It’s hard to ignore the three Kodak All-American awards and two National Player of the Year honors that women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley accumulated during her four years at Virginia.
It’s also hard to ignore the fact that she led the Cavaliers to three consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances from 1990 to 1992.
But because Staley had such an exceptional career in the WNBA and in Olympic competition, her collegiate years are often overlooked.
Staley returns to Virginia Wednesday when the Owls (3-1) meet the Cavaliers (4-2) at the newly-constructed John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va.
This would be the perfect opportunity for Staley to share stories of her glory days with her players, right?
In all likelihood, that’s not going to happen.
Staley said her players probably would not find those stories to be relevant.
“I think my Virginia days are far removed from some of these younger players that are here,” Staley said. “Nobody wants to hear old stories about college days. That was 15 years ago. They probably weren’t even thinking about basketball 15 years ago.”
Senior Kamesha Hairston said Staley doesn’t discuss her playing days with the team very often, but players are aware of the significance of the game.
“I don’t think she likes talking about her career,” Hairston said, “but, you know, I know that going down there is important to her and I want to win for her.”
This marks the second time Staley has coached against her alma mater.
The Owls lost to the Cavaliers, 72-71, at University Hall, Virginia’s old basketball facility, on Dec. 28, 2003.
Staley said her players that year were more disappointed than usual about coming up short.
“They wanted to win for me, probably, so much that we couldn’t quite operate like we normally would have,” she said.
Despite the loss, Staley said her homecoming experience was pleasant.
“I think people still remember the good times that my class had at Virginia, so they pulled out the red carpet,” Staley said. “They’re always so appreciative and they never let anyone who was a part of the team [during those years] forget about what they have contributed to the program.”
As a player, Staley’s contributions to the program were innumerable. She ended her career as the Cavaliers’ all-time leader in points, scoring average, free throws, assists and steals.
The Cavaliers were consistently among the top 25 ranked teams in the nation and reached the 1991 NCAA Championship game, losing to Tennessee, 70-67, in overtime.
“We were just incredibly competitive,” Staley said. “We were a tight-knit group. We really shocked women’s basketball because when I went to Virginia [in 1988], we were in the top 25,” but the team was struggling to move up from the bottom tier of the national rankings.
In her final two seasons, Staley helped Virginia reach the top of those rankings. The Cavaliers spent 24 weeks atop both the Associated Press and “USA Today” Top 25 polls during the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons.
“To be a part of the No. 1 team in the country, it was a wonderful thing,” Staley said.
Since American professional women’s basketball leagues didn’t exist in the early 90s, Staley said players didn’t have the same incentive to perform well at the collegiate level and thus, the game had a little more “purity” to it.
“Back then, we just loved it,” Staley said. “We knew that the four years you spent playing at college was probably it. Those were going to be your glory days and I thought we just took advantage of that.
“We played hard every time we stepped on the floor. We played it like it was our last days and that’s a little bit different whereas players have something to shoot for [now].”
Debbie Ryan, who coached Staley, still patrols the Virginia sideline.
Ryan has compiled a 636-265 record in her 30 years at Virginia and is one of 12 Division I coaches with more than 600 victories.
“Debbie has always been very supportive of my career,” Staley said. “I can call on her and ask her about different things [related to] coaching. She’s been around so long that you can’t really sit on all of that experience and all of that knowledge.”
Staley said the two have a friendly relationship. Ryan donates regularly to the Dawn Staley Foundation, which seeks to create positive opportunities for at-risk youth.
“That’s the type of person she is,” Staley said. “It’s not all about basketball.”
In addition to Ryan, Staley said she is anxious to talk to the Virginia fans.
“They’ll bring up the glory days,” Staley said. “I’m looking forward to just being there. It’s a beautiful campus.”
A victory will make the visit even sweeter, Staley admitted.
“We can take in the view and we can take in the new gym and all of that,” Staley said.
“But the bottom line is we want to win and Debbie knows that. Debbie knows how competitive I am and if she could have it where we could both end up winning, she would have it that way.”
Tyson McCloud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.