Dawn Staley, who carried the American flag at the 2004 Olympics and proudly bore the banner of Philadelphia sports as a socially conscious women's basketball legend, left Temple University for South Carolina yesterday, in the process leaving an enormous hole in both her hometown and the university.

The North Philadelphia-born Staley, 38, agreed to a five-year deal to coach at the University of South Carolina that will pay her $650,000 annually, with a base salary of $250,000. The contract will be formally approved by the university's board of trustees on Saturday, just before a news conference introducing her in Columbia, S.C.

Staley could not be reached for comment, but according to a source familiar with the negotiations, she has family in South Carolina and was eager to test her coaching skills in the powerful Southeastern Conference, the premier league in women's basketball.

Until this week, there had been speculation that Staley would leave Temple only for her alma mater, the University of Virginia. Debbie Ryan, who coached Staley, is entrenched as the coach there.

Ultimately, though, the allure of coaching in a conference with perennial powers Tennessee, Louisiana State and Georgia proved too appealing for Staley's competitive urges.

South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman visited Staley in Philadelphia this week, and they agreed on a contract late Tuesday.

Her departure is a major setback for the Temple athletics brand. Staley had become one of the school's most recognizable names and faces, a point of pride the university used in marketing, recruiting, and on Schuylkill Expressway billboards.

The Owls program hadn't experienced a winning season in the decade before her arrival in 2000. Since then, her teams have won four Atlantic Ten Conference titles, five Big Five championships, and berths in six NCAA tournaments.

Temple's official response to Staley's leaving was terse.

"Dawn Staley has had a strong record at Temple University: a win-loss record of 172-80, six NCAA appearances and four A-10 titles," said a statement from athletic director Bill Bradshaw. "We wish her the best at South Carolina."

South Carolina directed requests for comments to a brief news release in which the university confirmed the hiring. She will replace Susan Walvius, who resigned last month. The Gamecocks were 15-15 overall last season.

Staley's hiring was instantly cheered in South Carolina, where a blog on the State newspaper's Web site contained the headline: "Hire is a Home Run."

Staley, still playing in the WNBA when she arrived at Temple in April 2000 with no coaching experience, breathed life into what had been a moribund program. The Owls, who had gone 10-18 a year earlier, went 19-10 in 2000-01, earning a spot in the Women's National Invitation Tournament.

"I was kind of shocked, at first," recalled La Salle assistant Stacey Smalls, a Cheltenham High School graduate who was a member of Staley's first team. "But I knew it was going to be a great situation. After all, who wouldn't want to be coached by a Philly legend like Dawn Staley?"

Staley's entry into the SEC also will create a void here away from the court.

Staley had become a powerful presence in North Philadelphia. In 1996, she created the Dawn Staley Foundation, which provides athletic and educational opportunities to at-risk Philadelphia youth. Now it will be without a public face.

Philadelphia native Joe McKeown, the women's coach at George Washington University, said: "She's done a great job for the city with the things she's done off the court, helping young people with the foundation. Being in coaching as long as I have, there are few people who've been able to have the impact she's had. . . . she's always done everything with a lot of class."

Phone and e-mail messages left at the foundation's North Broad Street headquarters were not returned.

"I hate to see her go," said Villanova women's coach Harry Perretta, "because she is such a prominent Philadelphian. She's also a great role model for young women in the area, and Philadelphia suffers in that regard."

Her departure, rumored for nearly a week, comes less than 14 months after Temple signed Staley to a six-year contract extension, one that sources at the school indicated paid her $500,000 annually and included a $500,000 buyout.

A heady and intense point guard, the 5-foot-6 Staley was the most honored female player from the city where the women's game took root nearly four decades ago.

She was a high school all-American at Dobbins Tech, which won three consecutive Public League titles during her time there. She was a college all-American and the 1991-92 Naismith Award winner at Virginia, which she led to three consecutive appearances in the Final Four.

She was the star of the Richmond Rage, which reached the 1996 finals in the now-defunct American Basketball League. When the WNBA began in 1998, she was the ninth player drafted, becoming an all-star who started for both the Eastern and Western Conference in her seven-year career.

Staley was a key player on the U.S. women's team that won gold medals in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics. She will be an assistant coach for the U.S. team at this summer's Beijing Olympics.

As the U.S. flag-bearer, she led the American team into the opening ceremonies at the 2004 Games in Athens. Staley called that the high point of her life, a symbol of what a youngster from a disadvantaged background could achieve.

Staley was the winningest coach ever at Temple. She upgraded the schedule and recruited big-time players. Two of them - Candace Dupree and Kamesha Hairston - were A-10 players of the year and first-round WNBA picks.

Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg at 215-854-5725 or mgreenberg@phillynews.com.