“Never Bet Against Dawn Staley.”
To some, that statement may sound obvious, but I had to say it again after the South Carolina Gamecocks handled Georgia today 67-62 to capture the school’s sixth SEC title in the last seven years, cementing Dawn Staley’s arrived as the single greatest administrative hire in South Carolina Gamecocks athletics history.
Better than bringing in Lou Holtz. Better than giving Steve Spurrier the keys. While both hires brought heightened respectability and visibility to the football program and the university, Staley, whose coaching career spans 8 years with Temple and the past 13 building USC into a national powerhouse (4 seasons of 30 or more wins).
We thought the NCAA championship she won in 2017 — USC’s first NCAA hoops championship of any kind — solidified her standing as the next superstar coach in women’s basketball. The basketball world anointed her as the successor to Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma. She’s the head coach for Team USA and a three-time Gold Medal winner herself. At the very least, it should have garnered her enough respect to avoid being a target of her own fan base.
Unfortunately, as racial tensions exploded in this country and protests, politics, sports, and people all collided, creating a seismic shift in how sports are covered by mainstream America and right-wing southern community leaders and citizens began to fight back against what they saw as an overly aggressive attack on their confederate pride, Staley suffered a couple of attacks as she showed her support for racial justice, spoke out about the Jacob Blake killing, penned a Players’ Tribune piece entitled, “Black People Are Tired,” and stood her ground when it came to her feelings on changes that are needed to improve the country.
Her comments ruffled some feathers and rumors emerged that the boosters and some members of the school’s board of directors wanted to silence her by cutting ties at the height of her success. Some alumni threatened to boycott the games, so disgusted by Staley’s strength and conviction in the face of social injustice. The same reason why she became a target of racism and is seen as a threat to the establishment is the reason why the WNBA has a leadership award named after her.
Then she lost a couple of games early in a season riddled with uncertainty and disruption caused by the pandemic, and the criticism towards her reached a peak. It was the backlash from her outspokenness
In typical fashion, Staley stayed true to her principles, executed her plan, and finds herself at the top of the hill, once again winning, as she’s become accustomed to.
We know what the SEC title says about Staley, but as the NCAA Tourney draws near, what does the in it say about the resilience of a squad that has high expectations and took some hits early on.
“It says that the leadership we’ve had…we’ve had senior leadership that won’t let us lose in this situation,” Staley said during an interview on the court after the game.
“We’re a great team. Unfortunately for us, we went through some things at end of the season, but they are resilient and regroup,” Staley said. “We gained a lot by losing. You don’t like to lose but you gain… We gained an SEC tournament championship “
As usual, Staley not only broke barriers on the court, but her accomplishments were another advancement for women in hoops. This was the first time we saw two Black female head coaches in the SEC Tourney championship. Georgia Bulldogs coach Joni Taylor, who has led a surging Bulldogs program since 2015 also played a part in the history-making tournament championship.
“My heart is full because (this proves),..it’s not a race thing it’s an opportunity thing,” Staley insisted. “And the opportunity for Black women to be able to experience this (is great)…Joni and her program’s going to go far.”
Aliyah Boston led USC with 21 pts 10 rebounds to soften the blow of losing the regular-season title to Texas A&M (23-2).
Having weathered the various storms and with her team functioning cohesively and a four-point loss to UConn waiting to be avenged, it’s safe to say that all is well and South Carolina’s championship hunting.