Starkey's calming presence nurtured LSU's run

CLEVELAND -- Bob Starkey walked down a long hallway leading to the LSU locker room Sunday night with his eyes fixed on the floor, feet going nowhere. After most games, Starkey stays up all night breaking down film.

After the Lady Tigers' 59-35 loss to Rutgers in Sunday's national semifinal, there was nothing to watch.

Starkey would go to the Hyatt to pack. He'd thank his friends for coming. And after that, he wasn't sure where he was going.

"I'm not nervous," said Sherie Hayslett, who has been married to Starkey 15½ years and has known him more than half of her life. "Because if Bobby's not nervous about anything, I'm not nervous."

LSU's turbulent season came to an end Sunday night, and Starkey, the man who led the Lady Tigers to the Final Four, is unofficially out of a job. The acting head coach who is fascinated by Gen. George Patton has no desire to be in charge. So as LSU's coaching search intensifies Monday, Starkey can only hope the new coach retains him.

The man who brought the Lady Tigers together found himself in an unusual spot Sunday night. He was unsure if he was saying goodbye.

Starkey was calm and matter-of-fact about the future, saying he hadn't thought much about it. For 3½ weeks, he never had time.

"I did tell the team that if I never coached again," Starkey said, "that I was thrilled that this was the last team I coached. And if I coached for 20 more years, I would never forget what they accomplished.

"I don't know what's ahead for me. But I was tickled to death to be a part of them."

Starkey, who looks more like a math teacher than a cutthroat recruiter, shed his assistant's title on March 8 after Pokey Chatman resigned amid allegations that she had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a former player.

While most of the women's basketball world expected the Lady Tigers to implode, Starkey led them all the way to Cleveland with a calming presence and some dry humor.

The players said practice wasn't much different because Starkey often planned their workouts anyway. He's an X's and O's junkie who would rather pore over film than schmooze in front of a microphone.

But Starkey was all right at that, too.

"Let me tell you something," he said late Sunday. "It was a very emotional locker room. Every kid was crying. And this is the fourth Final Four we have been to. We have lost three previous Final Fours, and I'd never seen a tear in there. This team really cared about each other.

"I think they were not just crying for themselves, but crying for each other."

LSU athletic director Skip Bertman found Starkey just before he reached the locker room, shook his hand, then wrapped him in a hug. Bertman called the month "an emotional trip," and said Starkey was a master at eliminating the distractions.

"I did tell the team that if I never coached again, that I was thrilled that this was the last team I coached. And if I coached for 20 more years, I would never forget what they accomplished."
-- Bob Starkey

He made dinners and plane rides into team bonding sessions. He shielded his players from the crush of the national media.

When Starkey came to LSU in 1990 as an assistant for men's coach Dale Brown, nobody thought he'd ever be in charge of getting 12 women focused for a possible national championship.

"He's the most loyal person I've ever known in my life," Hayslett said. "This is what LSU needed him to do right now, and there was no question he was going to do it.

"He's one of those guys who will take his shirt off right now if you need it."

Starkey had 10 tickets for Sunday night's game, and invited his old junior-high coach, Allen Osborne, to sit in the second row. Starkey walked into the stands and talked to his mentor about an hour before tip-off. He told Osborne that he didn't take the Lady Tigers to the Final Four.

"They took me," he said.

Starkey was never a star in junior high, but he was always early and never missed practice. Osborne described him as a role player.

As the weeks went on and the Lady Tigers kept advancing in the NCAA Tournament, Osborne tried to convince Starkey to reconsider his stance on being a lifetime assistant. But Starkey is set in his ways.

"I worry about him because I'm pretty close to him," Osborne said. "He'll get a job, but he loves LSU and he loves those kids. That's pretty important to him."

Bertman said LSU has yet to interview any coaching candidates, and that the school won't force the new coach to hire any of the old staff. But he said the team would have input in who is hired, and that he wants to find somebody "who enhances the memory of Sue Gunter."

Gunter, who died in 2005 from complications of emphysema, coached LSU for 22 seasons and is a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee. Chatman was an All-American guard for Gunter, then served as an LSU assistant for 13 seasons before succeeding her mentor in 2004.

If the new coach passes on Starkey, he probably won't be without a job for long. At least two high-profile coaches expressed confidence this weekend that Starkey would quickly be snatched up on somebody's staff.

But the Bayou is home for Starkey and his wife and their two dogs, Miles and Patton. Their basset hound is named after Miles Davis because Starkey loves jazz. Patton, a German shepherd mix, got his name for obvious reasons.

Hayslett has been battling multiple sclerosis since 1990, and one of the biggest things she has to avoid is stress. She calls herself a day-to-day person, and says she doesn't worry about things she can't control.

It's the same mentality that helped Starkey take LSU to Cleveland. Throughout Sunday night, he stood on the sideline, arms folded, facial expression blank. Starkey didn't look any different than he did the night the Lady Tigers beat UConn a week earlier.

His postgame plans just changed a little. Before the game, Hayslett was asked what they'd do Monday, if it was over, and their future was unknown. She smiled.

"Go home."

Elizabeth Merrill is a writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.