Throughout the season, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley shared her thoughts with The Undefeated, recording a season unparalleled in college basketball history. In this part, Staley discusses the importance of two black coaches in the Final Four, their team’s battle against the odds in the NCAA tournament bubble, and holding the gamecocks on the way to winning a national championship.
I want to know on purpose what I want to see. Making history alongside [Arizona head coach] Adia Barnes was an issue for me – a breakthrough I had hoped would happen in this tournament.
It’s nothing against other coaches. We have seen that they have dominated this phase for years. It makes them look like the only ones who can come here. They are the best trainers. You are the best representation of our game. If the players only see Geno [Auriemma] and only Kim [Mulkey] or just Tara [VanDerveer] – if you look at the history of our game, those three coaches are a big part of the Final Four appearances. If that’s all you see, you can take a black kid who lives to go to the Final Four and win a national championship. These are the only three schools that have dominated the Final Four appearances.
There will be storylines, two black women, two former WNBA players, have brought their teams to the Final Four. It looks very different from any other Final Four in the history of our game. It is powerful. Representation is important.
I want to celebrate all of the black women head coaches in the game today. I want to celebrate Coach Mox [Missouri State Head Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton] for standing up and taking a controversial move not to participate in the MVC tournament for not wanting to take her program to a place where they couldn’t get it. They knew that if they played well enough they could get to a place where they could be a historian. [Ole Miss] Coach Yo [Yolett McPhee-McCuin] got her team going and sat on the map in the WNIT final. Check out Wright State and Katrina Merriweather. Katrina got a job at Memphis for her performance in the NCAA tournament and beyond. What Joni [Taylor] did in Georgia, what the SEC coaches did. Check out Adia and the work she did in Arizona. There are incredible stories throughout college basketball.
We have a group chat with women from color trainers, in which whenever one of us does something, we have a thread in which we congratulate each other on our successes. We have to, we have to lift one another up this way because people don’t lift us up overall. We get them to lift us up. We get the storytellers, the decision makers, to talk about us because we’re on the biggest stage in college women’s basketball.
The fact that it’s happening makes it bigger and bigger than basketball. I hope that with these opportunities we will see more women of color in these positions because once you give us an opportunity you will see what happens. With each success we rewrite the narrative, giving hope to other black coaches out there trying to break free from just being called « recruits ».
When people talk about black coaches, they often don’t talk about it our actual ability to coach and be great coaches. The adjectives used for white coaches are different from the adjectives used for black coaches to describe them, their teams, and their style of play.
Especially for me, insults are talked about. “Our offense has stalled. Our offense does not know what it is doing. You can play through any game across America, women and men games. People plan against us, they have to plan against us. So that someone can talk about insults, I let them speak because the results are there.
We are a diverse team, which means that we are not one-dimensional. We don’t run a system. I don’t run a system. I didn’t grow up playing the game that runs a system. Who in the WNBA operates a system? Nobody. We consider mismatches.
So I’ll only do what I’m good at what I’m good at as a player. It worked well for me back then and it works well for me as a coach. So I don’t care what people say about our style of play. Proof is in the numbers, proof is in the win percentage.
After our team beat Texas in the Elite Eight on Tuesday to advance to the Final Four, Zia Cooke and I hugged on center court. We hugged and she said, « And we’re not done yet. » She didn’t say congratulations, she said, « And we’re not done yet. » That’s pretty cool for such a young person. I like to hear that. You know what it takes to win – to win the next game and game. You know it takes that kind of grit, that kind of knowledge, that kind of innocence, not knowing what’s in front of you. And you know what it took to get to this place. You need a little bit of both. Having the expectations of a win ahead of you can trigger something you don’t want, and it can trickle down if you don’t let them perform at their peak. It was comforting to hear that.
My feelings after the win were just high spirits. I’m just happy for our players. As a coach, of course, you want to be among the best and fight for a national championship, but you think about the journey and the one that has been with you all season. To see their faces, our players, our coaches, our employees – to see their faces in this moment is nothing but pure joy. Here young people see their dream. I’ve done it as a player, I’ve done it twice as a coach. This is your first time. This is the first time you’ve had those raw, pure emotions. Sitting back and seeing it for them is priceless.
One thing about this team is that we are a resilient group. We did that all season. This team was driven to win a national championship from last season. You had to deal with so many adversities. They had to deal with so many victims that they didn’t want to stop them. We had an assistant coach who lost her mother while in that bubble. We recently had a player who lost her uncle. These are family members, family-oriented people who, if we weren’t in this situation, would be at home. We would have flown them home and given them the opportunity to go home. But they said, « I’ll stay here. I’ll subdivide. I’ll give you what I have. And then we’ll pick up after we win a national championship. »
We’re probably the epitome of compartmentalizers. We are amazing, tough minded people. Athletes are just that. They have to be because everyone has something up to date. And if you are unable, if you don’t have enough mental strength to deal with it, you will break. You will break We definitely had tough conversations. But if we weren’t a close family, if we weren’t communicating about things that happen all year round, all these players and coaches would have gone home. You would have gone home immediately. But they stayed. They stayed and we are helping them. It is difficult, however. It’s hard.
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I feel good where we are in this mental space. You can see the focus on their faces. They just want to win. They feel very close to their goal and will do anything. You build up to this place. You can’t just go over a few things as a team and come here and have to put up with being in a hotel 20 hours a day and not feeling it. They continue to focus on winning the national championship and nothing stands in the way of that. You won’t let anything get in the way of that. I’m not going to let anything get in their way.
Sean Hurd is Associate Editor for The Undefeated. He believes the “flying V” is the most important formation in sports history.
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