The mentor watched her protégée reach the promised land of women’s college basketball, a destination where life becomes a blur of energy and elation after a crown is claimed.
Debbie Ryan, Dawn Staley’s coach at Virginia from 1989-92, was present Sunday in Dallas when Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks became the toast of the sport with a victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the national championship game.
Ryan never felt far removed from Staley’s journey to the top.
“It was very, very emotional,” Ryan, who coached Virginia from 1977-2011, told SEC Country. “And I had a little time with her before the game, the day of the game, and I had some more time with her after the game. But emotionally, I felt like I was coaching there. I felt like I was in the middle of it. She made me feel such a part of it. And I was just so happy to be there and so honored to be in her life. Very honored to have such a key role in her life. It has just meant everything to me. And so I couldn’t have been happier, and I was just elated when it happened, because she is so deserving.”
Staley took a hammer to a few walls by the time she placed a net around her neck at American Airlines Center and delivered an exclamation mark in the form of South Carolina’s first national championship during a 33-4 season.
Dawn Staley, precedent-setter
She became the second African-American coach to win a national title since 1982, when the NCAA started sponsoring a women’s basketball tournament. (Purdue’s Carolyn Peck was the first in 1999.)
Staley became the first woman to win a Final Four most outstanding player award and a national championship as a coach. And the Gamecocks became the first program in five years other than mighty UConn to enjoy the view as the last contender standing.
Ryan believed in South Carolina’s potential because she held big belief in Staley.
“I knew she was going to win,” said Ryan, who coached in three Final Fours. “I wasn’t even concerned about that, because I had a premonition about this before they even went. I really had a premonition that she was going to do this. I didn’t know how it was going to unfold. I thought, probably, that she would beat UConn. But who would have thought that it would unfold the way it did? I don’t think it would have mattered who she played. They were ready.”
The Gamecocks were ready, because Staley had worked for the moment throughout her nine-year stint in Columbia.
Culmination at Carolina
South Carolina’s championship represents a continuation of Staley’s steady ascent within the sport. She grew from a prized prospect in Philadelphia to a standout collegian. She transformed from a WNBA star to a coach who has made a consistent climb since debuting as Temple’s leader in 2000.
She knocked on the door of a championship with South Carolina in 2015, when the Gamecocks lost to Notre Dame by one point in the Final Four. This time, she ripped the thing off its hinges.
“I can check off one of the things that has been a void in my career,” Staley told reporters after winning the title. “It’s one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger. National championship games and Olympics. Those were the things that I held dear and near to me when I was growing up, because those are the things that I wanted. That’s what I saw. That’s what I was shooting for.”
Many paths. One destination.
Many experiences. One speed: full-bore ahead.
“I always felt she would be a great coach,” Ryan said. “I always felt that because of the way she saw the game. But when pro players start to wind down their careers, sometimes they don’t know if they want to get into the coaching because it is so labor-intensive in terms of time. And when you’re a pro, you have a lot of free time. But I think she was challenged. And she decided because it was Temple and it was near her home that she was going to do this. And once she decided, that was it. She was both feet in, and that’s how she does everything.
“She was a pioneer in a lot of ways, but she did it in such a positive way where she just rallied the troops down there and created Gamecock Nation (as a way) to follow the women’s program. She reached out to every coach down there. She was a supporter of every coach. Everybody just adores her, because she’s like the Pied Piper. She has always been like that – very positive, great leadership skills.
“Her leadership skills and her ability to communicate were just unbelievable from the time she walked in here. Virginia really helped that foundation, and she just took off after she graduated from here.”
New, bigger challenges
Now that South Carolina’s program has taken off, Staley’s work will continue.
She’s 46 years old, which made her the Final Four’s youngest coach by 10 years. The Gamecocks are not only the SEC’s jewel in the sport, but the program will be considered among the nation’s best after its breakthrough moment in the Big D.
A rewarding road could stretch many more miles.
“It has been such a long journey for her,” Ryan said of Staley. “I was just happy that she had the chance to do this so early in her career. This is very early in someone’s career to win a national championship. And she has just been so gracious about everything.
“I can’t even tell you how happy I am. I can’t even tell you what this feeling is like. I’m telling you, I feel like I coached the whole tournament with her. That’s what I feel like. I’m just so, so happy.”
And so are many more.