Growing up in Charlotte as a huge Hornets and Tar Heels fan with an interest in everything basketball, I have clear memories of Dawn Staley hooping it up for the Charlotte Sting, the Hornets' now-defunct companion WNBA team. That was almost 20 years ago. Last night, that same Sting point guard coached the South Carolina Gamecocks to a national championship. Along the way, the Philadelphia-native collected five Olympic gold medals, and was declared a conference coach of the year five times.
The list of athletes, coaches, and athletic supporters in the pantheon of South Carolina sports is long and illustrious. Here are a few:
"Shoeless" Joe Jackson
: World Series champ, third-highest career batting average
Former Francis Marion coach, National championship and 3x Final Four at UNC, third-most career wins
: NAIA national champion as CofC coach, 560-143 career record
: Heisman trophy at USC, Super Bowl winner
: 2x Super Bowl champion
: 2x NCAA championship baseball coach and current USC athletic director
There are plenty of other athletes and coaches with S.C. ties we could name — Fridge Perry, Steve Spurrier, Flip Rosen — but with the Lady Gamecocks' championship this weekend and a Hall of Fame career under her belt already, Dawn Staley has an overdue claim to be mentioned in the same ranks.
Staley's career as a player on Team USA earned her gold medals in 1996, 2000, and in 2004
, when she was the flag-bearer for the American delegation. As an assistant coach, Staley helped the USA women take home gold in 2008 and 2016
. (It appears she was on the recruiting trail
for USC in 2012.) Last month, Staley was named head coach
of the U.S. National team, succeeding legendary UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
Watching women's basketball in the Olympics was one thing Staley says she remembers growing up, "It was one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger: national championship games and Olympics.
Those were things that I held dear and near to me growing up."
The gold medals came early, but the NCAA title would need to wait. But Staley said Sunday she never lost sight of her goal.
"If something is a goal of yours to accomplish, you don't give up on it. I never gave up on winning a national championship, no matter how hard it was, no matter what it looked like."
As an NCAA coach at Temple and USC, Staley has reached the NCAA tournament 12 times in 17 years
, reaching at least the Sweet 16 five times
since she joined the Gamecocks in 2011. She's amassed a career record of 393–160
, a .711 win percentage. Since 2011, Staley's squads have won at least 25 games each season. Both the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame have added Staley to their ranks. Staley is just the second African-American woman
to coach a women's collegiate basketball team to a title, joining former Purdue coach Carolyn Peck.
This week, Columbia and USC will celebrate Staley and her Gamecocks team for earning the pinnacle achievement of NCAA women's basketball.
All in a career's work for Dawn Staley.
Cover photo by @GamecockWBB.