The bond between Joni Taylor and Dawn Staley that extends beyond competition

Taylor and Staley forged a friendship in the early 2010s. They share their respects before facing off Thursday.

ATHENS, Ga. and COLUMBIA, S.C. (virtually) — Back in 2013, Joni and Darius Taylor started dating. They were assistant coaches in the SEC, but at two different schools, about a two hour’s drive apart.

Darius worked under Dawn Staley at South Carolina. Joni continued her rise at Georgia under legendary coach Andy Landers. Georgia underwent a coaching change shortly after the dating began, and Taylor became the coach. Until then, they split time as assistants and would commute back-and-forth between each college town to see each other.

Over that time, the Gamecocks’ staff gained another member of the family. Joni spent plenty of time with South Carolina’s coaches. She forged a friendship with Staley and even joined Darius and the other members on staff retreats.

Joni left a great impression … but Staley knew the long-distanced relationship wouldn’t work for too long. Joni and Darius couldn’t work on the same staff because of Georgia’s nepotism laws, but they found their place in the Peach State. Darius had to say farewell to his coaching relationship with Staley after being her assistant at Temple and South Carolina.

“Joni stole our man,” Staley quipped on Wednesday when recalling those memories. “I knew at some point it was going to happen.”

Since 2015, Taylor joined Staley in leading a prestigious SEC women’s basketball program. They’ve competed on opposing baselines for numerous battles, although Staley has the upper hand with a championship-contending program. Despite the competition, Taylor and Staley have forged an unbreakable bond in which they lean on each other to get through the rigors of life as a head coach.

They’ll meet again on Thursday night inside Colonial Life Arena (7 p.m., SEC Network +) in a contest where Staley believes Georgia has one of its best teams in recent memory. They’ll get to unite again and laugh about Christmas and birthday presents sent to their dogs or recall memories of time together away from the hardwood.

They’ll set the friendly relations aside for 40 minutes of basketball, but their bond stands beyond competition.

“We are a close-knit group. Dawn is family,” Taylor said. “The South Carolina staff is family. They were at our wedding.”

“We've known her for a long time and we consider her family,” Staley said.

Taylor has seen Staley as a role model through her first six years at Georgia’s helm. The coaches embody a lot of the same qualities — the main focus centering around balancing basketball and mentoring players through life. South Carolina has demonstrated that over the social justice movements that began over the summer. The Gamecocks prepared a statement prior to their season opening on Nov. 25 and have taken numerous initiatives throughout their communities.

The like-mindedness of the two coaches allows Taylor to take plenty from Staley’s example. She’s got the on-court history, too, as Staley is a national champion at South Carolina, the U.S. Olympic Team head coach, a prestigious WNBA player and three-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000 and 2004).

“She is fearless in everything she does. She does it with a lot of confidence and a lot of passion,” Taylor said. “It gives you the energy to want to do the same thing.”

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley coaches during a game vs. Temple on Dec. 17. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Glantz — The State newspaper via the SEC Media Portal)

Staley has been around Georgia’s program a good bit, too. Staley will always try to help advance Taylor’s career, Georgia’s sixth-year head coach said, or the sport of women’s basketball through the aspect of competing against one another. Each time Taylor has given Staley a reasonable request, the experienced head coach has always answered the call. Staley spoke at one of Georgia’s Beyond Basketball meetings — a weekly gathering of local women focused on community outreach and support — last season.

Staley frequently checks in on the Taylor children, Jacie and Drew, too, as you might expect.

Her knowledge of Georgia gives Staley a unique perspective on Taylor’s trajectory as a head coach. There’s an “admiration,” as Staley put it, for how Taylor has overcome certain obstacles such as returning to coaching a few weeks after giving birth to her youngest child. Staley has also seen Georgia miss the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons, but doesn’t see that trend continuing for much longer.

“The job she has done at Georgia is quite incredible and the future is bright for her as a coach,” Staley said. “She keeps things in perspective. It is a lot better than basketball, but she also knows the demands of coaching at this level and having to win. She has gotten through some years where she wasn’t at full strength in terms of her team being healthy.”

Taylor serves as a source of uplifting encouragement for Staley. Taylor is the coach who frequently checks on the well-being of her players and staff, and it is no different for her closest friends within the profession. Taylor said Staley is “changing lives” through her numerous initiatives and using her platform as a well-known coach to speak on important issues.

Taylor and Staley have a reciprocating gratitude and have become avid supporters of each other when the Lady Bulldogs and Gamecocks aren’t squaring off.

Their bond was built when Taylor “stole our man” and put Darius in a position to continue his career in Atlanta. Looking back, the two SEC coaches wouldn’t have it differently.

“It's really nice to know you've got someone in your conference who has your back, is cheering for you and wants you to be successful,” Taylor said. “We're each other's cheerleaders and backbone through it all.”