, and - especially during the first years of her program - outworking other programs and players. "When you have the intangible things right, the intangible things will come into fruition. That's the type of players that you need to be successful."

In between her Olympic experiences that culminated with carrying the US flag in the 2004 Athens Opening Ceremony, there have been definite benchmarks. During the process, she became a successful head coach, which led her to a position as an assistant basketball coach for the US team.

The next step in her Olympic career would be to become the head coach, a position reserved for successful and dedicated head coaches, such as Pat Summit. That step will require lots of success at Carolina, an "in between" time of hard work and progression, somewhat like defense that comes between possessions and shots in a game, something not shown on highlight films and video clips.

It's not much different from Olympic sports themselves that garner scant attention outside the Olympic games. Dawn Staley is dedicated to what's in between the baskets by her team that holds the average fan's attention in a game, dedicated to defense and the hard working player. The events in between her moments in the international spotlight have already propelled her upward, based on defense and hard work. That attitude has taken her to this point, and if Dawn Staley is to become the USA Olympic Team's Head Women's Basketball Coach one day, fans of USC women's basketball and its players and coaches will reap many benefits from what's in between now and then.

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