For all of her sideline seriousness, Dawn Staley has become known for her silliness with her South Carolina Gamecocks.
On media day for the 2015-2016 season, the coach kidnapped star forward A’ja Wilson’s cell phone and took selfies with everyone else on the team. She posts funny videos and pictures on social media, makes wisecracks before and after practice, and uses humor in public appearances.
“She’s hilarious – they love her,” said associate head coach Lisa Boyer after the team’s National Championship win Sunday. “Even in the huddle today they were messing with her. She dances with them, she hangs out with them. She can get on their level.”
But expressing that side of herself with her players was something Staley had to learn. Doing so helped pave the way for the program’s first national title.
Staley was still playing in the WNBA when she took the head coaching job at Temple in 2000. She hired Boyer, for whom she had played for as a member of the ABL’s Richmond Rage, in 2002 as an assistant coach. In her early coaching days, Staley was busy.
“When we first started this coaching thing she was still playing, and I was (coaching) in the WNBA and she wanted me to come, but I couldn’t come at that time, in April,” Boyer said.
“At the time she needed me for the general stuff like recruiting. She couldn’t do anything in the summer because she was playing. She was on the (USA Basketball) National Team, the Olympic team and was spending all that time away from the team.”
Staley retired in 2006 and in 2008, she made the jump to coach at South Carolina. In a major conference with a program that was ranked near the bottom, there was pressure. There was also a new breed of young athletes to deal with and Boyer, who came with her as an assistant coach, said Staley was challenged to bridge the gap.
“The biggest transition was when we went from Temple to South Carolina, and initially I don’t think the kids at South Carolina were ready for her intensity,” Boyer said. “So there was a learning curve there. By the second or third year I said ‘Dawn, we’ve got to find another way.’ All they’re hearing is the noise, they’re not hearing what you’re saying to them.'”
“She said, ‘but I’m not going to sacrifice my principles,’ and I said, ‘you don’t have to, but we’ve got to find another way.’ With this generation, things are not the same.”
Boyer said Staley changed her approach.
“You want to inspire them to work hard, to get them to set goals in a different way. I think you have to communicate differently,” Boyer said. “She took it down a few notches.”
Staley became a better coach by developing bonds with her players.
“Dawn’s always been intense, but now she’s got a relationship with them,” Boyer said. “You see shots of her on the sideline and people ask ‘Why is she so serious?’ or ‘Is she angry?’ But she can get on the kids, and they know off the court she’s there for them, and that’s a big difference.”
“There’s not a player on that team who doesn’t have a relationship with her. It’s part of what we have to do.”
Wilson said she and the team won the title for Staley.
“I really can’t put into words the feeling of how much it meant to win this game for Coach,” Wilson said. “She’s put in so much sweat, just voiced her voice into us. Just prepping for times like this.”
“I think she really helped our confidence….It really means something special to kind of bring this back home, especially for such a great person like coach Staley.”
The bonds mean the program is almost co-managed.
“Once you reach (the players), then the kids are running the program more and you’re not having to do as much,” Boyer said.
Hard-driving, decorated All-American Staley was fresh off leading the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1996 when she was picked up by the Rage to play for Boyer. Staley now transfers her tough mentality to her players.
“Dawn is a competitor – she really competes – and that’s another thing she instills in these kids,” Boyer said. “She doesn’t let them fall by the wayside.”
Boyer, who was in tears after Sunday’s win, acknowledges that she and Staley have been known to have words on court. But all is said and done after the game is over.
“We couldn’t be more opposite if we tried; it’s crazy,” Boyer said with a laugh. “We can push each other’s buttons, believe me, but at the end of the day…….”
“She’s one of my best friends and she’s a good person, I’m really happy for her.”