About to coach in her first women's Final Four, Dawn Staley took time out the other day to tell people on Twitter that she had

finally

taken down her Christmas tree. It had been a running joke between Staley and her 25,000 followers about her still having the tree up.

After a suitable pause, after one Gamecocks fan noted her inspiration was enough to take their own tree down, came Staley's next tweet: "APRIL FOOLS on taking down the xmas tree . . . Gotcha!!!" Laughing emoticons took up the rest of Staley's 140 characters.

Staley was an early adopter of social media, and could be the most interactive coach in the country on Twitter. The North Philadelphia native will do everything short of live-tweet the national semifinal Sunday against Notre Dame in Tampa, Fla.

"In 2008, I think it was, when one of our administrators talked to me about Twitter," Staley said over the phone last week. "I think she had some forward thinking. She thought it would be a great idea to just connect with people. No other coaches were doing it at the time. . . . Then it just grew."

Her Christmas tree tweets are a typical example. Since it was still up in March, she added a basketball net and a couple of regional championship hats. She just wanted to show people, she said, that her life was normal, too.

"I walk past my Christmas tree every day," Staley said. "One day I said, 'I'm going to take a picture. Let me see how many people still have their Christmas tree up.' Lo and behold, it's taken on a life of its own."

Sure enough, someone started a @CoachStaleyXmasTree Twitter account, and it has more than 700 followers.

"You can put out what you want to put out, you can use it to bring attention to some issues or some newsworthy topics," Staley said. "A lot of times our fans are older women, they're not connected to social media. I think since our basketball program has taken off, [a lot] of older people joined the social media, which I think is a great thing. It exposes them to modern-day technology."

In recent years, South Carolina's fan base exploded in size as the Gamecocks grew in stature, eventually reaching No. 1 in the country for a time earlier this season, before a trip to Connecticut didn't go so well.

Staley's team topped the nation in home attendance this season, averaging 12,293 fans, with 8,200 season tickets issued and five of the nation's top 10 most-attended regular-season games.

The coach's real secret is her ability to keep sort of a team-next-door feel to it all. When the Gamecocks were headed for NCAA tournament games in Greensboro, N.C., Staley tweeted out how anyone who wanted to get on a bus should contact the women's basketball office. Then she kept retweeting photos put out from the bus caravan.

Virtually everything on Staley's feed is upbeat. No complaining about referees, and you won't see her responding to fans with questions about playing time or tactical matters. She doesn't need a daily online news conference.

"Never have I done that, never would I do that," Staley said.

She did tweet once, "Note to self and others, stop texting and walking." She went on to explain she'd walked into the men's restroom. She wanted to offer a little more detail on what she saw there, she said, but Gamecocks associate head coach Lisa Boyer convinced her that she was giving just enough information.

As social media tend to do, all facets of Staley's life pop up, including from her time growing up in Philadelphia. Holly Rowe of ESPN noted how Staley told her, "I dedicate this whole experience to John Chaney," remembering her time as Temple's women's coach when Chaney was coaching the men.

On Thursday, an old Philly schoolmate tweeted: "I said to my cuz Gary who would've thought the girl that was w/u on Safety Patrol at William Dick Elem would coach in Final Four."

The same day, Staley tweeted back, "lol. . ...I was a lieutenant patrolling the corner of 25th and Diamond St."

Staley is on Facebook, she said, but Twitter is her preferred medium of expression - although she added, "I still like to write letters. In some ways, I'm old-school."

How old-school?

"I still like to talk on the phone," she said.

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus