South Carolina’s steady rise to excellence: How the Gamecocks defied the odds

Photo by Randy Sartin | USA Today Sports.

Swish Appeal had the opportunity to interview South Carolina Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley & senior guard Ieasia Walker about their 19-3 start to the season and Staley's growth as a coach.

There’s a wonderful axiom that’s very applicable to the resurgence of the South Carolina Gamecocks towards the upper echelon of the SEC: the cream always rises to the top.

"To have a start like we’re having this year (at 19-3)," said Gamecocks senior guard Ieasia Walker. "It just shows that if you buy into the system that the coach's teaching, then it will pay off -- we’re finally seeing that right now."

And when people see the success of the Gamecocks under the stewardship of Dawn Staley, some aren’t surprised; however, the success that they’ve garnered didn’t happen overnight, it was a slow and steady climb. A climb that some decided to walk away from, but has yielded rewards for those who believed in Staley’s vision

"I’m very proud for our players" said Staley. "Because they’ve worked so hard this year. I would say 95%-98% of the time we’ve haven’t had to coach effort and being a coach, it’s a beautiful thing when you don’t have to coach effort -- it’s a beautiful thing."

Haling from Philadelphia, Staley -- the former All-American and All-WNBA player -- has always epitomized excellence of the highest order. Her college career was stellar; she left Virginia as one of the most decorated athletes not only in school history, but one of college basketball’s all-time greats: Virginia’s all-time leading scorer (2,135 points), three Final Four appearances, ACC all-time assist leader (729) and NCAA all-time steals leader (454).

Then to build upon that already impressive resume’, she went on to win three gold medals while being named an All-Star in the WNBA five times.

Even when her playing days came to an end, basketball still beckoned her name. So after hanging up her basketball shoes, she put on her Louie Voton Red Bottoms, her favorite, and gravitated to the allure of coaching a game in which she excelled.

"It’s one of my passions other than playing basketball," said Staley. "I’m glad I’m in the position [as a coach] to affect people’s lives."

Staley didn’t have to go far for that opportunity; she embarked upon coaching her hometown university, Temple. And once again, success followed suit -- almost immediately. She brought it from the depths of the Atlantic-10 conference and made it the preeminent program of the conference.

With six NCAA appearances to go alongside two WNBA first round draft picks -- multiple WNBA All-Star Candice Dupree and Kamesha Hairston -- Staley was once again a rising star in her profession.

So it was inevitable, almost a foregone conclusion that a prominent BCS school would swoop in and woo her away from the Owls. That university was South Carolina. And On May 7, 2008, she relocated herself to the Columbia, South Carolina campus.

It didn’t take long for her penchant for success to appear.

Going into her second year on the job, Staley landed the consensus number two player in the country: 6-foot-4 center Kelsey Bone. With Bone, she had the centerpiece that she coveted and a dominant post player for years to come -- so Staley thought.

Bone had a very good first year for the Gamecocks - she garnered SEC Newcomer of the Year honors - however, she wasn’t happy. She was far away from home and the lack of team success undoubtedly frustrated her, so on March 23, 2010, Bone transferred.

Almost like a wind blowing in the air for a split second, Bone was there one day and then she was gone. It was a letdown for the tough coach from Philadelphia, almost a sense of disappointment. So many questions arose around the "water coolers" of college basketball: What will Staley do now? Will she ever be able to attract any other elite athletes again? Will Staley even become a factor in the SEC without superstar-caliber players like Bone?

Then if it couldn’t get any worse, more defections happened after Bone: Kayla Brewer and then Marah Strickland -- both highly touted coming out of high school.

Now the jury of college basketball aficionados -- already skeptical -- had the visual evidence to render their judgment.

Instead of a stalemate, they had reached its verdict on the new coach to the SEC:

"She’s finished!"

Staley heard all of the clamor and whispers about where her program was headed, that she was headed to the abyss of the conference. But with each transfer, each harsh critic and pessimistic outlook from outsiders, Staley showed a steely resolve that would have made her mother -- who is Staley’s rock -- proud.

"A lot of people don’t grow up with a strong mother like (mine)," said Staley. "That’s where my foundation is at, it’s where my disciple comes from, and she didn’t spare the rod -- at all. She’s very religious and spiritual; she sacrificed her needs to give her kids their wants. We grew up in the projects of North Philadelphia and the only thing I wanted was some nice shoes.

"Luckily for me that I had that type of mom that would make (every) sacrifice. But also, she instilled in us an incredible belief and confidence. She made us into the strong beings that we are, that’s my foundation."

