A women's basketball coach was celebrated at South Carolina's football stadium Friday. How awesome is that? More so, perhaps, than you might realize. There is a lot to celebrate.
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley was officially announced as USA Basketball women's national team coach for 2017-20. She'll guide the Americans in the 2018 world championship -- which is now known as the World Cup -- in Spain and in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.
Staley, 46, succeeds UConn's Geno Auriemma, who masterfully served two "terms" as coach, winning gold in two Olympics and two world championships. This handoff goes to another college coach, rather than a WNBA coach, such as Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve, even though most -- and maybe all -- of the players will be WNBA pros.
But Staley is a former pro herself, along with playing on three winning Olympic teams. Staley has such deep roots in USA Basketball as a player and coach, it seemed only a matter of time before she was head coach of the senior team.
And it most definitely is time. Previously 14 people have been head coach for the U.S. women's national team, either for the Olympics, world championship or both. Staley will be the 15th, and the first African-American.
Overall 27 people have served on the U.S. women's basketball staff for the Olympics, which began hosting women's basketball in 1976. Five were African-American, all as assistants, including Staley, who did that both last summer and in 2008. The others are current Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, retired Kansas coach Marian Washington, and sisters Peggie and Jennifer Gillom. Peggie is a former college coach; Jennifer coached in the WNBA and is now at the prep level. (Renee Brown was part of Tara VanDerveer's staff during the national team's tour in 1995-96 but was not officially in that role at the Atlanta Games.)
The list of African-American coaches is a little longer if you include assistants in the world championships (which began in 1953) -- but not much. For decades, black women had very few role models in coaching or reasons to believe they would have much opportunity to pursue the career. (And, of course, this has been a huge issue for African-American men, too.)
Staley has never talked a great deal about being a trailblazer, even though she is. It's certainly not that she's unaware, but she has usually wanted to focus more on being judged on her merits, which is understandable. Her many credentials are manifest, and they're why she got this job. But it's still an important and inspiring milestone that hopefully serves to keep dismantling barriers that never should have existed.
She now will have to balance being head coach of two entities, as Auriemma has done the past eight years, but she has plenty of practice multitasking. Staley started her college coaching career at Temple in 2000, while she was still playing in the WNBA. She continued as a player through 2006 and then left Temple to coach at South Carolina in 2008.
Staley and Auriemma both grew up in Philadelphia, and their paths have crossed in many ways over the years. At UConn's first Final Four, in 1991, the Huskies lost in the semifinals to Virginia, then led by junior guard Staley.
Auriemma was an Olympic assistant to Nell Fortner for the 2000 Summer Games, when Staley played for Team USA. Staley even then wasn't 100 percent confident about her decision that year to go into coaching. But she had noticed that Auriemma was "ahead of the game" in terms of his understanding of how to advance women's basketball at all levels. She was paying close attention and learning all the time.
Now Staley and other Division I coaches are trying to reach the bar that Auriemma's Huskies have set, as UConn pursues a fifth consecutive NCAA title while on a 107-game winning streak. Auriemma and Staley might even face each other in the tournament (both UConn and South Carolina are projected No. 1 seeds in the women's NCAA tournament). But when it comes to USA Basketball, they'll always be on the same team. No one will cheer harder for Staley to succeed with the U.S. squad than Auriemma.
Staley has been an integral part of the growth of women's basketball. The summer after she finished her Virginia career in 1992, she wasn't named to the Olympic team, despite being the two-time college player of the year. Perhaps that was because USA Basketball wasn't planning as much for the future then; the organization had found itself kind of on autopilot after successive Olympic gold medals for the women's team in 1984 and '88.
There might even have been a sense that the Americans' longtime nemesis, the Russians, were no longer a big threat after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But that group -- playing under the makeshift designation "Unified Team" in the 1992 Olympics -- beat the Americans in the semifinals.
When the U.S. women's team also fell short of gold in the 1994 world championship, USA Basketball had to do something, which the NBA actually realized and helped to fund. Staley was part of the touring squad that spent nearly a year together in preparation for the 1996 Atlanta Games, which was a springboard to the WNBA's launch in 1997.
All this history is something Staley carries with her, but lightly. She understands modern players and how to motivate them. She's well aware that she's taking a job in which there's nowhere to go but downhill, seeing as the Americans have won six Olympic gold medals in a row, and have just one loss -- in the 2006 world championship semifinals -- in the past 21 years.
Even Auriemma, who has 11 NCAA titles, acknowledged last summer it can be nerve-racking to know you're just "supposed" to win as the U.S. women's basketball coach.
Yet Staley is ready for this. Right now, her main focus is on the upcoming NCAA tournament, where the Gamecocks are expected to be a No. 1 seed for the fourth season in a row. But she'll have two teams on her mind over the next four years. When you look at it in retrospect, it all makes sense: It's exactly what she's been building toward for a long time.