Focused LSU not derailed by coach controversy

Posted: March 30, 2007

CLEVELAND - Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer has experienced trying times during previous trips to the NCAA Women's Final Four.

As Cheyney State's coach in 1982, she shuttled to and from a hospital where her then-infant daughter suffered from meningitis. Her trip with Iowa in 1993 came four months after the death of her husband, Bill.

But when the Scarlet Knights (26-8) take the floor in the national semifinals Sunday night at Quicken Loans Arena, the dramatic story line will involve their opponent, Louisiana State.

LSU (30-7) is making its fourth consecutive Final Four appearance just 31/2 weeks after the resignation of coach Pokey Chatman, who also had been a star guard for the Tigers.

The 37-year-old Chatman announced her departure three days before the tournament draw, and assistant coach Bob Starkey, who was an LSU men's assistant when Shaquille O'Neal played at the school, was put in charge of the team.

Reports quickly surfaced that university officials had proof of an allegedly "inappropriate" relationship between the LSU coach and a former player.

The university eventually confirmed that there were multiple allegations against Chatman and that assistant coach Carla Berry had reported them. No current players were involved, LSU said.

ESPN analyst Doris Burke was asked during a WNBA conference call previewing Wednesday's draft how the network would handle the story as part of its Final Four coverage.

"It is a major story in college basketball," said Burke, a former Providence player, who noted that the first TV production meeting would be today.

"I am thrilled for those young women," Burke said about the LSU players, "that they were able to turn their focus inward and were able to achieve something that is such a rare opportunity.

"I know we're not supposed to pull, as media, but when that story broke, all I could think of was that I hope those kids come out and play well.

"But we will absolutely address it," she said. "It's an unfortunate situation, and it will probably be a lengthy discussion on how we can cover it."

WNBA coach Anne Donovan, a former Old Dominion star from North Jersey, called the Chatman scandal as well as the events surrounding Penn State coach Rene Portland's resignation "a black mark on women's basketball."

Portland resigned March 21, a month after a lawsuit filed by former Penn State player Jennifer Harris was settled. The Harrisburg native claimed that Portland had dismissed her from the team in March 2005 after perceiving Harris as a lesbian.

"Do I think that overall they will impact us, slow us down, stop us? No," Donovan said. ". . . It is certainly not a great time for the LSU situation or for all of women's basketball."

Chatman's exit stunned many in the women's basketball community whose respect she had gained in 2004 when she filled in for Sue Gunter. The LSU coach, who suffered from emphysema, had taken a leave of absence a month before the season ended.

Chatman, then an assistant, led LSU to the Final Four. The Tigers lost in the closing minute of the semifinals when Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee stole a pass and scored.

Gunter retired in the off-season and Chatman was named the head coach. She took the team back to the Final Four in 2005, but the Tigers squandered a lead against Baylor in the semifinals.

The same weekend, Gunter was named as an inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. She did not live to attend the induction ceremony in September 2005, and Chatman stood in her place, making an eloquent acceptance speech.

The LSU team also dealt with the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans a few weeks earlier.

In 2006, with senior all-American Seimone Augustus, the Tigers reached their third Final Four but lost to Duke in the semifinals.

This season, expectations were high for LSU with the return of all-American junior center Sylvia Fowles.

Chatman's last game was the upset loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC championship game. It has been reported that, as part of her contract incentives, Chatman will be paid $70,000 because LSU reached the Final Four.

Because of the controversy involving Chatman, the Tigers weren't expected to go far in the NCAA tournament. But Starkey, who said he had not spoken with Chatman since her exit, noted that it didn't take much to get his players' minds on basketball.

"It wasn't like we had to go out, create something that wasn't already there," he said. "Certainly, there was a little hiccup with the change in coaching. . . . I just maybe had to draw them back and remind them of what we established."

The Tigers' tournament run includes wins over North Carolina Asheville, West Virginia and Florida State. In the Fresno Regional title game, No. 3 seed LSU upset No. 1 Connecticut.

Despite the success, Starkey said he had no aspirations to be a head coach.

"I think LSU is such a special place, it's really worthy of somebody that has some really solid head coaching experience," he said.


Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg

at 215-854-5725 or mgreenberg@phillynews.com.

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