SAN ANTONIO — Everyone knows the saying that you need to see it in order to be it. But Dawn Staley would like to suggest an alternate interpretation.
Athletics directors who watch the women's NCAA Tournament Friday night will see history made, the first Final Four to feature two Black women as head coaches. When they see her and Arizona’s Adia Barnes, South Carolina's Staley wants those athletics directors, the people who can bring about progress and change by who they hire, to know there are dozens of other Black women coaches out there who can have similar success, if only they’re given the opportunity.
“I was cheering for (Barnes) to get it done, not for any other reason besides us being represented at the biggest stage of women’s college basketball,” Staley said. “That’s because so many Black coaches out there don’t get the opportunity. When ADs don’t see it, they don’t see it.
“And they’re going to see it on the biggest stage Friday night.”
South Carolina women's coach Dawn Staley is headed back to the Final Four. (Photo: Dawson Powers, USA TODAY Sports)
Staley’s credentials are second-to-none, a force of nature as a player, an Olympian and now a coach. She is only the second Black woman to win a national championship as a coach, which she did when the Gamecocks won the title in 2017, and will coach the U.S. women at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
But Staley is painfully conscious that some of the doors that were open for her remain sealed shut for so many others. So she has made a point of using the influence that her name and résumé give her to carve out paths for other Black coaches.
Without even looking at her phone after Tuesday night’s win over Texas that put South Carolina in the Final Four, Staley knew it was blowing up with messages from coaches she has mentored and tried to elevate. Coaches who see her as both a source of inspiration and answers.
But Staley cannot change the world on her own. Which is why Friday night matters so very much.
Two Black head coaches, two Black women, in the #ncaaW Final Four.
For the first time ever.
Dawn Staley and Adia Barnes making history 🙌🏾 pic.twitter.com/T52xluyZDP
“For this to be happening in 2021, to me, is long overdue,” Staley said. “But we're proud. We're happy.”
This is the third time in six years that Staley has led South Carolina to the Final Four, and anyone who doubts the Gamecocks can go all the way didn’t watch them dismantle Texas on Tuesday night. The overmatched Longhorns couldn’t manage a single point in the fourth quarter, a first in NCAA women’s tournament history. (Quarters were introduced in the 2015-16 season).
This is Barnes’ first trip to the Final Four, but she has been transformative at Arizona. When she returned to her alma mater five years ago, the Wildcats were buried at the bottom of the Pac-12. Now the school is one of the last four teams playing for the first time in its history.
And the entire country will have a front-row seat to watch two, strong Black women succeed at the highest level of their sport. If Staley and Barnes can do it, surely athletics directors will realize there must be others out there who can, too.
Arizona, a No. 3 seed, plays top-seeded UConn while South Carolina will play Stanfordin a game of No. 1 seeds.
“Representation matters,” Staley said. “There are a lot of people out there that aren’t getting the opportunities they should. Because this is exactly what can happen when you give a Black woman an opportunity.”
Staley doesn’t want to see token hires. She wants schools to hire Black women coaches because they deserve it, and then support them with the resources they need to succeed. She wants schools to hire Black coaches because the game has been built around Black women.
She wants schools to hire Black coaches because their success will open other doors. And even more eyes.
“Don't get me wrong, I don't want people to start bashing me on social media about, 'Just hire the most qualified coach,’ ” Staley said. “If it was that easy, there would be more Black head coaches in our game.”
Which brings us back to the Final Four. Barnes and Staley won't just show other Black women coaches what they can achieve. They will show athletic directors and university presidents what Black women can achieve, too.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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