A Player's Coach, Dawn Staley Adds to USA Women's National Team Legacy
By leading the 2018 USA Basketball Women’s World Cup Team to a 73-56 victory over Australia Sunday in San Cristobal de La Laguna, Canary Islands, USA and University of South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley became the first person in FIBA Women’s World Cup history to win a gold medal as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
Before the game started, Staley sat, unmoving and stoic, anxious for the beginning of the biggest game of her young coaching career. She had been there as a player, but never as a head coach, and there were standards to be upheld.
In March, 2017, Staley inherited a USA squad that had won the two previous World Cup gold medals, led by University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. Sunday night, Auriemma was seated in the first row of the stands directly behind Staley.
“The expectation is, whenever it’s your first time, it’s way different from being a player to coaching,” Auriemma said. “Winning that first gold medal, I don’t care who you are. It’s hard. There’s no escaping that. She’s done a great job of staying with the system and staying level-headed.”
Staley served as an assistant under Auriemma in the 2014 World Cup. His influence on USA Basketball made an impression on her as a person and a coach.
“Geno has been America’s best coach both internationally and collegiately,” Staley said. “When he’s in the building, more times than not, we win. It was good to see him here to support USA Basketball, support the UConn players and just be a part of USA Basketball. He has made things a lot easier, obviously, just with his leadership and his ability to get players to play at a high level.”
Auriemma laid the foundation for the 2018 edition of the USA team, but Staley’s connection with her players made it work. Because of the WNBA playoffs, the complete 12-player roster was not available until Sept. 19, three days before the first day of the tournament. The success of the USA was built largely upon the trusting relationships Staley was able to build.
“She’s a player’s coach,” said Nneka Ogwumike. “I think that’s really what it is. You feel very personal with her when you’re communicating with her and she listens a lot to the players to get as much insight as she can to give us what we need to go out there and play well.”
Forward A’ja Wilson knows Staley’s coaching style and habits best. The two won an NCAA title together in 2017 at the University of South Carolina. The World Cup was another step in their relationship.
“This is one of the reasons I wanted to be in it so much,” Wilson said. “To dedicate it all to her. She’s really done so much for this game, especially USA Basketball. To be able to win a gold medal with her in the World Cup is definitely something special.”
The players bought into Staley’s message because of the trust she has in them. Staley played with some of the players she now coaches, so she knows what they bring to the court. Staley just had to let them bring it, and it won them a gold medal.
“Fortunately for us, we sit here as gold medalists,” Staley said. “A lot of the reason why we do that is the players make a commitment to come, year in and year out, that allows us to win. We can’t do it without them, we can’t do it without their commitment. But, me as a coach and our coaching staff (Seattle Storm; Minnesota Lynx; and , George Washington University), we just got out of their way. You got to let the players do what they do best and not get in the way.”
Ryan Gregory is a contributor to USAB.com as part of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI.