Dawn Staley’s impact at South Carolina goes beyond wins and SEC championships

As the game clock trickled down toward double zeroes Thursday night, coach Dawn Staley and her Gamecocks inched toward history.

South Carolina’s 72-44 victory over Alabama marked Staley’s 600th career win and clinched the Gamecocks’ eighth regular-season SEC title under her tutelage. Only Tennessee (18) has more.

“People picked us second, and that was a generous second just from our past success,” Staley said Sunday about preseason SEC predictions while reflecting on what winning the league with her 2023-24 squad would mean. “But this team has done some great things. And they’re young, they’re still figuring it out. But they’re finding a way to win.

“… I’m proud of them.”

When Staley came to South Carolina 16 years ago, she too was “young” and “still figuring it out.”

Naively, she thought she could find success by approaching her new Power Five job the same way as her mid-major coaching assignment at Temple: foster intensity with intensity. When met with resistance, Staley had to pivot.

With more power, a bigger budget and recruiting trail respect came more nuanced responsibility.

Staley won 10 regular-season (including two SEC) games her first season at USC. Her team went 14-15 in Year 2. The Gamecocks got over the .500 hump in Year 3, finishing with a 18-15 record. Year 4 marked the first NCAA Tournament appearance of her tenure, fighting all the way to the Sweet 16. The Gamecocks have made every NCAA Tournament since, including five Final Fours and two national championships.

Even in light of her latest milestone, Staley is far from nostalgic. So much so that she flubbed the year of her first SEC regular-season championship during the trophy presentation Thursdsay (mistakenly saying 2013 instead of 2014, prompting a few of her players to point to the corresponding banner in front of them for reference). She doesn’t have time for nostalgia, not with this team.

“This team keeps me present,” Staley said. “Like, how do we as coaches not get in the away but also continue to coach them up so they could play the right way? I think we’re always in the way, honestly. I think we’re always in the way because we really can’t take our foot off the gas with them.

“They’re so young, they’re so free. They’re free, and sometimes free is wrong. ...Sometimes it looks great and other times it’s just flat out wrong. And that is the wrong part is what keeps us up. It keeps us always on edge to see if this is going to be the team that we started out being in June. We’re still trying to look for that June team. And they find a way to the play above that time and time again.”

When USC set a record for consecutive SEC regular-season wins (43) Sunday with a 70-56 victory over Georgia, Bulldogs coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson spoke kindly of the dynasty Staley has created in Columbia.

“She’s built it the right way,” Abrahamson-Henderson said, “kind of the old school way where you recruit, and you build players, and people stay for years. She has kids staying for four years. Nowadays it’s the portal. Now us new coaches, we’re gonna have to recruit like that to even catch up with her. …The atmosphere is wonderful, and she’s doing wonders for women’s basketball.

“So hopefully she’ll stay in it for a long time because she’ll break a lot more records than what she’s done today.”

South Carolina (26-0, 13-0 SEC) is the only remaining undefeated team in all of college basketball. In a season of unexpected but undeniable success (after losing all five 2022-23 starters), opposing coaches have taken the opportunity to give Staley kudos.

Mississippi State’s Sam Purcell called South Carolina women’s basketball “the bar.” He said his aim is to build something of the like in Starkville.

Vanderbilt coach Shea Ralph said she wishes to do the same in Nashville, explaining how Staley has inspired her in her basketball pursuits for decades.

“I just, from a young age, really respected her approach to basketball,” Ralph said, reminiscing on watching Staley since her college point guard days at Virginia. “She was representation for me. …She’s a representation, as is her team and her program, of what you can accomplish if you work really hard, if you do the right things.”

Ralph’s 5-year-old daughter, Maysen, traveled with her parents to Colonial Life Arena for the game, which was sold out. The environment inspired her so much that she said, “Mommy, I want to play for the Cockadoodles!” Ralph chuckled as she remembered their conversation.

Staley has cultivated a world for little girls to see themselves in and strive toward greatness.

“Dawn has defined what is possible in our sport,” Ralph added, “both as a player and a coach.”