NEW YORK (AP) — Last season, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley started handing out pieces of the first championship nets won in 2017, and she plans to hand out the 2022 winning nets to Black sports journalists.
On Wednesday night, she’ll be on the receiving end of more accolades. Staley will accept the Billie Jean King Leadership Award at the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Annual Salute to Women in Sports.
She recently guided the U.S. women’s basketball team to its seventh straight gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. A 5-foot-6 floor general at Virginia and six-time WNBA All-Star, Staley won three Olympic golds during her playing career.
The Philadelphia native turned around struggling programs at Temple and South Carolina, and the latter now boasts some of the highest attendance in the nation. She watched her former South Carolina star A’ja Wilson win the WNBA title with the Las Vegas Aces and earn MVP honors last month.
Now among the highest-paid coaches in women’s basketball, the 52-year-old Staley enters her 15th season at the helm.
The Naismith Hall of Famer talked to The Associated Press about role models, supporting the community and her 5-year-old Havanese dog named “Champ.” Comments have been edited for brevity.
AP: Why was it important to hand out pieces of the NCAA title net to coaches of color?
STALEY: It started with (1999 NCAA-winning Purdue coach) Carolyn Peck giving me her piece of the net a few years ahead of our 2017 national championship. Someone had done that for her, and she wanted to pay it forward. When we won in 2017, I wanted to keep that tradition alive. I knew what that tangible piece of the net did for me — gave me a constant reminder of what we were working toward, kept me focused. We tried to get everyone, but we definitely got notes from those we missed, and got pieces out to them, too.
AP: What motivates you to recognize Black sports journalists with a piece of the net?
STALEY: It’s the same as the motivation for Black head coaches. I know what it’s like to move in a space that’s not always built for you or understands your specific path or struggle. So, I want those journalists who are so important to giving a voice to the athletes and programs they cover to have that tangible reminder that whatever goal they’re working toward can be achieved if they keep focused on it.
AP: You’ve advocated for more coaches of color. How would you assess the current situation?
STALEY: It’s become more popular to hire a Black coach. But it’s a cycle — it’s at a place where it was maybe 10 years ago. The numbers are trending up but not nearly where it needs to be with having so many student-athletes that are Black. I’m not condemning anybody else, but if there are a certain number of Black student-athletes you’re coaching, I think they need to see someone who represents them.
AP: Female coaches for women’s sports used to be the norm in the 1970s, at about 90%, before the NCAA took over governance of women’s sports in the 1980s. Now it’s only about 41%. Who does the hiring can make a difference?
STALEY: Absolutely. Let me just say no fault of any male AD because you hire who you know. The more people you know and the more diverse people you know, the more apt you’ll be informed enough to hire someone.
AP: What makes the South Carolina women’s basketball program so strong?
STALEY: Longevity. I’ve had two ADs, three presidents and pretty much the senior staff has been very similar to the past few years. It helps when you have continuity within your athletic department, people know who you are and what you stand for and helps move the chain a little bit.
AP: Studies suggest diversity makes universities and companies stronger, offering a variety of voices and talents. Have you experienced that in your career — slow progress toward a more diverse table?
STALEY: No. I mean, it is what it is. It’s not going to change until we are intentional. But we’re not there yet. When there’s one or two people who are on the senior staff that is diverse and you know there are eight other less-diverse people that are on senior staff, you’re 20% of the room. You’re just giving an opinion. Nothing is going to change.
AP: Along with individual contracts for name, image and likeness (NIL), there are team-wide deals at South Carolina so all players get NIL dollars?
STALEY: We’ve been having some pretty good success partnering with people who feel all-team deals are a great thing. We just signed a deal giving all our players a minimum of $25,000. We partnered with a company called Rewind that has given our players equity in ownership. It’s a startup company (concerned with) diabetes because diabetes is very prevalent in South Carolina. Our players will bring awareness to Type 2 diabetes, so there will be generational health in people of our community.
AP: How’s Champ? Still stealing the show?
STALEY: It’s his 5th birthday. Champ is a giver. So, we’ll probably partner with a pet orphanage here in Columbia. Bring awareness to that. Go adopt a pet.