Few teams in any Olympic sport face more pressure this month than the U.S. women’s basketball squad. It has won six straight Olympic gold medals and is favored to win a seventh.
Dawn Staley knows all about pressure, both as a player and a coach.
Whether the first-time Olympic head coach was starring as a point guard at Philadelphia’s Dobbins Tech and the University of Virginia, and in two professional leagues and several Olympics, or serving as head coach at Temple and currently South Carolina, she has enjoyed one successful moment after another.
Staley, 51, revels in the competition and understands there is only one acceptable outcome.
“It’s gold or failure without a doubt,” Staley said in a recent phone interview. “That is the pressure we have been under the last six [Olympics]. So it is par for the course.”
The U.S. women begin their competition Tuesday against Nigeria. No moment in the Olympics, even the opener, seems too big for Staley.
“I am from North Philly. We don’t usually get overwhelmed,” she said. “We take what is in front of us and take the cards we are dealt.”
» READ MORE: Dawn Staley is never far from Philly | Mike Jensen
Staley has always approached the game with her North Philly swagger. She grew up in the Raymond Rosen housing projects and made a name for herself in the city by leading Dobbins to three Philadelphia Public League basketball titles. In 1988, USA Today named her the national high school player of the year.
She then attended Virginia, where in her four seasons the Cavaliers advanced to the Final Four three times. She was twice named national college player of the year.
Staley played professionally overseas, then was a two-time All-Star in the American Basketball League and a five-time All-Star in the WNBA.
Her Olympic resume includes gold medals as a player in 1996, 2000, and 2004, and she was the flag-bearer for the U.S. team in Athens in 2004.
“To be a gold medalist you have to be a pretty good player. But you can’t work for that,” she said about carrying the flag. “You have to be lucky, and I think because of what I have given to the game and my approach, I got lucky because there were so many others who were deserving or more deserving and had overcome so much.”
Staley also won gold medals as an assistant coach in the 2008 and 2016 Olympics.
She got her college coaching start at Temple, where she guided the Owls from 2000 to 2008. She took over a program that hadn’t produced a winning record since 1990 and led the Owls to six NCAA tournament berths in her eight years.
Her mentor was the late Hall of Fame coach John Chaney, the men’s coach at Temple when Staley was hired.
In her first game after Chaney’s death earlier this year, Staley paid tribute to him by dressing for her South Carolina game in his usual attire of a black cardigan, white shirt, and a loosened black tie.
“Coach has been a mainstay in my career,” she said. “He did so much for me. It was a really cool relationship.”
In 13 years at South Carolina, Staley won the 2017 national championship and has gone to the Final Four three times. Her South Carolina teams have qualified for the NCAA tournament nine times, and it would have been 10 had the 2020 tournament not been canceled by the pandemic.
Staley, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, has a college coaching record of 503-183. That’s an outstanding .733 winning percentage.
“You just want to flow it,” she said of her approach to big games. “If the waters get a little wild, you still have to stay clam and just follow the course.”