COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Just before the national championship game in Dallas, something wasn't quite right as Gamecocks head women's basketball coach Dawn Staley entered American Airlines Arena.
"I felt it," she said. "I felt it when I first came into the stadium, the arena. It wasn't what I was familiar hearing."
That feeling came from being outnumbered in the stands.
"When I sat down on the bench, I was like, 'There are more Mississippi State fans here and they're loud,' and it took me back a little bit," Staley remembered.
It surprised Staley, but it didn't worry her.
"Gamecock Nation has given us so many of those moments that we carry it with us," Staley said.
And fans will tell you, Dawn Staley gives all of that love back whenever and wherever you find her.
"There are dreams that are going to be realized from little girls and little boys because of them seeing us win a national championship," Staley said.
That's why she doesn't mind one bit when fans ask to touch, hold, or even wear the coveted "netlace."
"No, I don't mind," Staley said. "I want to share. A couple people wanted to take a picture in the net so I take it off. I let them have it for the moment, you know, but it's very significant because it represents accomplishment."
That accomplishment was recently rewarded with a contract extension and a pay raise for Staley. Fans who have cheered the Gamecocks on to four SEC regular-season championships, three SEC tournament title, and now a national championship are thrilled USC is committed to Dawn's Dynasty.
But fans also had a lot to say when they heard of Staley's new deal -- a four-year extension that increased her annual pay to $2.1 million. Meanwhile, Frank Martin received a one-year extension that raised his pay to $3.3 million by the final year of his deal.
"To a certain extent, I do agree with that, but I know how it works," Staley said. "I've been in the game a long time and I know how it works…and I'm patient. I think it'll happen sooner than later. I don't think it will happen in my coaching career but at some point, it will happen."
Until then, she appreciates the fans having her back. That includes USC President Harris Pastides, one of her biggest fans.
"He was all in," Staley said. "President Pastides and Mrs. Patricia have been supporting from day one."
Winning a national title set off a rockstar celebration with Gamecock Nation including special appearances and all the excitement that goes with it. Still, Staley made the time to thank fans in a very personal way by writing every person who wrote a note to her.
"It's only right for me to get back to them and let them know that I read every single one of their words and some of them are inspiring," Staley said. "Some of them are very thoughtful. Some of them are history lessons and I just wanted them to know that I appreciated them taking the time."
She even takes the time to answer their questions like who picks her gameday outfits, what she likes to do, or what she would do if she ever had some real downtime.
As much as Coach Staley loves sharing this journey with Gamecock Nation, there's one ultimate fan who stands above all the rest because she inspired Dawn to be the best.
"My mom is the ultimate disciplinarian," Staley said. "She laid the foundation of me being disciplined from a very young age and it's carried me through this day."
Coach Staley gave her mother a national championship hat and shirt and, of course, she had to wear the "netlace."
"I think, deep down, she knew that this was one of the joys in my heart that I wanted to do," Staley said.
Add that love, discipline, and determination with faith and you get a champion.
"So when all of those things are intertwined, you understand why I have to give God the glory for every single thing that He has done for me because He has moved mountains," Staley said. "I mean, He's done some tremendous things and I can't keep quiet because it just comes out. It's a natural thing for me."
So when Coach Staley drives down Dawn Staley Way to get back on the court at Colonial Life Arena, it won't be for the money or the status. It will simply be for the love of the game.
"I do it because I think I just owe basketball a debt," Staley said. "I have to repay this debt to basketball for all the things that it has given to me. The way I do that is through coaching and it just seems like every time I'm able to even the debt, it keeps giving back so I'm always going to be trying to repay that because, listen, we've got a national championship."