With those inculcated principles, anyone who knows Staley understands two things about her; she’s a fighter and not a quitter. So Staley did what she always has done, she rose to the occasion like the champion that she’s always been.

"I’m an odds-beater," said Staley passionately. "I know I’m an odds-beater just from my humble beginnings until today. I know the odds are stacked against me as a coach, as a coach at South Carolina. The odds were against me and that’s what I was drawn to, coming to (South Carolina) -- because of the odds.

"We did lose some players, that’s part of my experience and part of my history, but I also think that you sometimes gain by losing. It drew us closer, it drew us together and it allowed us to come together as a family."

Meeting with her staff, they decided to put their hands in the sand and recruit even harder. But most importantly, find players that exemplified the "do whatever it takes" mantra -- players that understood that there would be no gray-area, and that they would be "all in."

As the cubbard of players began to resemble the mental toughness that were a chip off of the old block of 25th and Diamond (her hometown area), Staley was still missing that one ingredient that was paramount to expediting the "process." She needed that one player that she could completely hand over the reigns too, a player that would be all in -- and Staley found her in Ieshia Walker.

"I’m extremely proud...extremely proud [of Ieasia]," said Staley.

This formidable bond between player and coach almost never happened. In life, there are moments or chance encounters that forever change people’s lives. Ironically, it was Staley’s time at Temple that proved to be immeasurable in finding the leader she desired.

"Coach Staley, she’s been recruiting me since I was in middle school," said Walker. "When she was at Temple, I would always go up there and watch their games with my AAU team. I started to build a relationship with her then, so I knew her and Coach (Lisa) Boyer for awhile. I liked Temple but…I didn’t know if I really wanted to go to the (A-10) conference.

"Once she came to the SEC, I was like, ‘That’s a great conference, I’ll get seen, and they get a lot of exposure.’ So when she came to (South Carolina) that pretty much put them over the top (of) the final schools that I was looking at - Louisville, Penn State, Florida and Seton Hall."

With Walker in the fold, the teaching between mentor and pupil began and to say it was a bumpy ride would probably be an understatement.

"At first, my freshman year, it was hard -- it was a transition (coming) from high school to college," said Walker. "But it’s even harder when your coach played (professionally); and she’s established at the position you play, it was that much tougher."

"I was really hard on Ieasia her first year, I mean extremely hard," said Staley. "Sometimes, I probably was too hard on her. The reason that I was so hard on Ieasia was because I knew I was going to give her our program at a young age. I actually wanted her to run our program as a freshman, and she wasn’t ready -- so that frustrated me because I handpicked her.

"I was trying to speed up the process, (but) you really can’t. How people learn and how people grasp information, it’s their process. I got a little frustrated but I said to myself, ‘If you aren’t going to be ready your first year, you better believe that you will be ready your second year.’ And then pretty much I gave her [the program] her second year."

Never the one to shun a challenge, when the going got tough for Walker, she got tougher. She showed a resolve that resembled, out of all people, her head coach. The synergy and makeup between both player and coach became identical -- and it’s one of the reasons why the Gamecocks have turned this program around.

"It feels really good," said Walker. "When I saw [people transferring], it seemed like a trend because every year [it kept happening]. And I was like, ‘Maybe I’m doing something wrong, should I be here?’ I questioned it for a little bit, but I’ve never been the type of person to give up when things aren’t going the way you want it.

"I came here was to help turn the program around. I didn’t want to go to a program that was already established, I knew it was going to be tough -- I mean it’s probably a little tougher than I anticipated (smiling). But you need that in life (because) nothing is going to be handed to you. (I) just stuck with it, when everybody left. (Coach Staley) never gave up on me and that’s what made me stay here -- and it feels awesome!"

The beautiful thing about growth is that it’s not exclusive, it’s for everyone. Growth has no preference; it doesn’t show favoritism -- and those willing to adhere to its demands benefit immensely. While many coaches expect their players to be self-reflective and to look in the mirror, South Carolina’s consistent ascension to excellence started with the evolution of their coach.

"When I came to South Carolina five years ago, I was a freshman," said Staley. "I was probably a little more mature freshman, in that I somewhat understood what it would take to turn a program around. (But) I wasn’t as patient as what I asked our players to be, I will honestly tell you that -- hindsight is 20/20 looking back on it.

"I now know that it was a process for me. How to do things differently, although I’m still trying to accomplish the same thing, but sometimes there are different ways to skin a cat. And I didn’t know that until I had to experience it."

In life, experience is always the best teacher -- and Staley, the former self-described freshman is now a seasoned upperclassman that’s passing with flying colors.

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