South Carolina’s Dawn Staley wants to ‘pave the way for little girls and boys who look like me’

USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree Dawn Staley of South Carolina.
USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree Dawn Staley of South Carolina.
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Dawn Staley is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

For Dawn Staley, it always goes back to home.

The South Carolina women’s basketball coach is a titan in sports. A three-time Olympic gold medalist as a player and one-time gold medalist as head coach of Team USA, Staley's led the Gamecocks to two NCAA women’s basketball championships in the last six years. They're the heavy favorite to win their third title, seeded No. 1 overall in the NCAA Tournament and boasting an undefeated regular season.

Her reach extends far beyond the court though. She is not just the face of women’s basketball but the conscious of it, a passionate advocate for racial justice and equal pay, and a public figure who used her platform to draw daily attention to Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment until the WNBA superstar was home. And she encourages women everywhere, athletes and otherwise, to use their voice – and speak loudly.

All of this is possible, Staley says, because of her mom and the lessons she instilled. Estelle Staley was a South Carolina native who moved home when her daughter, the youngest of five children, took over the Gamecocks program in 2008.

Staley's rise from the projects of Philadelphia, where she honed her game, comes with great responsibility though. The 52-year-old calls herself “a dream merchant,” determined to show everyone, especially children who look like her, that starting from the bottom doesn’t mean you’ll finish there.

For her achievements, Staley is the USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree from South Carolina.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Who paved the way for you?

I grew up in the housing projects of North Philadelphia, with a mother who was a disciplinarian, who cleaned toilets in other people’s houses to make a way for her five children. Her faith paved the way for me.

Who are you paving the way for?

I want to pave the way for little girls and little boys who look like me. That’s not to draw any racial lines or anything – but I know where I came from, I know the limitations that are placed on people who grow up like I grew up and I know the hopelessness that’s in our communities.

I hope to be a ray of hope, to let those young people know that there’s another world out there that they need to explore and experience. And the best way to do that is discipline and if you don’t have a sport, use education as your guide.

What is your proudest moment?

My proudest moment is my ability to take care of my mother. When she passed away (in 2017), I know the last part of her life that she was happy – happy that she didn’t have to work, happy that she could go to church, pay her tithes and give all the kids money, happy that she had her family and her grandkids and her great-grandkids to love up on.

Dawn Staley and her mother, Estelle Staley, at the 2013 Naismith Hall of Fame induction. Estelle Staley  was a South Carolina native who moved home when her daughter took over the Gamecocks program in 2008.
Dawn Staley and her mother, Estelle Staley, at the 2013 Naismith Hall of Fame induction. Estelle Staley was a South Carolina native who moved home when her daughter took over the Gamecocks program in 2008.

What was your lowest moment?

It’s crazy. After we won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics and the ABL (American Basketball League) was starting, I just could not get myself out of whatever funk I was in.

My lifelong dream was to be an Olympian and a gold medalist – and I got it at 26. And then I was like, there’s really nothing else to do. I didn’t even want to touch a basketball. I didn’t even want to go to Richmond, Virginia (to play). I took a week or so before I reported to training camp. I think it was just because of mental exhaustion, physical exhaustion. Being singularly focused on my goal was exhausting. I’ve never felt that before, ever.

What snapped you out of it?

I guess I got enough rest. I left basketball alone for a week or two and then it came back and (motivation) snapped right back.

South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley huddles with her team following their win over the Memphis Tigers in the second half at Colonial Life Arena on Dec. 3, 2022.
South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley huddles with her team following their win over the Memphis Tigers in the second half at Colonial Life Arena on Dec. 3, 2022.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrates after a college basketball game in the final round of the Women's Final Four NCAA tournament against UConn, April 3, 2022, in Minneapolis. South Carolina won 64-49 to win the championship.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrates after a college basketball game in the final round of the Women's Final Four NCAA tournament against UConn, April 3, 2022, in Minneapolis. South Carolina won 64-49 to win the championship.

What is your definition of courage?

It’s doing the right thing, saying the right thing and walking in your truth.

Is there a guiding principle or mantra you tell yourself?

I have two life mottos: One of them is, “You have to do what you don’t want to do to get what you want.” Super simple. It’s relatable (to everyone) from toddlers to senior citizens. The second one is, “The disciplined person can do anything.”

Who do you look up to?

Charity begins at home, so I have to start with my mother. The way I approach basketball is the way that my mother approached her spirituality and her faith – she went hard.

That’s how I’m built, too. I probably don’t share as much as my faith and my spirituality that my mom did, but it’s there, it’s my foundation, I’m rooted in it. I know who controls what’s happening in my life. I know that God has shown me favor in my life, in my career, and I don’t throw it in people’s faces but when we do hit some milestones, I let it be known that it’s nothing but God.

Someone who grows up in inner-city projects, you don’t see anything. You only see what’s in front of you. You don’t see beyond that. And you don’t feel like you’re ever going to reach beyond that. It’s an environment that pulls you in and keeps you there – that’s not to say that it’s not a good environment, but there’s so much more outside of that. There are so many more examples that we can set for people who feel like they’re trapped. Once you’re out you’ve gotta continue to reach back and pull people out.

I know I am helping masses of people who grew up like I grew up and I’ve got to continue that.

When did you first realize there was something beyond that?

I knew that when I received my first letter of interest from a college. And it was from an Ivy League, it was Dartmouth or something. It could have been just a campus brochure; we do that all the time (at South Carolina) and we think nothing of it. But for someone like me – again, I’m trapped. My daily desire is to go play football, basketball, baseball and softball in our big field. That was all I wanted to do. That’s what made me happiest.

Once I received that letter, I knew basketball was going to be my ticket to seeing something else.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is one of USA TODAY's Women of the Year.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is one of USA TODAY's Women of the Year.

How do you overcome adversity?

I attack it. I want to protect my peace, so if something is impeding that, I’ve gotta go address it. I need order, I like my life to be in order. I know life will throw some things at you that you’ve gotta be able to navigate through – and you’ve gotta be unafraid to do it.

What advice would you give your younger self?

OK, this is probably pretty funny. I would tell myself to have gotten the right size sneakers so my toes could look a little bit better (as an adult). I’ve got big feet for my size (5-foot-6). I wear a 10-10.5. I think I was supposed to be taller – I’ve got big feet, big shoulders, big hands, a big head.

When I was younger, I didn’t want my sneakers to look huge, so I would get the smaller size, take the insole out and then you’re basically walking on the ground because you didn’t want your feet to look big. When you’re young, you don’t want to have big feet!

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dawn Staley, Gamecocks basketball coach, is titan on and off court