Dawn Staley didn't come in with a lot of bravado or declarations that she had never had any interest in taking the open position at Ohio State. With the same stark honesty that she has displayed throughout five years at South Carolina, she said that she had a little interest in taking over the Buckeyes' program.
"I can honestly say, challenges I'm drawn to," Staley said on Monday, a day after withdrawing her name from consideration at OSU. "But it doesn't minimize what we've done here. To be part of a university that's really about the people. Our leaders make this university special, makes this job special. All those things went through my mind.
"I couldn't leave this place."
USC heaved a large sigh of relief late Sunday when Staley formally withdrew her name from the search, following a meeting with athletic director Ray Tanner. Tanner talked to Staley and presented USC's side of the argument before Staley could potentially interview in Columbus and be wooed by the Buckeyes' facilities.
That, plus numerous outpourings of support from all over (Staley said that Governor Nikki Haley even called, telling her what a service she has done for USC), plus the rising star of the program that she has built, all contributed to the decision. In the end, Staley knew that USC was home.
"I try to put myself in a recruit's position," Staley said. "I chose to stay because I felt like this was the place for myself, my family, our staff. We've made a lot of in-roads here. You have to put value on those things."
"I think she's a great fit for us," Tanner said. "I certainly didn't want to experience her not being here anymore. Last night, we had a great meeting, and she withdrew."
Tanner has recommended a contract extension and addendums to Staley's current deal, which runs through 2016. It won't be formally signed off on until the next time the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee of the USC Board of Trustees can meet (June 17), but it should be agreed upon then and any salary boost will be retroactively awarded.
Tanner didn't offer figures of the extension. But there has been one proposed.
"I will recommend, as I have indicated, that we'll make some addendums," Tanner said. "After this past season, her contract was down to three years, and that's certainly not appropriate for Dawn Staley."
So Staley will return for her sixth year with the program, coming off back-to-back 25-win seasons and NCAA tournament trips. A lot of the tough, gritty veterans that helped produce those seasons have departed, but Staley's recruiting of a gold mine of local talent is already paying dividends.
Khadijah Sessions will take over for Ieasia Walker at point guard, and have junior Aleighsa Welch in the post. Rising sophomore Tiffany Mitchell was a starter during her freshman year, and forward Elem Ibiam, if she can continue her sterling play from this year's postseason, will also return.
Staley only has one current commitment for next year's class (Top-30 prospect Alaina Coates, from just down the road at Dutch Fork High School), but plans to add more. While prohibited from releasing specific names, Staley did say that the recruiting season is far from over.
"We will add some more players to the fold," Staley said. "We're going to have people on campus in the next week or so, just to solidify our team."
As for the rest of the team, it's just about getting better. USC was marvelous defensively this season, but struggled to score and had no set person to hit the big shot when needed. Large pieces of that defense - lockdown defender Sancheon White, Walker and Ashley Bruner - are gone now.
But USC will return a lot of games' worth of experience, and get Tina Roy and Tiffany Davis back from injury. The future continues to shine.
Staley did address a lingering bit of controversy. The Gamecocks will never be able to bid for an NCAA tournament regional host site as long as the Confederate battle flag flies at the South Carolina Statehouse, per NCAA regulations. That is a sting to the program, since only six of the 16 hosts in this year's NCAA tournament didn't advance to the Sweet 16 (a seventh, Ohio State, hosted but didn't qualify for the tournament). USC has not hosted in its two years in the NCAA tournament under Staley, but advanced to the Sweet 16 from West Lafayette, Ind., last season before falling in the round of 32 this year in Boulder, Colo.
USC can only talk to the state legislature and government and hope for a change. Staley is hoping that perhaps someday, it will change.
"Last year, we were just excited. We'd go anywhere and play anybody," Staley said. "You start looking at the tournament and who's hosting and who's winning. Is it frustrating? It is frustrating. But at the same time, I think people are raising the awareness of changing that. Maybe I can be a part of that change."
Without getting into the politics of it, Tanner agreed. "I certainly hope in the future, we'll have an opportunity to host some events," he said.
Wherever the games are played, Staley will be in place. She turned down Ohio State, just as she turned down her alma mater, Virginia, three years ago. Why? The same reasons.
"It's at a place where we can say we have a winning tradition here," Staley said. "To come to South Carolina, if I'm a recruit, it still maybe isn't the popular choice, but it's the right choice if you want to be part of building.
"I think we're on the threshold of winning the national championship."
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