COLUMBIA, SC — There was a call. Then there were a lot of calls. Then came the call. All of that led Dawn Staley to make the easiest call of her life.
Staley’s contentment was easy to see Monday as the USC women’s basketball coach spoke of her brief consideration of the vacant Ohio State job.
Ohio State received permission on Wednesday from USC athletics director Ray Tanner to speak with Staley, and she spoke with the Buckeyes later that night.
Between then and Saturday, Staley received an avalanche of calls, e-mails, texts and Twitter comments, all asking her to stay at USC.
Then Saturday morning, the governor called.
“I don’t even answer my phone to strange numbers, (but) I ended up answering the phone,” Staley said. Nikki Haley reiterated the same message Staley received from USC fans.
“She just expressed how much I mean to the state of South Carolina,” Staley said. “When you have that outpouring of support and wanting you to stay and be a part of this community, it made it a very easy choice.”
Haley spokesperson Rob Godfrey confirmed the conversation.
“Dawn Staley is doing great things at the university, and she’s a source of pride for our entire state,” Godfrey said. “We didn’t want to lose her, and the governor called to tell her that.”
Ohio State boasts the nation’s second-largest athletics department behind Texas. The women’s team had made 10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances before missing this season, reaching the Sweet 16 three times.
It was the first time in Jim Foster’s run as Ohio State coach that the Buckeyes missed the tournament, and it cost him his job, despite a 279-82 record. His 10-10 tournament record and the failure to move past the Sweet 16 were contributing factors.
Meanwhile at USC, Staley has amassed a 92-66 record in five seasons, leading the Gamecocks to consecutive tournament appearances and 20-win seasons. The 25-8 mark this season was the fourth-best in school history, and the 25 wins were the most in the SEC era.
So why leave?
“I think when you’re at a crossroads, you evaluate where you are and weigh the pros and cons,” Staley said. “Much like I try to put myself in a recruit’s position. Someone that has an opportunity to stay where they are or go to what they think is a better place.
“I chose to stay because I felt like this was the place for myself, my family, our staff,” Staley continued. “We made a lot of inroads, as far as friendships and relationships, and you have to put value on those things.”
The Ohio State job offered the extreme challenge that comes with high expectations. But Staley said she was more interested in building USC to a point where those expectations could one day be expected here.
“You look at the competitive side of going to Ohio State, and I can honestly say, challenges I’m drawn to,” she said. “But it doesn’t minimize the things we’ve done here. I just think in the long run, it highlighted what we were able to accomplish here.
“And the outpouring of just the different people that contacted me? It was incredible,” she added. “The people here in Columbia and the people that watch us and follow us, they’ve given me and our staff and our team flowers while we can smell them — and not just because of the Ohio State talk. They do it all year long, and you can’t take that experience away and that feeling away.”
Tanner said Staley will be rewarded, both for her on-court success and for making the commitment to stay at USC. He said he would propose extending Staley’s contract beyond its current 2016 end.
“I think she is a great fit for us. I certainly didn’t want to experience her not being here anymore,” Tanner said. “I will recommend that we’ll make some addendums. After this past season, her contract was down to three years, and that’s certainly not appropriate for Dawn Staley.”
A source of frustration that remains for Staley is the lingering issue of the NCAA postseason ban on hosting tournament games in South Carolina, in place because of the state NAACP’s Confederate flag boycott. The NCAA tries to protect its top-four seeds by either allowing them to host or be placed close to their fan bases for the first two rounds.
Despite consecutive 25-win seasons, USC had to travel to West Lafayette, Ind., in 2012 and Boulder, Colo., this season. Nine of 16 host teams advanced to the Sweet 16 this season. Kansas, which defeated USC in the round of 32, did so while playing in a neighboring state.
“Last year, we were just excited,” Staley said. “We’d go anywhere and play anybody. 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.”
After turning down Ohio State this year and her alma mater Virginia a few years ago and with Tanner talking about a contract extension, it seems possible Staley could be around for that day.
“To be a part of a university that really … it’s about the people,” Staley said. “Our leaders make this special, make this university special, make this job special and all of those things went through my mind.
“It was a pull on me that I couldn’t leave this place.”
Staff reporter Jamie Self contributed to this story.