TAMPA — South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner vividly remembers watching Dawn Staley during her playing days as a star point guard at Virginia in the early 1990s.
He remembers her "magnificent" playmaking ability. He remembers the positive impact she had on her teammates and what a great leader she was.
So it comes as no surprise to him more than two decades later how successful Staley has become as a head coach or that she has built South Carolina into a national title contender.
"I was at N.C. State (as baseball coach) when Kay Yow was the coach," Tanner said. "I had a chance to watch Dawn up close and personal, and I sat near the court. And I remember to this day when she would come in as a point guard for the Cavaliers, she ran it. She was in charge. And it was tenacious. It was fun. It was fun to watch. And of course, she was great as well.
"But there was no question who was directing traffic. And she's still directing traffic."
Now in her seventh season, Staley has led the Gamecocks to unprecedented heights. South Carolina (34-2) plays Notre Dame (35-2) on Sunday in Tampa, marking the school's first women's Final Four appearance.
The former All-American, WNBA star, three-time Olympic gold medalist and Naismith Hall of Famer is living a life she once never could have imagined.
"I absolutely did not want to be a coach a day in my life, not one ounce in me wanted to be a coach, and I don't know why," Staley said. "I have coaches who were friends before I became a coach, and the only thing they talked about was their team. It didn't create balance as a coach."
Staley, 44, said she didn't understand at the time that basketball would provide much more than a paycheck. It would give her the opportunity to mold young women's lives and help shape their future in a way she might not otherwise have had.
"It's almost like — and I don't mean to say this and lessen what a mother who's giving birth to their first child — but it almost equates," she said. "Because I don't have any children, so basketball has given me all the emotions. Every freshman that comes in our program, or when I was at Temple University, it's almost like birthing them. They become your child, and you live that, and you're able to shape their lives on a daily basis and leave part of you in them so they can have the tools to be successful."
And successful she has been.
"I tell you what, Dawn Staley and our women's team are the toast of the university right now," South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier, who will be in Tampa to root on the Gamecocks, said Thursday on the Dan Patrick Show.
When Staley arrived in Columbia, S.C., in 2008 after eight seasons at Temple, the program was what one former SEC coach described as "nothing." The Gamecocks had never won an SEC championship, never won an SEC tournament championship and in 34 years before Staley arrived, had participated in just eight NCAA tournaments.
Now they have won back-to-back SEC championships, a conference tournament title and have had four consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.
"Winning alone has been very impressive at South Carolina," said former Florida and WNBA coach Carol Ross, now an analyst for the SEC Network. "But I think what's really most impressive is that she's not just winning, she's built a program. Their following includes road fans, too. She's just changed the entire culture in a place that I don't think many people thought was possible. It's really been impressive to watch."
"She's genuine," Tanner said in describing Staley's success. "If you just nail it with one word, she's genuine in all aspects. You can be very successful and not be genuine and you can have that kind of success in a program, but she's all encompassing. … Believe me, when she's involved in something, it's genuine and it's all-out. People understand and appreciate it."
Staley came in with a mind-set of change, but she had no idea how that would come about or how long it might take.
"I never really put a timetable on things," she said. "I think for me and my outlook on just success, success has a certain feel, it has a certain sound, and it has a certain look. So when all of those things are in place, you're going to be successful. But that takes time. … Then it takes talent. It takes great people, and it takes a commitment, a commitment of discipline. So once we got those things in place, our program started to move in the right direction."
If Staley can lead the Gamecocks to a national title, she will be only the second African-American coach to win a Division I women's basketball national championship. Carolyn Peck did it at Purdue in 1999. And nobody is hoping Staley joins that list more than Peck.
"I learned this from my high school English teacher who told me when you're working on an outline, the only way there can be a one is if there's a two behind it," Peck said. "I would love for Dawn Staley to be No. 2.
"The way she has built that program, she has done it the right way. It would give me great pleasure to walk up to her, shake her hand and congratulate her for being the second. I would love that."
Contact Antonya English at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Gators.