Commentary

Staley leads new wave of coaches

Originally Published: February 18, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Dawn Staley was still a little steamed the day after her South Carolina women's basketball team let a big lead and a victory slip away Sunday. She definitely had not slept well. But she still maintained her sense of humor and her perspective.

Sometimes she can be a bit volcanic, when she needs to be. But she also knows there are times when that's absolutely not what is going to work.

"I have to blow my top on occasion if I feel it, but also remember to speak in their vernacular," Staley said of her players. "Because they really don't understand. If they understood, they would do differently. So you've got to take it down a few notches and put it in a way where they'll understand it.

[+] EnlargeDawn Staley
Greg Drzazgowski/Icon SMIDawn Staley's Gamecocks are 13-12 overall and 6-7 in the SEC, and have shown flashes of making a real breakthrough.

"Sometimes, it's just experience. You've got to get through their growing pains. But I'm never going to put up with anyone disrespecting the game."

Staley is both "old-school" and "new wave." She was part of a generation of players that was still closely linked to and respectful of the strides that had been made by those athletes who came before them and established women's college basketball as we know it.

But the new-wave part is that she's one of a growing number of African-American women who are now college hoops head coaches. For many years, there were only two prominent women of color who led major programs in the sport: C. Vivian Stringer, who is still at Rutgers, and Marian Washington, who retired in 2004 after three decades at Kansas.

As we celebrate accomplishments and reflect upon achievements during Black History Month, the strides made in coaching opportunities in women's college basketball are an important topic of discussion. Especially since it wasn't very long ago that the very women who are now changing the coaching landscape didn't even envision themselves ever having that chance.

The 'haves' and the 'have-nots'

Staley had no thought about being a college coach when she was the age of the players she now recruits. Neither did two of her assistants at South Carolina, Carla McGhee and Nikki McCray.

McGhee finished her college career at Tennessee in 1990. Staley finished at Virginia in '92. McCray, who also played for Pat Summitt at Tennessee, completed her college career in '95.

All went on to play professionally and win Olympic and world championship gold medals for USA Basketball. If you want to know what it takes to get to the top of the women's basketball world as a player, all three of them can tell you. Because they did it.

And yet it wasn't until near the ends of their professional playing careers that they finally began to see coaching as a viable next option for their lives.

With her trademark candor, Staley said, "I always thought when I was younger that coaches were like dictators. I had some very good coaches, but I had others who I thought could have been a much better influence in my life if they'd looked at me differently.

"I came from the projects in North Philadelphia, and I was pretty raw. I had rough edges to me. I wasn't exposed to black coaches. But I wasn't exposed to a lot of white people other than coaches. Almost all the people who recruited me were white."

Black History Month

ESPN celebrates Black History Month by showcasing the stories and contributions of sports' biggest athletes from the past, present and future. More

Staley was a superstar at Virginia, and remains the only person to be named the women's Final Four's most outstanding player despite being on a team that lost the championship game (in 1991, to Tennessee).

But she never really let down her guard at Virginia. One of her closest friends in the Cavaliers program was her then-teammate Tonya Cardoza. Cardoza, a longtime UConn assistant, took over as head coach at Temple two years ago when Staley left that program -- after going 172-80 with six NCAA tournament appearances in eight seasons -- to move to South Carolina.

Cardoza, who was from Boston, had a lot in common with Staley … but neither of them had much in common with many of the people on the Charlottesville campus.

"You had the 'haves,' and I was one of the 'have-nots,'" Staley said. "I wouldn't say I went without necessities. But there were very few pleasures. There was no going to the mall and buying things.

"Tonya and I used to alternate asking our moms if we could have a little extra money to help out. And then whoever had some, we'd share with each other."

Staley's experience, of course, is not an uncommon one for student-athletes who find themselves trying to figure out how they really fit in on campus.

Staley acknowledges that she didn't allow her coaches back then to know everything she was thinking and feeling away from basketball.

"I went to UVa to play basketball -- solely for that reason," she said. "But looking back, I know I was supposed to go to experience a different culture and different people. Basketball was going to take me to different places in the world, and I needed to be able to adapt to that and be OK.

"I was still sheltered; I kind of just let basketball speak for me. I wasn't into sharing my innermost thoughts with anyone. I wasn't the type of young person who was going to express myself verbally. I used basketball as my shield."

Passing on the knowledge

McGhee, from Peoria, Ill., was like Staley in that she found the move to the South to play basketball a bit of a culture shock. She adjusted to the Southern hospitality.

"At that age, I would have questioned whether it was really relevant to my future," she said of the idea of coaching women's basketball. "I wouldn't have thought it could buy me a house or help me take care of myself. I had a male coach in high school, and I didn't play AAU basketball. Coaching wasn't anything I could identify with as a job for me.

[+] EnlargeDawn Staley
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesVirginia's Dawn Staley is the only person to win women's Final Four's most outstanding player honors despite being on a team that lost in the title game (in 1991, to Tennessee).

"At that age, basketball was just a vehicle. I didn't come from much money, and I thought if basketball could help me get me a degree, then I could become an electrical engineer or a lawyer. Those were the professions I was most interested in."

McCray, who is from Tennessee, did think she could make a living from basketball, as a player going overseas. Then the ABL -- which lasted two seasons -- and the WNBA came into existence, and McCray excelled in both leagues. She was part of the ABL's two-time champion Columbus Quest team, then was a three-time WNBA All-Star.

