COLUMBIA - She saw packed crowds and attendance records. She saw SEC titles and national championships. The Final Four was more than a mythical place. To Dawn Staley, it was South Carolina's destiny.
This was a dreamer's vision. It required a patient touch. When Staley was hired as South Carolina's women's basketball coach six years ago, she kindly admits the program "wasn't very good." Her new team was irrelevant in the college basketball landscape, scraping the bottom of its own league in victories and attendance.
The absent interest and lack of success didn't bother Staley. She left her home in Philadelphia, where she spent eight seasons as Temple's head coach. At South Carolina, she was greeted by empty stands and a promise.
"If you win, people will come," Staley says. "That's the first thing that they said when I interviewed, when I took the job."
It's not the only thing people said.
There were plenty of doubters in Staley's first years. People told her South Carolina would never reach the stratosphere occupied by Tennessee and Connecticut, women's college basketball royalty. The state belonged to football. There was no room for basketball, the critics said.
It's one of the reasons Staley wanted the job. She needs the doubters, craves to have that "friction" on the path to her goals. Skepticism drove her as a player. As a coach, she took the same approach. South Carolina would be Staley's new proving grounds.
Six years later, Staley has proven plenty.
The Gamecocks host Georgia on Thursday at Colonial Life Arena, and they're poised to meet two major goals in their final home game. A win will clinch the program's first outright SEC championship. South Carolina also is on pace to average more than 5,600 fans for home games, eclipsing its unprecedented "Drive for 5" commitment to average 5,000. Home attendance has more than tripled since Staley arrived.
She thinks back to that first season - the promise, the critics. And the steely coach smiles.
"I'm into beating the odds," Staley says. "I'm a total odds beater. I love when people say it can't get done. That just fuels me to put more energy into proving them wrong."
'Fan that flame'
When Staley brought her passion for women's basketball to South Carolina in the spring of 2008, she had company.
The same year, Eric Nichols left Vanderbilt to be the Gamecocks' associate athletics director for marketing. Together, they talked about how to increase interest. It was Nichols and his team that developed the "Drive for 5" plan in a staff meeting last June. Staley and her team executed it on the court and in the community.
At the college level, the coach and marketer need each other. Staley sets an agenda for her program. Nichols' ideas make sure the agenda is met.
"We provide the resources to take advantage of a flame when you get hot," Nichols explains. "There's no question, when you have a poor-performing program, there's no magic formula to bring people into the stands. However, I think with good behind-the-scenes work, you can fan that flame a little bit hotter, a little bit brighter."
Nichols cut his teeth with one of the better women's basketball programs in the country. At Vanderbilt, 20-win seasons are the standard. The stands are almost full. Public appeal is a puzzle for women's basketball programs across the country, Nichols says. Vanderbilt found the solution as well as almost anybody, with attendance figures often in the top 25.
There are several pieces to the puzzle. Besides winning, Nichols says nothing is more important than a coach who can be used as a "promotional vehicle" to the fan base.
"And Dawn is the best promoter I've ever seen," he says.
Nichols sat in his office last week, attendance figures pulled up on his desk computer. He keeps these numbers close. They show him how far women's basketball has come at South Carolina.
The program barely averaged 1,800 fans per home game one season before Staley was hired, 10th out of 12 SEC teams. Nichols says nobody looked at the past six years ago. With Staley opening a new chapter, everything was fresh.
"It was about Dawn Staley, and how could we leverage this new rock star hire?" Nichols said. "I hear stories of the lines for her autograph as soon as she got here were just out the door. It was just a matter of leveraging her rock star status."
The excitement was justified when Staley became the face of South Carolina women's basketball. One of the best players ever, Staley brought a sparkling pedigree to the program. She's a three-time Olympic gold medalist, and a recent member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. She was a two-time national player of the year at Virginia in the early 1990s, leading the Cavaliers to three Final Fours. Her accomplishments brought pride to a downtrodden program. They're listed throughout her bio page on South Carolina's athletics website.
It's difficult to make a "splash hire" in women's basketball, a sport the public often overlooks. Staley was the rare exception, but she brought more than a resume to the program. The daily tasks away from coaching never end. There are public appearances and fundraisers. Players read to elementary students and visit nursing homes.
Each trip, the goal remains the same: connect with fellow citizens in the community, and make them feel part of the team.
"I think you have to do the groundwork," Staley says. "People want to feel part of the program, even if it's not a winning program. People want to feel that you're a part of their community. They want to feel a part of our community, which is our team.
"I am a grass-roots person. So for me, it's always in the back of my mind."
'Parade down Main Street'
Staley senses the buzz when she goes to the supermarket. She can't walk down an aisle without fans stopping her. Each handshake shows how far her program has come.
Staley connects to the buzz over Twitter. Her timeline floods with congratulatory tweets from fans after every win. Part of the coach's postgame routine is retweeting messages of support.
"I wish I could reply to all of them," she says.
The signs are everywhere these days. Sometimes, before her team takes the court for games, Staley will linger in the tunnel and gaze into the stands. They are packed with thousands of fans now, proof her gamble paid off. Staley's vision became reality.
"The buzz is incredible," Staley says. "It almost feels like a football Saturday for us. Every day that we have a game is incredible. Women's basketball is becoming a part of this community, and that's what we need it to be in order for us to grow.
"I think about winning national championships for them. I do. I really do. Because that's what they want."
The growth hasn't gone unnoticed.
South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner sat in the crowd last summer as Staley was inducted into the hall of fame. It was a special night for a special player, a night to remember the past.
Tanner's thoughts were on the future.
"When she was up there for her acceptance speech in Springfield, I was sitting there thinking she'll go in there as a coach as well," Tanner said.
The past three seasons - which includes two NCAA tournament appearances, a Sweet 16 and likely another long postseason run - have mirrored South Carolina's football success. Still, Nichols isn't thinking about the past. Like the summer before Staley's first season, the marketer is planning for a better future.
Asked how big women's basketball can become in South Carolina, Nichols didn't hesitate. He says the team has outgrown its "Drive for 5" campaign. Next up, he wants women's basketball to reach 5,000 season tickets for a season. The program is about 1,000 season tickets away.
Eventually, Nichols thinks women's basketball can become as big as South Carolina baseball, the first major sport to win a national championship in Columbia.
"We've said tongue-in-cheek, 'What are we going to do when another team wins a national championship? Are we going to do another parade?'" Nichols said. "At one point a few years ago, it was kind of like, 'Hmm, I don't know if there's enough interest, depending on the sport.' But the way this community and the state has responded to women's basketball? When we get that national championship, I hope there's a parade down Main Street."