Dawn Staley should be Kentucky’s next hire as men’s basketball coach

John Calipari hadn’t brought recent success to Kentucky, but that didn’t mean losing him to a conference rival was on the cards. Shockwaves went through college basketball on Sunday night after it was reported that Coach Cal was leaving UK to join Arkansas.

This just isn’t supposed to happen. Kentucky of all programs isn’t supposed to lose their coach to Arkansas of all places — but money talks, and while fans might be reeling right now, in the long run it could be the best thing for Kentucky.

When it comes down to brass tacks Cal hasn’t been getting the job done for a long time. He’s excelled at creating year-in, year-out hype. He achieved a core goal of getting a lot of guys into the NBA. But when it comes down to how Kentucky has done, it’s been pretty sad in recent years. Nine years since the Wildcats made a Final Four. Ten years since they played for a national championship. Heck, it’s even been five years since Kentucky made a Sweet 16. The magic and mystique of Kentucky basketball is gone.

There’s a lot of candidates who could step into the job, but only one who could put the right kind of hype in Lexington. Establish a new culture. A program creator, an innovator, above all else: A champion.

Kentucky needs to do whatever it takes, and spend whatever is required to hire Dawn Staley.

If you’re a South Carolina fan that sentence probably made you throw up in your throat a little, and I get it. Nobody in college basketball is like Staley. This is a woman who has every single characteristic you want from a basketball coach, especially if you’re a program like Kentucky looking to turn the page on an era.

Basketball for the new era

One of Staley’s most remarkable traits as a coach is maintaining an ever-present “Dawn Staley-ness” to her teams, while also being fluid about how she approaches her players. With her current National Champions 2024 Gamecocks it was about understanding the youth and lack of leadership she had on the floor, which required a deft hand from Staley and her staff.

Could they have been overly domineering, trying to bend this team to their will? Absolutely.

Would it have worked? Probably not.

In a profile of Staley from The Athletic this manifested by the coach always having a pulse on her young players, knowing which battles to pick, and most-importantly when to pick them. Staley basketball has always been about gritty defense and high-percentage shots to grind out games — but this team had players who loved to shoot threes in transition, not dissimilarly to how Steph Curry or Caitlin Clark play.

These two approaches to basketball are fundamentally opposed, but Staley understood that changing the basketball DNA of these players wasn’t the right approach. Instead she’d inspire them to take these confident shots, and install her Staley-ness in other ways.

“That push and pull meant realizing that players were going to take 3s in transition. (“When have you ever seen a Dawn Staley group take a 3 in transition?” said Khadijah Sessions, a former player and assistant coach. “Never.”) It meant getting rid of the rule of no phones the night before games. It meant giving players four days off after the SEC title game. “She was like, ‘Guys, this is what they need. They need space. They need to recharge their batteries,’” Law said. “That’s just being able to understand the makeup and feel of what we have.”

Tell me for one second that this doesn’t sound like the personality needed to manage some of the biggest recruits in men’s college basketball. A free-flowing system that both builds on fundamental effort and grittiness, while also allowing athletes the freedom to show off their individuality.

This is the right time for Staley to take a step

There have been spidering cracks in the glass ceiling for a while now, but we’re yet to see it truly shatter. Staley is the woman to do that. As much as it would be brilliant to see the 53-year-old coach stay in Columbia another decade, win eight more championships and turn South Carolina into a dynasty — making the kind of dramatic move to a program for Kentucky would blaze a trail for other women to follow.

The reason for this is simple: It’s going to work.

Dawn Staley is entering her 25th year as a coach. Hell, she was the head coach of Temple while still being a six-time WNBA All-Star. This is a woman who sleeps, eats, and breathes basketball — and that’s one of the things that makes her such an effective college coach.

That singular love of the game, the all-encompassing domination of it — this mirrors college basketball players whose entire young lives have revolved around the game. When you have a coach feel like they understand you at this level, while also being a mentor to make you better, that’s a special combination we don’t get very often.

Staley at Kentucky would absolutely work. She would win there. She would be able to recruit and build these players into champions — because that is her basketball DNA.

Gen-Z will make this a success too

Sexist preconceived notions of women coaching men is the folly of boomers, not the kids Staley would be coaching directly. It’s not 1965 anymore.

Time and time again we’re seeing the newest generation of young adults, the members of Gen-Z, having a much more healthy and holistic approach to leadership and gender roles than prior generations. Top athletes are going to want to go where there’s maximum visibility and a chance to win.

Staley coaching Kentucky would create intrigue at first, but quickly give way to a winning program. No top prospect is going to turn down the attention a Staley-led Kentucky team would bring, and from there it’s just about winning — which we’re confident she can do.

No coach in basketball PERIOD has better dealt with young athletes than Dawn Staley.

“Staley has always talked about the look, sound and feel of a team. And this one? It was loud and silly. The players talked, Staley says, about nothing in particular. It was not just unlike last year’s group. They were unlike any other team she had ever had. Not just in some of the mechanisms of how they played on the floor, but especially off the court.”

Staley would arrive at Kentucky and understand the look, sound, and feel of that team as well. Her experience as a player and a coach, both at the highest levels, will resonate far more than her gender, which will take the biggest of backseats to her basketball knowledge.

If Kentucky wants success they want Dawn Staley

There’s no shortage of people who will take the Kentucky job. It’s not like the school is going to have to settle for a no-name coach who will be terrible. However, Staley would give Kentucky a chance to be special, and college basketball is better when Kentucky is special.

Calipari for Staley is a trade I’d made seven days a week, and twice on Sunday. She can transform the Wildcats back into the champions they should be.

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