Jim Souhan
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Dawn Staley was speaking in Minnesota, so she teased her Minnesotan.

Staley, one of the world's greatest coaches, was the guest of honor at St. Catherine University's "Breaking Barriers: Empowering Women to Lead Through Athletics" on Wednesday night at The O'Shaughnessy.

She sat onstage with emcee Lea B. Olsen, the former Gophers basketball player who works locally as a basketball reporter and analyst, and as the subject turned to Tessa Johnson, who starred as a freshman as South Carolina beat Iowa for this year's national championship, Staley decided to dish.

"Tessa, your fellow Minnesotan, her thing was that she just thought she could eat candy all day, like as a meal replacement," Staley said. "We tried to get her with a nutritionist, and do all these things, and we really had to threaten her. So she's learning. She's not there yet. Each player you had to meet where they were."

That was a common theme for Staley, who has won three national titles as a coach, won three Olympic gold medals as a player and another as a coach (when Lynx boss Cheryl Reeve was one of her assistants), carried the U.S. flag at the 2004 Olympic opening ceremony, and is in the Naismith and Women's Basketball halls of fame.

In a relaxed conversation that lasted about an hour and included questions from a large audience, Staley spoke of her upbringing in "the projects" in Philadelphia, of the new challenges in college coaching and of the differing natures of her championship teams.

She also said that she didn't recruit Johnson, of St. Michael-Albertville, often in person, in part because "when I go on the court, other coaches come around, to see what we were looking at."

After watching Johnson play in the summer before her senior year of high school, Staley said, "I knew that we wanted Tessa."

Staley's appearance was well-timed not just because she recently won a national title but also because women's basketball and women's sports in general have reached new heights of popularity. The WNBA just announced that it will be investing $50 million to provide charter flights for teams over the next two years, and the Final Four games not only set viewership records for women's basketball but exceeded the viewership of many popular men's events.

"I have an understanding of how this basketball thing works," Staley said. "Our game's been held back for a very long time — a very long time. In 2021, we're at the Final Four, you guys saw the disparity between men's and women's basketball, how we were treated at the tournament. That didn't sit well with me.

"It's too ingrained in us to be happy with what we've got. Because we didn't know. Something was not right there. We're now at a place where we know, and I don't think people who love women's basketball are going to shut up."

After the national championship game, Staley praised Iowa star Caitlin Clark, calling her one of the greatest players of all time. "I meant what I said," Staley said. "People tuned in to see Caitlin Clark play. Historically speaking, every game she played on national television, the numbers spoke for themselves.

"I was very happy that we played Iowa. When they tuned in to see Caitlin, they saw a heck of a South Carolina women's basketball team."

Staley won her second title at Target Center, beating UConn and Minnesota hero Paige Bueckers.

"Sometimes when you're in this and you don't play UConn for a national championship, they think it's not legit," Staley said. "Because we beat them here in Minnesota, it really helped legitimize our national championship. Minnesota was great to us. Including the snow."

Staley noted that the modern college basketball player tends to be surrounded by "aides."

"One player has an agent, a trainer and parents," Staley said. "I say, let's bring them all in the room and let's talk. I can't have the three guys hanging around and they're a big voice in our players' heads, and they haven't accomplished anything."

That was one of Staley's many lines that brought laughter during an appearance that was bookended by standing ovations.