DALLAS — Dawn Staley rubs her thumb and index fingers together as she talks about the minute level of detail she employs when she watches video and prepares scouting reports — practices that she learned from Tara VanDerveer.
“It really is down to this,” Staley said, looking at her fingers. “Those are the things she taught me. Watching film, breaking down film, little nuances that create edges that can win you a basketball game.”
Make no mistake, those edges have landed both of their teams in this position. Stanford and South Carolina face off Friday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) in the Final Four. Can you scout your way to a game-winning defensive stand? Can your team get one big rebound that will be the difference between winning and the end of your season?
Staley and VanDerveer know the answer is yes. Staley knows because her mentor taught her.
Staley and VanDerveer have known each other for about three decades. Initially they were on opposite sides. VanDerveer’s Stanford teams twice ended Staley’s college seasons at Virginia — at the Final Four in 1990 and 1992. The Cardinal won the NCAA title both seasons.
And Staley was once VanDerveer’s point guard, the extension of a younger, more serious, but equally driven and prepared coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that went undefeated for a year, won gold in Atlanta, and ended up as the springboard for two women’s professional leagues — one of which, the WNBA, is still around two decades later.
And Staley watched closely, even if at that point she didn’t know she wanted to be a head coach.
“I saw that whole year how she operated, the preparation it took, how she breaks down the game to the smallest thing,” Staley said. “Those little things, they add up. If you take care of the small details, the big things don’t get out of hand.”
Staley has brought that approach to her own coaching career, from when she first started at Temple — a job, incidentally, VanDerveer told her not to take — to South Carolina, where she has transformed the Gamecocks into a national power, reaching the Final Four for the second time in three seasons.
Staley will now emulate VanDerveer in another important way. Staley was named the U.S. national team coach earlier this month, taking over the mantle from Geno Auriemma, who won gold twice with Team USA.
As the Olympic coach in 1996, VanDerveer was stern and unbending. She pushed those Olympic players, the greatest assemblage of talent in women’s basketball history at that time, very hard. She did not sugarcoat her critiques of the world’s best players.
Staley fought through injuries during the 60-0 run that culminated in the gold medal in Atlanta and was one of the team’s emotional centers with her relentless play. VanDerveer drove Staley, a Philadelphia native who loved the flash of the playground game, and molded her competitiveness and her innate ability to see the floor and turned her into a more disciplined player.
“Sometimes with players, you are going to tell them things they don’t want to hear,” VanDerveer said. “Dawn could probably tell you a couple of stories of things that maybe she didn’t want to hear from me.”
VanDerveer was like the toughest teacher you had in high school, the one who made you work to earn the grade, and it wasn’t until the day after graduation when you finally appreciated it.
“She was hard on her point guards. Our team went as they went,” said South Carolina assistant coach Nikki McCray, who was on the 1996 Olympic team with Staley. “And Dawn is hard on our point guards, and there’s a direct correlation from her experience with Tara. Tara’s teams are disciplined, fundamentally sound, they don’t make mistakes. You won’t outwork a Tara VanDerveer team. It just isn’t going to happen. Dawn has those same standards.”
Staley said VanDerveer showed how basketball could be coached and played “at a different level.”
“The amount of pressure that was on our team, on Tara, she made us feel all of the pressure that was on her. She didn’t want that team to fail,” Staley said. “I feel like from my experiences with her, she taught me how to approach the game, how to approach pressure situations, and how to execute while being under that amount of pressure.”
Staley will take her team to that place on Friday, to the brink of the NCAA title game against a Stanford team that has been behind in three of the four games it’s played in the NCAA tournament — including a 16-point deficit against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight – but has won anyway.
Aside from her losses as a player, Staley is 0-4 in her coaching career against her mentor, including a Sweet 16 loss to Stanford in 2012. Staley joked earlier this week that those defeats are a big chunk of VanDerveer’s 1,000-plus wins as a head coach.
During the 2012 tournament, Staley said she was able to watch a few moments of a Stanford practice.
“It was an open practice, and I was watching her team run our plays better than we ran our plays,” Staley said. “I know she is going to be prepared extremely well, and she is going to have everything covered. What she won’t have covered, maybe, which happens in games this time of year, are when plays are broken, and hopefully we can gain an advantage in broken plays.”
When Staley finds herself pulling a play off the internet or taking an NBA inbounds play off the television, some late-game situation that might help her team, she knows she has VanDerveer to thank.
“We just compete,” VanDerveer said. “I have always respected Dawn’s competitiveness, her work ethic, her absolute passion for the game of basketball. But if she tells you she beat me in chess, she’s a liar.”
VanDerveer said she texted Staley to congratulate her after the Gamecocks beat Florida State to clinch their spot in the Final Four.
“I told her, ‘I have just one problem. I can’t cheer for you on Friday night,'” VanDerveer said.