While still a WNBA player, she started coaching the Temple University Owls women's basketball team in 2000. In six years at Temple, she led the program to six NCAA tournaments, three regular season conference championships, and four conference tournament titles.
On May 7, 2008, she was named the University of South Carolina women's head basketball coach. Over the following six seasons, she improved her program's record every year, up to winning the SEC in 2013–2014. In late 2014 her team achieved the program's first #1 ranking, making her only the second individual to both play on and coach a #1 ranked team. Staley has gone on to lead South Carolina to four SEC regular season championships, four SEC tournament championships, six Sweet Sixteens, two Final Fours, and On April 2, 2017, she guided the South Carolina Gamecocks to the programs's first NCAA Women's Basketball National Championship.
Staley attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, from which she earned her degree in Rhetoric and Communication Studies. During her four seasons in college, she led her team to four NCAA Tournaments, three Final Fours and one National Championship game. She was named the ACC female athlete of the year and the national player of the year in 1991 and 1992. Staley finished her college career with 2,135 points and held the NCAA record for career steals with 454 (which has since been broken by current record holder, Natalie White). She finished her career at Virginia as the school's all-time scoring leader and as the ACC's all-time leader in assists at 729, but those records have since been broken by former UVA stars Monica Wright and Sharnee Zoll, respectively. Her number 24 is retired at UVA.
In 1994–1995, after graduation, Staley played professional basketball in France in Tarbes, Italy, Brazil, and Spain before joining the ABL and then the WNBA.
Staley was named to the USA Basketball Women's Junior National Team (now called the U19 team). The team participated in the second Junior World Championship, held in Bilbao, Spain, in July 1989. The USA team lost their opening game to South Korea in overtime, then lost a two-point game to Australia. After winning their next game against Bulgaria, the USA team again fell in a close game, losing by three points to Czechoslovakia. After beating Zaire in their next game, the USA team played Spain, and fell three points short. Staley averaged 10.8 points per game and recorded 14 steals over the course of the event, both second-highest on the team. The USA team finished in seventh place.
Staley was named to the team representing the USA at the World University Games held during July 1991 in Sheffield, England. While the USA team had won gold in 1983, they finished with the silver in 1985, in fifth place in 1987, and did not field a team in 1989. The team was coached by Tara VanDerveer of Stanford. After winning opening games easily, the USA faced China in the medal round. The USA shot only 36% from the field, but limited the team from China to 35%, and won, 79–76, to advance to the gold medal game. There they faced 7–0 Spain, but won, 88–62, to claim the gold medal. Staley averaged 4.9 points per game.
Staley played for Team USA throughout her career. In 1994 she competed in the World Championships and was named the USA basketball Female Athlete of the Year. She led the 1996 team to an undefeated record of 60–0 and the gold medal at the Olympic games in Atlanta. She was also a member of the 2000 Olympic team that defended the gold medal.
Staley was selected to represent the USA at the 1995 USA Women's Pan American Games, however, only four teams committed to participate, so the event was cancelled.
Staley was named to the USA national team in 1998. The national team traveled to Berlin, Germany, in July and August 1998 for the FIBA World Championships. The USA team won a close opening game against Japan, 95–89, then won their next six games easily. In the semifinal game against Brazil, the USA team was behind as much as ten points in the first half, but went on to win, 93–79. The gold medal game was a rematch against Russia. In the first game, the USA team dominated almost from the beginning, but in the rematch, the team from Russia took the early lead and led much of the way. With under two minutes remaining, the USA was down by two points but the USA responded, then held on to win the gold medal, 71–65. Staley hit two free throws with ten seconds left to extend a three-point lead to five points, then hit another free throw with three seconds left in the game to "seal the 71–65 victory". Staley averaged 7.0 points per game and made a record 52 assists.
In 2002, Staley was named to the national team which competed in the World Championships in Zhangjiagang, Changzhou and Nanjing, China. The team was coached by Van Chancellor. Staley scored 4.9 points per game, and recorded a team-high 24 assists. The USA team won all nine games, including a close title game against Russia, which was a one-point game late in the game.
She won a third gold medal with Team USA at the 2004 Games in Athens. Her Olympic performance led to her being named 2004 USA Basketball Female Athlete Of The Year at the end of the year. Before the Games, she was selected to carry the flag of the United States during the parade of nations at the opening ceremony.
In 1996, she joined the Richmond Rage of the American Basketball League (ABL) and led the team to the ABL finals in 1997. The following season, the team moved to Staley's hometown of Philadelphia. Staley was named the 1996–1997 All-ABL first team and the All-ABL second team, the following season.
