When Dawn Staley walked in the gym, CJ Pace had to do a double take.
Yes that really was Dawn Staley — Philly legend, 3-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA point guard and then Temple coach. Toward the end of her playing career, Staley did what seemed impossible: she juggled coaching Division I while playing pro. Her success inspired a generation of women including Pace, then a high school senior and college prospect from Atlanta.
But what Pace, a young Black woman, couldn’t fully appreciate then is that in a sport populated by people who looked like her, there were only a handful of Division I head coaches with the same skin color. Staley was a trailblazer, but Pace didn’t truly understand it just yet.
Pace’s recognition of that came later — after she’d finished her college career at South Carolina, which Staley took over in 2008. It came after Staley had built the Gamecocks into a national power, taking them to nine NCAA tournaments and turning Colonial Life Arena into a rocking, raucous environment. In 2017, when Staley climbed the ladder to cut down the net after winning her first NCAA championship — just the second Black female coach to do so after former Purdue coach Carolyn Peck — it dawned on Pace.
“That’s when it hit,” said Pace, now 33 and the head coach at Cal State Monterey Bay. “That’s when it was like, ‘Alright, yeah, this is big. What she’s showing other Black and brown women is it can be done — you can build something special at the highest level.’”
The women’s NCAA tournament tips off Sunday, with Staley’s No. 1-seeded Gamecocks again a title contender. This summer, she’ll get her first taste of Olympic head coaching when she guides Team USA at the 2021 Tokyo Games. And with Hall of Fame coaches like Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey in the twilight of their careers, it’s Staley, who lifted herself out of poverty in the projects of North Philly to become one of the most decorated players of all time, who’s poised to become the face of women’s basketball.
It comes at a critical time. America is in the midst of a nationwide conversation about the inequities throughout society, and the opportunities given — and often denied — people of color, particularly Black women.
“It’s her time,” Pace said, “to take over.”
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‘It’s not a race thing; it’s an opportunity thing’
Of the 64 head coaches in the San Antonio area this weekend, only eight are Black women, even though the NCAA estimates 45% of Division I players are Black.
Those numbers aren’t lost on Staley. When South Carolina beat Georgia last week in the SEC Conference tournament championship it was the first time two Black head coaches met for a Power 5 tournament title.
“My heart is full,” Staley said afterward, congratulating Georgia coach Joni Taylor. “People say, ‘You’re making it a race thing.’ It’s not a race thing; it’s an opportunity thing.”
And she doesn’t plan to stop talking about it anytime soon.
“There are more of us, but there are still so many more opportunities to be had in this area,” Staley told USA TODAY Sports. “I just don’t want us to be satisfied, I don’t want us to get blinded by what the SEC is doing, where six of the 14 are Black women, either.
“The text messages I get, the shoutouts I get on social media from other Black head and assistant coaches, that’s what gives me stamina. I’m fighting for them.”
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‘We’re still fighting for respect’
As Staley developed into one of the top high school players in the country — she would go on to win back-to-back Naismith Trophies at Virginia in 1991 and ’92 — there was only one prominent Black female head coach, C. Vivian Stringer, then at Iowa. A legend in the coaching community, Stringer is the only women’s coach to take three different schools to the Final Four.
In February, in an online video chat with the Associated Press celebrating Black History Month, Stringer spoke frankly about how for decades “I didn’t have friends or people to call on” as one of the only Black woman in coaching.
“I don’t think that players know how important our voices are, how important we can be and the influence that we have (on other Black women),” Stringer said. “I’m really grateful we have so many of us now.”
And yet, as Cal’s Charmin Smith points out: “We need more. It’s not even close to where it should be in our sport.”
Speaking with Smith, Georgia’s Taylor, and Buffalo’s Felicia Legette-Jack, the coaches were adamant that their individual success — and Staley’s sustained success in particular — benefits all Black women coaches.
Throughout her career, Stringer counseled young Black assistants to be wary of being labeled just as “recruiters.” “Our Black youngsters need to see you at the game,” she’d chide coaches. “We’re not just recruiters.”
“I resent that, when they don’t give us credit for being bright and smart enough to be able to direct a program,” Stringer said.
Doubt from outsiders is an ongoing battle for Staley, too. Though she’s turned South Carolina into one of the most dominant programs of the modern era — the Gamecocks are a one seed for the fifth time since 2014 — Staley said that because she only has one championship, “We’re not the UConns and Tennessees and Stanfords. We’re still fighting for respect. A lot of people identify with us because of that.”
When she loses a game, which has happened just five times in the last two seasons: “I do have a sense that I’m letting some people down,” Staley said. She knows second coaching opportunities are infrequent for women, especially women of color. When Terri Williams-Flournoy was fired at Auburn last week, the other Black coaches in the SEC, “we took it hard.” Staley reached out to Williams-Flournoy immediately. “Let me help you,” Staley told her. “Let me do what I need to do to get you back in.”
Dogged in her pursuit of more titles, Staley refuses to lose sight of her job as a “dream merchant” — for other Black women coaching right now, and for the next generation of Black leaders in basketball and beyond.
Staley important voice for change
Over the last year especially, Staley has been outspoken on a variety of topics, from coaching opportunities for Black women to voter suppression to the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. This week, she called out the NCAA for its blatant inequity at the women’s tournament compared to the men’s, writing on Instagram, “what we know now is that the NCAA’s season long messaging about ‘togetherness’ and ‘equality’ was about convenience and a soundbite for the moment created after the murder of George Floyd.”
She voices her thoughts on Twitter and Instagram, batting down haters and dismissing ignorant trolls. She’s unafraid of annoying anyone, which she says could be a result of her success (75.7 winning percentage) or her age (she’ll be 51 in May). It’s likely a combination of both.
“We’ve got a chance to change America through our sport,” she said. “We’re mentors and we’re teachers. We’re the people who are able to move masses.”
Thing is, Staley’s already doing it. When Pace talks to other young Black coaches who are coming up through the coaching ranks, Staley is always part of the conversation. She’s become this generation’s North Star, a guiding light who prides herself on paving the way for other Black women.
“If there’s any coach that’s perfect for this moment it’s her,” Pace said. “And there’s more of us coming.”
There better be. Staley’s counting on it.
Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell