Remembering Dawn Staley’s first season as USC coach: ‘She had vision from Day 1’

Dawn Staley spoke openly about winning national championships when she became the South Carolina women’s basketball coach in 2008.

Bold move for someone taking over a program with eight total NCAA Tournament appearances and none in recent memory — but not for Staley. She was championship pedigree personified.

NCAA Final Fours, WNBA Finals, FIBA World Championships, the Olympics. She had done it all. But never something like this.

Success at the University of South Carolina would require time and patience. The competitor in Staley wanted to win — immediately. Athletic director Eric Hyman tried to temper her expectations: “If it was perfect,” he told her, “you wouldn’t be here.”

And that first year was far from perfect. The Gamecocks finished 10-18 and 2-12 in SEC play (good for 11th in the then-12-team conference).

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But without the 2008-09 team, USC’s two NCAA titles (2017, 2022), three National Player of the Year awards (A’ja Wilson in 2018 and Aliyah Boston in 2021 and 2022) and current streak of back-to-back undefeated regular seasons (2022-24) wouldn’t have been possible.

Sixteen years later, here’s the story of that first season told by those who lived it.

Staley’s message to her new team was simple:

Brionna Dickerson, senior: ‘I don’t care what you’ve done before. I don’t care what you’ve accomplished. I’m here for the now, so no one’s entitled to anything.’

La’Keisha Sutton, freshman: She was very to the point. She had vision from Day 1. And she had expectations from Day 1.

Courtney Newton, redshirt freshman: It was stressful in that you wanted to prove yourself. You wanted to meet her expectations. But that was a process.

She demands a lot. She demands respect. She demands discipline. And I think she set that tone from the beginning.

—— Just ask Dickerson. ——

Dickerson: I almost got kicked off the team the first time she got to campus. We were having our first team meeting, and my teammate and I were late.

She (Staley) called me into her office and put the fear of God in me. Literally. I was terrified. She basically said, ‘This is your grace. This is your mistake. This is the only mistake you’ll be able to make. You’re starting from the beginning with a mistake. So show me this is not who you are.’


That set the tone for my teammate and me to grow in our leadership skills.

Newton: The thing about Coach is she wants you to give your all. And a lot of times your all is not what you think it is. She pushes you beyond that. It was a different standard.

Dickerson: Everything changed. Our philosophy in lifting changed. Our philosophy in conditioning, and how we were preparing for this season completely changed.

For every summer workout a player failed to complete, she’d have to run three miles under 30 minutes upon returning to campus. ——

Dawn Staley: If they did the entire workout, it would have been great. But if they got half of it, they’d have been in a pretty good position.

Because they had to do the workout and then either put the workout in the mail postmarked that day or fax it. It was being disciplined, setting a standard we wanted to see off the court and then trickle onto the court.

It took a while for us to get there, but eventually we got there.

—— Then there was “The Gauntlet.” ——

Sutton: “The Gauntlet” gave me nightmares!

Dickerson: It would make or break you. We had some teammates who didn’t start the first day of workouts with us because they hadn’t made it through “The Gauntlet” yet. I remember it was like you had to run the mile in a certain amount (of time), the 800 in a certain amount (of time), the 400 and the 200. And if you didn’t, you had to keep doing it until you were able to meet all of them.

Staley: I did it at Temple. I utilized the success our Olympic team had. This was the formula Tara VanDerveer used when it came to getting us in tip-top shape.

Dickerson: It was intense. We were like, “Oh my god. If this is preseason, how are we going to survive the season?”

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Staley: When I got into coaching eight years prior to coming to South Carolina, the players created an instant chemistry. They loved basketball. And they loved the experience we were creating for them.

Then to come here in 2008 and think we could repeat that was probably wrong on my part. But that is the inexperience of a coach trying to elevate and not really knowing everything about the SEC and playing at this level. It’s a big jump from mid-major to Power Five no matter if you’re a player or coach. Because there are things you don’t plan for.

I wasn’t anticipating having players who really didn’t love basketball. Or they thought they loved basketball, and then when you ask them to do things out of love for the game, you get a little pushback.

Jewel May, sophomore: I was pretty contrarian. If you told me it was green, I was gonna be like, “Well, how do you know? Why do I gotta believe you?” I think I probably challenged things most of my teammates wouldn’t.

