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An ode to Dawn Staley: The South Carolina coach can’t avoid the spotlight anymore

As someone who’s not one for the spotlight, it’s never been brighter for a girl from North Philly

NCAA Womens Basketball: Women's Final Four-Mississippi State vs South Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

During my three years in school at the University of South Carolina, I was fortunate to cover some of the best years in Gamecock athletics.

Three 11-2 football teams littered with NFL talent, a national renowned baseball team and the hiring of Frank Martin were just some of the highlights of South Carolina athletics from 2011 to 2014. Mixed in with those accomplishments was the success of the women’s basketball team, which by the time I was an upperclassmen in 2013 was turning into a national power.

I have plenty of stories about those years covering the peak of Gamecock athletics, but of all the ones I can share on this site only two involve the women’s basketball team — neither of which are really about basketball.

They involve Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s tough-nosed coach who is fresh off winning the first national championship in program history. Even before Staley had been to a Final Four, she was a revered figure on campus and the city of Columbia. This reverence was never on display better than at halftime of the South Carolina-Florida football game on Nov. 16, 2013.

Staley was being given the Order of the Palmetto — the highest civilian honor that can be awarded by a South Carolina Governor. It was pretty mind-boggling to think this coach, just 43 years old and at the time hadn’t even won a SEC Eastern division title, was being given this honor held by coaching veterans Lou Holtz and Frank McGuire.

I was on the sidelines that game, helping the brand-spanking new SEC Network shoot promos that they’d use for their inaugural season in 2014. From the player’s entrance, standing right under section 25 at Williams-Brice Stadium, I watched Staley be drowned by applause and cheers standing side by side with USC athletic director Ray Tanner and former SC Governor Nikki Haley.

It was a surreal moment, even though Staley’s body language didn’t really reflect it. From the jumbotron it was clear Staley was uncomfortable, as if the moment was so daunting for her it made her physically squeamish. She forced a smile as she gave a half-wave to the stark-raving mad crowd, who were still irritable as South Carolina trailed a then Will Muschamp coached Florida team 14-6.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Women's Final Four-Mississippi State vs South Carolina Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As Staley left the field, she held her head halfway down as she scurried across the turf — almost as if she was trying to bury her head in the ground like an ostrich trying to hide from a predator. I found it strange that someone of Staley’s stature would be so bashful around this kind of attention or big crowds, considering she spent most of her life around them.

We’re talking about a lady who played at Virginia during their apex years as a college basketball program, then turned around and won consecutive Gold Medals with the US National team — the first in front of a home crowd in Atlanta. And even though WNBA crowds aren’t sizable compared to the aforementioned venues, Staley still spent nearly ten years playing in front of professional crowds.

Yet in front of this particular crowd — albeit without a basketball in her hand — she seemed incredibly nervous. As she walked by our filming team headed towards the players entrance, I caught her glance and said,

“Congratulations coach!”

She raised her head out of the ostrich hole briefly to give me a nod of acknowledgement only to stick it right back in and flee the stadium. I’ll never forget that interaction for two reasons:

One, it’s Dawn freaking Staley.

Two, it was an interesting insight into how even as she consistently has the basketball spotlight in her face with all the success she had experienced — Staley could still be bashful when put in front of a non-basketball spotlight.

While this isn’t the time or place to share the second story I have about Staley, the first one I just shared with you is by far one of my favorite out of all the ones I still have from my days in college.

We often deify coaches to the point they don’t seem human anymore. Coaches can be built up to the point where they’re just emotionless generals who command these legions of athletes — and so often we forget these people are human beings with emotions and insecurities just like the rest of us.

That day I saw the human side of Staley, something that isn’t always emanated in her statuesque media appearances or sideline coaching demeanor. I’ve always admired the fact — even if it was by accident that night — Staley wasn’t just the tough, gritty girl from the North Philadelphia projects. There was a softer side to her as well.

However, I do worry about her fear of the spotlight now. Now a national champion and the new coach of the Women’s US National Team — the spotlight is going to be burning brighter on her than ever before. There may not be a ostrich hole big enough for her to hide her head now that she’s delivered South Carolina to the women’s basketball promised land.

However -- selfishly I might add — I hope that spotlight keeps getting bigger on Staley. Because if it keeps getting brighter, South Carolina women’s basketball is still thriving at a national title level.