And it was during the waning years of her playing career that she realized coaching was what she wanted to pursue next.

"It was when I was in the role of a veteran in the WNBA that I started seeing myself impacting younger players," McCray said. "I think it hit home with me, how they responded. I thought then, 'Coaching is something I could do.'"

Now Staley, McGhee and McCray are all on the same staff, and the athletes they recruit tend to have very different perspectives than they did. Today's players have more role models among African-American coaches in the sport. Also, they don't know a world without a professional women's basketball league in the United States.

Staley says she's glad the youngsters are growing up with a wider range of expectations and goals than she did, but that also brings a contrasting mindset.

"I think there is good and bad in this," Staley said. "Kids think they can live out the same accomplishments of athletes in the WNBA or the Olympics who they've seen on television. Which is a good thing.

"The bad thing is they really haven't seen the work those athletes had to put in to perform that way. Because it looks easy when you just sit back and watch Cappie [Pondexter] or Diana [Taurasi] or Sue [Bird]. They don't know what they did to get to that point. They don't understand the preparation part. Coaches who have played the game are more prevalent now, and we have to teach them what it really takes to accomplish those goals."

McGhee says when she gets any resistance from younger players about how things are done, she reminds them that she isn't just "guessing" what works. She knows.

"I say, 'You don't want to listen to me? OK,'" McGhee said, chuckling. "But you know those accolades I have from playing? They don't just give those away."

An 'unnatural' move

Staley said the two coaches who most influenced her -- Debbie Ryan at Virginia and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer with the U.S. national team -- provided different philosophies that she has drawn from.

"Debbie allowed me to learn from my mistakes, and so I will let some players play through their mistakes," Staley said. "Not all, because you can't give everyone that liberty. But sometimes it's the right thing to do.

"From Tara, I took the opposite, really. There are times you need to give players a short leash about making mistakes. I'm probably a little more like Tara than Debbie. But they were both able to reach me from a basketball standpoint when I was playing."

Still, Staley said the decision to become a coach was basically an opportunity that had to "smack me in the face" for her to really pursue it. She was successful and comfortable at Temple, but the chance to really break some barriers as an African-American woman coaching at South Carolina and in the SEC drew her to make a change.

Staley's mother is from South Carolina, and she has several family members there. But it was still a big adjustment for Staley, and she understood that a lot of eyes would be on her.

"It was an unnatural move for me; I'm not going to pretend it wasn't," Staley said. "I spent eight years in my hometown as a coach. And then I come to South Carolina -- one of two black coaches [in women's basketball] in the SEC, the first female black head coach at this university.

"There are people here who are diehard Gamecock fans, and when I speak, people listen. Nothing is competing with South Carolina athletics in Columbia. It's the most important thing to people here. So am I conscious of what I do and say at all times? Yes. It takes time to get used to."

Staley credits South Carolina athletics director Eric Hyman for giving her the opportunity, because he was committed to having a good women's program.

"He might have taken flak from some people for bringing me in and paying me what he is," Staley said. "I get paid a lot of money, but I'm not far off from what I got at Temple. So I didn't come here for the money. I gave it a lot of thought as to what I wanted to accomplish here.

"His vision was beyond race. That's a man who wants to win."

Staley has done a lot of winning in her career. But it has been a challenge, as expected, at South Carolina. Last season, her first at South Carolina, the Gamecocks were 10-18 overall and 2-12 in the SEC. Currently, they are 13-12 and 6-7, and have shown flashes of making a real breakthrough. On Jan. 31, they led most of their game against league-leading Tennessee before faltering late for a five-point loss.

South Carolina bounced back from that with wins over Georgia and Auburn, but then lost to Mississippi State and Arkansas. The latter loss came Sunday, and it gnawed at Staley. The Gamecocks led by 18 points with 8½ minutes left. But a furious rally brought the Razorbacks back for a 72-68 victory.

"Afterward, I said to the players, 'Why did we lose that game?'" Staley said. "I wanted specifics, and I wanted them to speak in the first person. Some of them did that; some struggled with it and we helped them.

"And I wanted the coaching staff to talk about it, too. Something like that has never happened before in my career as a coach. Some things are happening to me for the first time here at South Carolina. So there are things I've still got to learn. We see the potential and know we can be a pretty good basketball team."

Staley doesn't shy away from saying she understands she is going to be judged on wins and losses.

And she knows African-American women such as herself, Nikki Caldwell at UCLA, Jolette Law at Illinois, Jamelle Elliott at Cincinnati, Niya Butts at Arizona and Sylvia Crawley at Boston College -- to name some of the former Division I players now in head-coaching jobs in major conferences -- are pioneers of a sort. They didn't grow up with many role models as coaches. But they serve that function for today's players who are college-aged or younger.

"I think you have to mention it, because it's happening in larger numbers for the first time," Staley said of fellow African-American women who have gotten into coaching.

"I don't know if we'll get to the point where it's not mentioned. But I accept that. We're proving ourselves. Believe it or not, I want that. I don't want to ever have anybody feel like I didn't earn whatever I achieved. But I think all coaches, not just black coaches, feel that way."

Staley said when she sees Cardoza now, they really don't talk much about how far they've come from their playing days at Virginia. And then Staley paused, thinking about what she had said previously.

"I said before that maybe it would always be a topic of discussion, being a black person in the coaching world," Staley said. "But you know, maybe not. Because if Tonya and I see each other and we aren't discussing it, maybe other people aren't, either."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.