We were usually at an impasse about stuff because I was like, “That doesn’t make sense to me. Why do I have to do it your way?” I feel like Coach most times met me where I was at.

From Feb. 9, 2009: Dawn Staley, then 38 years old, took time during her first season to play on an on-campus intramural basketball team. Staley wanted to boost morale and have a little fun in the midst of a trying first season at USC. Staley surprised the managers by agreeing to be on the team.

“They asked me. I don’t think they thought I would play,” Staley said in a story published in 2009. “But I think it’s fun … when it could easily be full of sorrow since we’re not getting the results that we want on the court.” Gerry Melendez The State file photo

Relationship building was a huge part of Staley’s transition to South Carolina.

Sutton: She opened her house to us. It was cool. We got to see her as a human being.

May: We would go and be like, “Oh my God, did you see her closet?” It was a whole row of True Religion, and a whole row of Dior shoes. If you’ve ever seen Mariah Carey’s “(MTV) Cribs,” it was like that. It was very pristine and organized and all this designer stuff. We were just like, “Man, we broke.” But that kind of stuff is cool, because you see what she’s into.

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Newton: She very quickly worked on having that kind of personality where she’s going to be tough on us on the court, but then afterwards you can walk into her office and cut up with her.

—— South Carolina opened the season 9-5, ending the non-conference slate with a memorable 56-55 victory over N.C. State. Senior Demetress (Dee) Adams laid the game-winning basket in with exactly one second remaining. ——

Staley: We called that play “victory.”

May: There’s pictures documenting that whole celebration. I’m jumping over somebody’s head. And then I carried Dee out on my back because she was just dead.

Newton: Any time you’ve been through something with a team — a new coach, hard work, those summer days — it was big to get a couple of big wins that year. Anything we could build off was big for us.

—— The Gamecocks’ SEC schedule began with a home game versus No. 9 Auburn on Jan. 8. By then, players felt more accustomed to Staley’s way of doing things. ——

May: What felt different being coached by Coach Staley was if we were losing, then they needed to feel it. They’re gonna walk out of here and be like, “Man, that was really hard.”

Most games, we were gonna be outskilled because we didn’t have All-Americans on our bench. But there was an expectation that you gave 120%. Sometimes we won games we probably had no business being in because of that style of play.


South Carolina played two games against Ohio and UNC Wilmington in the 2008 Cancun Thanksgiving Classic. Jet skiing was one of the Gamecocks’ extracurricular activities while in Mexico. “There was always an element of, ‘This is a business trip. But also, I want to show you a few things’” May said of USC road trips under Staley.

“‘And I want to make sure you understand that here are some things that the game of basketball can give you. Some experiences, some perks.’” Photo courtesy of Jewel May
—— Staley asked a lot of her players. Run. Memorize five- and six-page scouting reports on every opponent. Exercise strict discipline in their training and nutrition.

Meanwhile, she worked hard behind the scenes to enhance their collegiate experience. ——

Sutton: We’d have amazing meals before the game. That was new for us. She treated us like pros. She gave us the same experience she received as a player. And I appreciate that.

May: You could tell that type of stuff was thought about. And I think that was because they saw an opportunity to expose us to a different level of service. Some people get to college and haven’t flown in a plane before. Depending on your background, that might not even occur to you. But I think that stuff occurred to Coach Staley.

We went to Philly, her hometown (to play Penn State). She said we were gonna do a museum visit, and we’re gonna do the “Rocky” steps, we’re gonna go get hoagies from the best hoagie spot ever.

There was always an element of, “This is a business trip. But also, I want to show you a few things. And I want to make sure you understand that here are some things the game of basketball can give you.”

Newton: We saw Coach Staley see things we didn’t have at South Carolina, and we saw her advocate for us.

I remember our locker room, she got it updated very quickly after she got there. There were things she knew in the SEC we needed to be successful, and it was cool watching her grow our program in other ways than wins and losses that first year.

Staley: We really didn’t have a budget at Temple. We bused everywhere. And then you come here, and you’ve got a budget, you fly places. It was great.

