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A few weeks ago, Dawn Staley came back home.

Not just to Philadelphia, and not even just to North Philadelphia, where the world now knows her roots proudly stand. But to Temple’s campus, a place Staley still calls one of her spiritual homes, just over a mile from the 2500 block of West Diamond Avenue — Dawn Staley Way, as the street sign says.

The feeling was mutual on North Broad, made clear by Temple athletic director Arthur Johnson. No matter that he came here by way of Texas, Georgia, Arizona State, and North Carolina. He knew. And he made that clear as he introduced Staley to a crowd attending a conversation with new Owls women’s basketball coach Diane Richardson.

“She has gotten to the point where she is more than just a basketball coach,” Johnson said of Staley, who coached the Owls from 2000 to 2008. “And what she represents in the state of South Carolina, and in this community, and to women’s basketball coaches, and especially women’s basketball coaches of color around this country, it has been unprecedented.”

» READ MORE: Dawn Staley’s second NCAA title with South Carolina was a triumph beyond basketball

Then came an even higher compliment.

“When I think about her, I think about the John Thompsons,” Johnson said, a reference to the 1980s era of coaching and activism in college basketball, led by that icon.

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He then admitted to the crowd that some people in the room were too young to have witnessed Thompson’s pinnacle at Georgetown. But he had a comparison ready.

“When I think about her, I think about the John Thompsons... South Carolina and Dawn Staley have become that voice.”

Temple athletic director Arthur Johnson

“South Carolina and Dawn Staley have become that voice,” Johnson said.

There could barely be more meaningful praise for anyone wishing to follow the footsteps of the man still renowned across the sport as “Big John.” And just as it meant so much for the late John Chaney also to be on that level, Staley said that those words hit home for her.

“Big John did a lot, did a lot,” Staley said in an interview, the emphasis clear. “So it’s hard for me to, you know, compare his impact. But I think our work in giving a voice to the voiceless is all the same. I think somebody has to take the reins and keep speaking up.”

Thompson, Staley continued, “set the tone. He set a great example — he and Coach Chaney. I grew up closer to Coach Chaney and know his impact, and [I’m] honored.”

» READ MORE: Legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson was a giant in every sense

Staley’s stature in college basketball — and not just women’s college hoops, as many coaches of men’s teams have said — is especially important right now. In April, she became the first Black head coach of any Division I men’s or women’s basketball team to win multiple national championships.

And now, 50 summers after Title IX became law, Philadelphia and the nation are spotlighting the anniversary of the landmark gender equity legislation’s passage.

”There are much more little girls playing sports, much more young people, young ladies involved in sports,” Staley said. “Just imagine if we started 100 years [ago]. I’m proud of the progress, but look forward to, you know, changes being made in the future.”

That “but” carries plenty of weight. And you could easily build a chorus of voices across the nation singing the same note with the same gusto.

“The law was implemented for a reason,” Staley said. “Fifty years later, there has been some improvement in some areas, but there hasn’t been in others. And I think, you know, another 50 years, I hope we will move the chain.”

» READ MORE: Dawn Staley is the second-highest paid head coach in women's college basketball

On the question of how to move the chain, though, that chorus isn’t in unison. Staley knows it as well as anyone. But she sees virtue in bringing diverse opinions together, including for discussing the future of women’s sports.

“Our game can be far more advanced than what it is, with different perspectives,” Staley said. “Not to say those perspectives are right. It’s just sometimes, like, as a coach, right? I have a way of looking at basketball, and I have a way of thinking that if you put a game plan together, that what I have in my head is going to work, right?”

“It’s what we do every day in our sport, as coaches — we listen, we learn, we teach, we grow, we grow our team.”

Dawn Staley

Until an assistant coach happens to have a different plan in mind. Staley welcomes that.

“We bang it out, we argue it out, we play devil’s advocate on each one of our perspectives,” she said. “Their perspective is only going to help me either solidify what I believe, or change it to increase our chances of winning. … It’s what we do every day in our sport, as coaches — we listen, we learn, we teach, we grow, we grow our team. Why should it be any different at the top with the decision-makers of our game?”

Nowhere is that more important in college sports — and more controversial — than in the hiring of coaches and administrators. Staley uses every public platform she gets to advocate for the hiring of more Black people, especially Black women, to jobs with power.

Temple’s hires of Richardson, Johnson, and university president Jason Wingard are three prominent local examples. Rutgers’ hiring of Coquese Washington after C. Vivian Stringer retired was another.

» READ MORE: Yolanda and Betnijah Laney pay a two-generation tribute to C. Vivian Stringer’s retirement

“Look who’s at Temple — you’ve got a Black president, a Black AD,” Staley said. “Were they calculating in who they hired? I think they hired the best coach for the job, and they’re giving opportunity to a coach who has been super successful.”

As important as hiring is, it’s just one part of a big picture.

“We are making progress — we are making incredible progress,” Staley said. “But there’s so many other areas that we need to grow in, and we need to keep moving those forward. Because although we’re making progress, it could be a lot quicker.”

Staley used her platform at the Final Four to highlight some of those areas in the women’s game: equipment and travel budgets, staff sizes, marketing resources, and media exposure.

Here’s another: how coaches and administrators deal with players’ mental health. Discussion of that subject once was taboo, but it’s now more out in the open than ever — especially in the wake of some high-profile college athletes’ deaths by suicide in recent months.

Like many of her contemporaries, the 52-year-old Staley grew up in a household of strict discipline. But she understands the need to treat people differently from how she was treated back then.

“We are making progress — we are making incredible progress. But there’s so many other areas that we need to grow in...”

Dawn Staley

“If you really get to know a person ... and they really get to know you, you can have those tough conversations where you can save a life,” she said. “I don’t want to be a coach that has to deal with something as tragic as an athlete, or any young person, [to] lose their life because they felt like there is no hope. That raises awareness of where we need to be — where I need to be — in our players’ lives.”

» READ MORE: Dawn Staley talked about players' mental health at the Philadelphia Coaches Conference in May

It is still, for all that everyone puts into it, a game.

“It’s cool to have basketball, and it’s cool to have sports,” Staley said, “but we can’t forget who comprises those sports — and that’s real-life people with real-life issues.”

Staley’s ability to handle all of this, on and off the court, is part of why her Gamecocks cut down the nets this past spring.

“People don’t always agree with what I’m saying, but... I’m not going to shut up.”

Dawn Staley

Her schedule barely let up afterward, with that Temple visit one of many trips to take. But she wasn’t complaining.

“Any time you win a national championship, the celebration is always long, enjoyable — it comes with the territory,” Staley said. “So I’m enjoying it. If every season can end this way, I’ll muster up the strength to get through all of it.”

It’s a safe bet that she won’t lack that strength for a good while.

“People don’t always agree with what I’m saying, but I give perspective — maybe a different perspective than what is the norm, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said. “Inventors, creators of things that we take for granted nowadays, they were different. They thought differently, they spoke differently, they moved differently in order for them to create things we take for granted nowadays.”

To a veteran ear, those words recalled old lessons from Big John and Little John — the nickname Thompson Jr. used for Chaney. Staley’s next sentence did, too.

“So,” she said, “I’m not going to shut up.”

» READ MORE: Dawn Staley, Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve keep Philly at the forefront of women’s hoops

Staff contributors
Reporting: Jonathan Tannenwald
Editing: Andrea Canales
Digital: Matt Mullin
Copy editing: Jim Swan
Project editor: Gary Potosky