Twenty-five years after Dawn Staley began her career with Team USA, she continues to play an integral role with the USA Basketball Women’s National Team.
It’s just not in the role she ever expected.
Staley, who led Team USA to three Olympic gold medals, is now part of the coaching staff that is leading the U.S. women’s basketball team to the FIBA World Championship for Women in Turkey Sept. 27-Oct. 5. She is also in her seventh season coaching at University of South Carolina and earlier this summer coached Team USA to the gold medal at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship.
Some basketball insiders believe she is a top candidate to be Team USA’s head coach someday, possibly after 2016. Geno Auriemma, the famed University of Connecticut coach who guided the U.S. women’s team to gold medals at the previous world championship in 2010 and the Olympic gold medal in London in 2012, is the head coach for the upcoming world championship and for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
Staley is no shoo-in as another woman believed to be a top candidate is Jennifer Rizzotti, a top player at UConn who now coaches at the University of Hartford and is serving as an advance scout and court coach for the world team.
For Staley, just being in the position she’s in now on the sidelines as an assistant coach is more than she ever envisioned.
Staley readily admitted that “I never wanted to be a coach a day in my life.” She said she had to be “challenged” into taking her first head coaching job at Temple University back in 2000. Even after telling then-Temple athletic director Dave O’Brien several times — she estimated it was about four or five times — that she did not want the job, he finally found a persuasive point.
“He challenged my leadership,” Staley recalled earlier this month while working with Team USA at training camp in Annapolis, Maryland. “I was meeting with him to say no, face-to-face, and he said, ‘Are you a leader?’”
“I had never looked at basketball as a challenge to coach,” she added. “Then I started thinking about my experiences as a player in college and those were some of the best life experiences that I had gained. It occurred to me what better way to help these young women out than by working with them on a daily basis, teaching through basketball, giving them a different perspective and helping them appreciate those life experiences to be gained.”
Had she not gone into coaching, she said she probably would have tried to become a general manager in the WNBA or tried broadcasting. She laughed now about the broadcasting ambitions.
“I was shy,” she said. “But listen to me now.”
Staley took over Temple’s team, a program that had not had a winning season in a decade when she took over in 2000, and she guided the Owls to the WNIT in her first year. Temple went to the NCAA tournament in her last two seasons on the job before she was snared by South Carolina. Under her guidance, the Gamecocks have made it to the NCAA tournament the last three seasons.
Her priority at the moment is helping the nation’s top women — a talented squad led by the likes of Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Sue Bird — to a world crown. Staley said she is watching Auriemma closely throughout the process.
“I’m learning how to get better at my craft,” she said. “He’s got the blueprints on how to do it.”
For Staley, USA Basketball is “basketball utopia for me.” At the national team level, she said, “You are only dealing with basketball. You save all the other stuff, the drama. You’ve got a lot of these players who are making a big sacrifice to be here.”
Auriemma agreed. “Once you put on the Team USA jersey, it doesn’t say UConn; it doesn’t say Phoenix Mercury. It says USA,” he said.
What Staley brings to the team is something Auriemma admitted he can’t. Her experience as a player helps tremendously because “she can give them a word here and there and talk to a player from a player’s standpoint,” he said. “I can’t do that.”
Staley played at point guard, and though she stands at just 5-foot-6 she made her presence very well known on the court. Staley grew up in the rough Raymond Rosen housing projects in Philadelphia but was able to blaze a positive path for her life on the basketball court. She became a star at the University of Virginia and later for Team USA. Not only did she win three Olympic gold medals but also she was selected as the Opening Ceremony flag bearer for the United States at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Four years later, she was on the U.S. coaching staff at the 2008 Olympic Games. She was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
Staley made her first head coaching debut with Team USA back in 2007 at the Pan American Games, where she led the United States to a 5-0 record en route to a gold medal. One of the players on that squad was Angel McCoughtry, who now is an Olympic gold medalist with hopes of winning a world gold medal in Turkey.
“She was my first coach in Team USA,” McCoughtry said. “She just knows what we’re thinking. Even in practice today, she saw me shoot but told me, ‘I know you wanted to pass, right?’ and she was right. I did.”
Perhaps Staley’s biggest adjustment now coaching Team USA teams is when she is guiding the younger players as she did at the FIBA Americas Championship. Arguably tougher than teaching the young players about the Xs and Os of the game was taking away their cell phones at night.
“Some of them went through big-time withdrawals,” Staley said. “There was no texting at lunch. I wanted them to get a chance to communicate with each other.”
But what Staley said excites her most as the coach of all of the women she is working with these days is that there are so many more professional opportunities for them. Back when Staley started out, there was no such thing as the WNBA.
“It’s beautiful to see that they don’t have to go to a 9-to-5 job; they have options in basketball,” she said.
Who knows? Maybe some of them will become coaches, too.Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.