On August 1, 2005, Staley was traded to the Houston Comets. Staley announced before the start of the WNBA season that she would be retiring after the Comets season was over. The Comets made the playoffs and faced the Sacramento Monarchs in the first round. The Monarchs swept the Comets and won the series 2–0, ending Staley's career. In 2011, she was voted in by fans as one of the Top 15 players in the fifteen-year history of the WNBA.
Staley had no interest in coaching when she was initially approached by the athletic director of Temple University, Dave O’Brien. She was on the Olympic team at the time which was attending the Final Four in Philadelphia. O’Brien talked her into visiting the campus, where she was guided to a conference room with a dozen people who were treating her visit as a job interview. When they asked her if she saw herself as a coach she replied “no, not at all”. She initially resisted offers to become the coach. O’Brien changed his tactics and challenged her to identify some ways to turn the program around. She was still playing in the WNBA at the time and her friends told her it would be impossible to continue to play and coach. That challenge convinced her she should try so she accepted the position of head coach at Temple. In her first season, 2000–01, Temple advanced to the WNIT. In 2001, 2002, and 2004, her teams won the Atlantic 10 tournament to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
In the 2004–05 season, Staley's Owls went 28–4, including a perfect 19–0 against Atlantic 10 opponents. However, they lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Rutgers University. Staley reached the 100-win plateau in the A-10 Semifinals vs Xavier University that season, becoming the fastest coach in women's basketball to achieve that.
On May 7, 2008, it was confirmed by Temple University that Staley would leave Temple for the recently vacated coaching position at the University of South Carolina. She left Temple with the best overall record of 172–80, along with six NCAA appearances and four Atlantic 10 titles.
At South Carolina she started rebuilding a program from scratch. The Gamecocks had only won a total of 20 games in the five years before her arrival. She suffered through two losing seasons at the start of her tenure. Starting with 10 wins during the 2008–2009 season, she led the program to ever better finishes in each subsequent season, leading to the program's first number 1 ranking and Final Four appearance during the 2014–2015 season. They picked up where they left off a year later, going undefeated in SEC play; however, they were upended in the Sweet 16 by Syracuse.
In 2016–17, the Gamecocks again repeated as SEC regular season and tournament champions, and advanced to the second Final Four in school history. They defeated conference rival Mississippi State in the national championship game to win the first national title in school history. Staley became the second African American to lead a women's basketball team to a national championship; Carolyn Peck had coached Purdue to the 1999 national championship.
Under Staley the program captured four SEC regular season championships, four SEC tournament titles, two Final Fours, one NCAA National Championship, six sweet sixteen appearances, the 2nd ranked recruiting class in 2014, five SEC player of the year awards and three SEC freshman of the year awards. Staley herself was awarded SEC coach of the year three times and also the Basketball Times Coach of the Year in 2014.
Dawn Staley served as an assistant coach for the USA National team in 2006, a team in transition. Lisa Leslie, who had led the team in scoring in the 2004 Olympics, the 2002 World Championships, the 2000 Olympics, the 1998 World Championships, and the 1996 Olympics was no longer on the team. Sheryl Swoopes was available but hampered by injuries, with Staley transitioning from player to coach. Newcomers Sue Bird, Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi picked up the slack, but it was a team in transition. As an additional challenge, some members of the squad were unable to join the team for practices due to WNBA commitments. The team started out strong, winning each of the six preliminary games, including the game against Russia. In the quarterfinals, the USA team beat Spain 90–56. The semifinal was a rematch against Russia, but this time the Russian team prevailed, 75–68. The USA faced Brazil in the bronze medal game, and won easily 99–59.
During the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Staley served as an assistant coach under Team USA head coach Anne Donovan and helped the Americans win their fourth straight gold medal in women's basketball and sixth in their past seven Olympic appearances.
After coaching Team USA to a Gold medal at the 2007 Pan Am games, she served as head coach to the U17 Team in 2014 and the U19 Team in 2015, winning gold medals at the U18 Americas Championship and the U19 FIBA World Championship. The USA basketball organization awarded her the code national coach of the year award as a result of the U 19 gold-medal. She shared the award with Sean Miller who coached the U19 men's team to a gold medal.
She served as an assistant coach under Team USA head coach Geno Auriemma for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and helped the Americans win their sixth straight gold medal in women's basketball and eighth in their past nine Olympic appearances.
Staley now heads the Dawn Staley Foundation, which gives middle-school children a positive influence in their lives by sponsoring an after-school program at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center. The Center focuses on academics and athletics and sponsors basketball leagues and other fund-raising activities. She is also currently writing a four-book series loosely based on her childhood.
She gave her 1996 Olympic gold medal to her mother, Estelle, whom she cites as the biggest influence in her life.