Inappropriate Actions May Have Led To Chatman’s Resignation

By James Varney
Updated: March 9, 2007

BATON ROUGE — The shocking resignation of LSU women’s basketball coach Pokey Chatman was linked Thursday to inappropriate conduct with players, according to university sources familiar with the matter. Chatman announced she would step aside immediately.

The details remained murky, and the university’s athletic department made it clear that Chatman’s decision to sever ties with her alma mater and the program she helped entrench among the nation’s elite was hers alone.

Department officials referred specific questions to her, although she reportedly left the campus after speaking with the team before practice and did not respond to requests made with her office staff for an interview.

The coach who guided the team through three consecutive appearances in the SEC Tournament championship game and the NCAA Final Four stepped aside completely one day after she and LSU issued terse, prepared statements that Chatman would resign but remain with the team through the NCAA Tournament, which begins next week.

The original statements from Chatman, 37, and Athletic Director Skip Bertman attributed the stunning loss of a prized LSU alumnus and a nationally recognized face of the university and its women’s athletic programs to unspecified “career opportunities.”

Bertman declined to discuss the crisis engulfing the program, yet sources who are familiar with the matter or were briefed on it by the university confirmed the root cause was alleged misconduct involving a team member.

The time frame of the alleged transgression and when the university was made aware of the allegation and how it coped with it are also unclear. One source said current players are not involved.

‘A hectic 24 hours’

Moving quickly, LSU appointed assistant coach Bob Starkey, 47, as acting head coach for the tournament. In a news conference Thursday afternoon, a composed Starkey said Chatman addressed the team Wednesday and again Thursday after realizing the firestorm of interest in her case had made it impossible for her and the team to focus on basketball if she remained as coach.

Many members of the team, which is ranked 10th in the country and has a record of 26-7, were shattered by the news Wednesday night, and although they are a tight-knit unit that Starkey compared to a family, he insisted that the students are as mystified as the rest of the community about the nature and timing of Chatman’s exit.

“Obviously it’s been a hectic 24 hours, certainly one that has changed the scope of our basketball program,” Starkey said. He said he didn’t know why Chatman would leave the university where she played and then worked her entire career.

“I’m sure Pokey has her reasons, but we’re not privy to that,” he said. “Obviously, the fact that there hasn’t been enough details has created the media frenzy. But given whatever that opportunity is for her, there must be some reason she can’t come forward yet.”

Starkey predicted that the women’s squad, as versed as it is in out-of-the-blue crises such as the illness of Hall of Fame coach Sue Gunter and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, would endure this one, too.

“They’re certainly not new to adverse situations,” he said.

Starkey’s description of the team as a close one is true, vouchsafed by anyone familiar with the program. He conceded it seems curious that a small group bound so closely together would remain in the dark about Chatman’s resignation.

“Sometimes things in the coaching profession unfold in ways that are hard to perceive, and obviously this is one of them,” Starkey said.

No formal investigation

Bertman, who said Wednesday that he neither demanded nor requested Chatman’s resignation, reiterated that point Thursday, saying, “LSU had no control” over the matter.

On the allegations themselves, Bertman declined to comment and said the university would not elaborate on its previously released statements. He indicated, however, that some concerns about the program had surfaced before Wednesday’s bombshell announcement.

“There was no formal investigation,” he said, echoing the point he had made a day before. But when asked whether that meant there had been an informal probe, Bertman said, “That might have happened.” Nevertheless, neither that inquiry nor any school action prompted Chatman’s resignation, he said.

LSU officials and Starkey said nothing has happened that would require NCAA scrutiny and that the university has not been contacted by the organization that oversees college athletics.

Chatman, an Ama native and graduate of Hahnville High School, will continue to draw a check on her $400,000 annual salary until April 30, LSU officials confirmed.

On the second floor of the athletic administration building Thursday, Chatman’s expansive office that overlooks the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where she starred as a player and worked as a coach, was empty. Staffers said they would relay messages to Chatman requesting an interview, but she had not responded late Thursday.

‘Speculation and rumors’

“My resignation yesterday has prompted speculation and rumors that far exceeded my expectations and it is clear that my presence would be a great distraction during the NCAA Tournament,” the athletic department’s Web site quoted Chatman as saying.

“I believe it is in the best interests of the team that I step away from my coaching duties immediately. I want the players and staff to have the best chance to maximize the opportunities we’ve earned. I have every confidence in the young ladies and the remaining coaches that they will have success in the NCAA Tournament.”

Throughout the season, the Lady Tigers presented a remarkably open face, allowing the news media to attend practices and interview players and coaches. Thursday, however, the school announced that practice was closed for the remainder of the week and players were off-limits to the media.

Reporters will be allowed to watch the NCAA Tournament pairings with the team when they are revealed Monday, the school said, and some limited interview opportunities with players will be provided Tuesday and Wednesday.

The women’s program has emerged as one of the country’s premier ones in recent years. That status was cemented under Chatman’s tenure, in which she won several 2005 national coach of the year awards and amassed an impressive 90-14 record.

At the same time, Chatman earned a reputation as a charismatic and blunt-spoken coach who never shied from a question and handled the outside pressures of the high-profile job with aplomb.

Those qualities also helped make her one of the more respected recruiters in the land, and it was her skills that were widely credited with bringing Seimone Augustus, the consensus player of the year in 2005 and 2006, and current junior and unanimous All-SEC center Sylvia Fowles to LSU’s campus.