In order to reach a certain level, you gotta simulate the level in areas you can. If we can’t level up on the court, at least we can level up in other areas. So when we were able to get who we needed to level up on the court, it wouldn’t be a hard transition. It wouldn’t be us stopping and saying, “OK, well, we got to up the ante somewhere else.” We’ve already upped the ante off the court.

—— The Gamecocks lost their first four SEC games in 2008-09 against No. 9 Auburn (76-80), Georgia (63-69), No. 19 Florida (63-77) and No. 13 Tennessee (56-68).

The latter game took place in Knoxville at Thompson-Boling Arena. The ceiling was lined with orange championship banners, and the stands brimmed with dedicated fans, an electric environment carefully crafted by legendary coach Pat Summitt. ——

May: Coach (Nikki) McCray, rest her soul, played there, and Coach (Carla) McGee played there. They would make comments like, “This is what this is what it’s supposed to be like. This is how it can feel.” They would talk about Tennessee with a lot of pride.

—— But Staley didn’t want to emulate Tennessee. She sought to create something new at South Carolina. ——

Staley: I never never wanted to be like Tennessee because that was already established. I wanted us to be able to establish what we have. Whatever it was, whatever made us unique. And it didn’t have to mirror Tennessee. It just had to be organically us.

—— When Staley got to Columbia, the Gamecocks struggled to fill Colonial Life Arena. They averaged 2,793 fans at home games her first season, or 16.9% of the 2023-24 team’s average attendance. ——

Newton: I remember not many people being there and her being shocked and like, “OK, we got a lot of work to do here.”

Dickerson: You could just show up and know you were going to get in. Our friends would literally be sitting on the sidelines because nobody would come to our games.

—— After the Tennessee game, the Gamecocks secured an SEC win over Ole Miss (76-67) on Jan. 22. But senior forward and leading rebounder Adams suffered a knee injury midway through the first half and never returned. Her season was over.

Three days later, Dickerson suffered a season-ending knee injury in USC’s 66-56 loss to No. 17 Vanderbilt. Dickerson was a leading scorer for the Gamecocks and their best 3-point shooter. ——

Dickerson: We were playing the best basketball we had played in my entire time at USC when Demetress and I got hurt. It was such a blow because we were riding this exciting wave of, “It’s starting to click. We’re finally understanding what she’s teaching us. And we’re seeing the results.”

Sutton assumed a key role, earning a unanimous selection to the SEC All-Freshman Team.

Sutton: She (Staley) trusted me to guard the other team’s best player. And you’re talking about every guard that went on to the WNBA in the SEC.

Today, South Carolina’s fans are affectionately referred to as “FAMS.” Visiting and taking photos with them is a big part of USC’s postgame routine. When fewer fans frequented South Carolina women’s basketball games at the beginning of Staley’s tenure, the Gamecocks referred to them as “Day 1s.”

“That’s Dave” on the right, Jewel May (left) said, “one of the Day 1s! He used to take tons of pics at all the games and tag us in them so we have him to thank for so many memories captured.” Courtesy photo

South Carolina’s 2008-09 season ended with a 49-39 loss to Mississippi State in the first round of the conference tournament. The Gamecocks finished with a 10-18 record, including 2-10 in conference play, finishing 11th out of 12 teams in the SEC.

But the overwhelming feeling within the program was positive. Twelve games (six losses, six wins) had been decided by single digits. Translation: USC was on the cusp of something special.

Dickerson: We were so close to getting where we needed to be. We were showing we could compete with some of the better teams in the SEC.

Since then, South Carolina has become one of college basketball’s preeminent programs. Two national championships (2017, 2022), five Final Fours (2015, 2017, 2021, 2022, 2023), three National Player of the Year awards (2018, 2021, 2022) and 225 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25, the second longest active streak in the nation behind UConn.

Dickerson: I never, in my wildest dreams, would have imagined we would sit here 16 years later, and she’d have two national championships. It should have been three but, you know, COVID year issues.

Sutton: I knew from Day 1 in practice she was going to win a championship and have pros because of her approach and her preparation.

I just laugh because 16 years ago, people wouldn’t even look twice at coming to South Carolina. I think it’s a story of betting on underdogs and trusting the process.

This story was originally published March 14, 2024, 7:15 AM.





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