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Perspective | Dawn Staley has everything Kentucky basketball has been lacking

Perspective | Dawn Staley has everything Kentucky basketball has been lacking

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 2

Kentucky is looking for a basketball coach who has stature, suavity, and strategic dexterity, all at once. That’s Dawn Staley. The women’s game is better and bigger right now, and it has the strongest coaching personality, too.

Kentucky badly needs a reconception of leadership. John Calipari just went to Arkansas for less money after several dry years, and Baylor’s Scott Drew has turned down the job. Coaching in the seat of Adolph Rupp, with a second-guessing donor base that thinks it has basketball expertise simply by virtue of its license plates, is not a job for just anyone. It will require a very firm character, so Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart and his high-dollar backers probably will offer a king’s ransom to a “name,” such as Mark Pope (0-2 in NCAA tournament games) or Billy Donovan, thereby setting the table for even more discontented expectations.

There’s only one reason they wouldn’t consider Staley, and it’s on her birth certificate.

Résumé? She has gone an unheard of 109-3 in the past three seasons at South Carolina, amassing the greatest storehouse of talent in the country — and that’s in the middle of the NIL and transfer portal mess. It has been nine years since Kentucky made a Final Four. In that span, Staley has reached five of them and won three titles. “It would be pretty cool to see Kentucky hire that damn good coach from South Carolina who just won a third championship!” tweeted George Karl, the former coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, and Sacramento Kings.

Why would 6-foot-9, 290-pound high school center such as Jayden Quaintance, who just reopened his recruitment, listen to a 53-year-old woman who stands just 5-6? Well, I don’t know, apart from all her Olympic gold medals and trophies. Why do young men listen to their greatest teachers in any field? John Chaney of Temple, one of her old mentors, once compared Staley to “a Magi” in her ability to influence younger people.

As soon as Staley opens her mouth, you can’t help but listen, because wisdom and firm instruction pour out of her like coins from a Vegas slot.

“What is the very thing that you can’t get over?” she asks her players. “You keep seeing it time and time again. Then when you hurdle that, you move on to the next one.”

College coaching, male or female, is a more complicated job than it has ever been. Raw talents with eggshell egos and access to the transfer portal have turned campus arenas into turnstiles. NIL money and the come-ons of other schools’ collectives mean you’ve got to keep recruiting your own players even after you’ve moved them into their dorms.

Staley has negotiated all of it — and done so more smoothly and persuasively than any operator in the game. She did not lose a single transfer this season, though she had a deep rotation of nine players who split time.

“For me, I would be surprised if any one of our players decides to get in the transfer portal,” Staley said last week. “Not from lack of playing time or anything like that. It’s just how they’re treated. They’re treated like professionals. They’re treated — they’re communicated with. They’re listened to.”

Plenty of male coaches could take a lesson from Staley’s management of NIL. She doesn’t sit around bemoaning the loss of purity in the game, while enjoying her $3.2 million salary. She makes a point of entwining her own opportunities with offers for the team, so her players don’t have to stare hungrily at a coach’s wealth, earned “off their backs,” as Staley says. Example: When Staley got an offer from a medical company named Rewind, she asked the company to do a deal for every one of her players. “Honestly, I make a lot of money,” Staley told The Washington Post earlier this season. “I want our players to make a lot of money … I am an active participant in wanting them to benefit in this space.”

Rewind not only gave each of South Carolina’s players some NIL money, but also stock options. Staley wanted them to learn what it meant to have “equity.” The agreement avoided jealousies over NIL opportunities because each player got a cut, and it strengthened Staley’s hand as a recruiter: She’s the coach who will try to steer deals your way, and maybe even get you a portfolio too.

“It’s in our space now — just like an opponent is in our space,” Staley said last week in a fascinating rumination about how she handles it. “NIL is part of our game now. And we have to approach it and be as vested in it as we are winning basketball games because there’s a direct correlation with your ability to manage the NIL space as managing personalities, as managing playing time, as managing a staff.”

What player — or parent — at Kentucky wouldn’t like hearing that pitch?

One of the demands in the men’s game is that you have to replenish a roster and a rebuild a team in just a few months. Staley has done that too — better than anyone. Last year she lost five players to the WNBA, including three first-rounders led by Aliyah Boston. Staley began this season with just four players who had averaged at least 10 minutes a game. For a while, she said, it was like “day care.” Yet, she went an unbeaten 38-0 with them.

Certain personalities have a natural aura of command, and who men listen to. Staley is one of those, as Pat Summitt was before her, with leadership so obvious that it renders gender meaningless. She doesn’t coach women’s basketball; she coaches basketball. She’s out-of-category, and the best candidate in any room, for any job.

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