Columbia City of Women Honoree
Image courtesy of the University of South Carolina.
As head coach for the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, Coach Staley led her team to their first NCAA Tournament title in 2017 – an accomplishment which capped record-breaking turns at the high school, collegiate, amateur, and professional levels. In addition, she is a five-time Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) All Star and three-time Olympic gold medalist with the USA Basketball team. In 2007, the WNBA honored her exemplary career, character, and philanthropy to local communities by establishing the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award.
On April 2, 2017, the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team won their first national championship, the final step for a program which began as the “Carolina Chicks” back in 1974. Led by head coach Dawn Staley and power forward A’ja Wilson, the team propelled women’s athletics to an unprecedented level of success at South Carolina.
Dawn Staley was one of five siblings raised in the Raymond Rosen Homes in downtown Philadelphia. Reports of her skill reached Columbia, S.C. by her senior year in high school, when Haskell Cohen wrote about the “5-foot-4 dynamo....who can leap to within two inches of the basketball rim....and was the leading scorer among both boys and girls in Pennsylvania last year” (March 13, 1988 in The State). In her final three years of high school, she led Dobbins Technical to 50 straight wins. USA Today voted her the National High School Player of the Year by USA Today, the first person under six feet to win.
Staley went on to set several records as a member of the University of Virginia (UVA) Cavaliers while earning a degree in Rhetoric and Communication Studies. During her four years with the team, they made four NCAA tournament appearances, three Final Four appearances, and one appearance in the National Championship. She graduated in 1992 as UVA’s all-time leading scorer (2,135 points), the AAC’s all-time leader in assists (729 points), and the NCAA all-time leader in steals (454). A two-time National Player of the Year, she also won Most Outstanding Player on the 1991 NCAA Final Four.
Staley turned pro after graduation, playing first in the short-lived American Basketball League and then in the Women’s NBA (WNBA), where she became a five-time WNBA All-Star. She also helped USA Basketball win three consecutive Olympic Gold medals—in 1996, 2000, and 2004, where she carried the US flag during the Games’ opening ceremony. In 2000, at the height of her professional and national career, she accepted her first coaching job at Temple University, effectively turning the program around with six NCAA tournament appearances in eight years.
"One goal, one team, one dream, one family and one focus." — 2017 National Championship Squad
Staley arrived in Columbia in 2008 to take over a team in a slump, having missed the last five NCAA tournaments. Journalists and fans saw her as the “perennial winner” and “proven champion” who could turn the program around. Under immense scrutiny, she transformed the Lady Gamecocks into an NCAA tournament mainstay. Together they reached the “one goal” which had alluded Staley throughout her entire career. The team became only the second major USC women’s program to win a national title.
Meanwhile, the accolades haven’t stopped. In 2013, Staley became the 15th woman inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Yet it’s the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award, which the WNBA began awarding in 2007, that gives insight into the girl who grew up in Philadelphia. Her work off the court began in 1996 with the creation of the Dawn Staley Foundation, which provides after-school program opportunities designed to inspire academic and athletic success for middle-school girls in inner-city Philadelphia. After moving to Columbia, she started a new program, INNERSOLE, which provides new sneakers to children who are homeless or in need.
Today, Staley serves as the head coach of the women’s national team and is in the midst of her eleventh season with the Gamecocks. Now when visitors visit the Carolina Coliseum, they pass down Dawn Staley Way.
Opened in 2002 as the Carolina Center to replace the Carolina Coliseum, this building is the home of the UofSC men's and women's basketball teams. Dawn Staley became head coach of the women's team in 2008, just one month before the building was officially renamed the Colonial Life Arena.
Want to learn more about Dawn Staley? Connect with a historian at Historic Columbia.
Interested in advancing the health, economic well-being, and rights of South Carolina's women, girls, and their families? Check out what's going on at WREN.