NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Bob Starkey was thrust into the role of interim coach for the LSU women’s basketball team in 2007, he set about trying to find what would motivate his players.
He called it finding their "68." (More on that later.)
Today, LSU men’s interim coach Tony Benford doesn’t have to probe his players’ feelings for their 68.
It’s No. 44.
The Tigers are also playing for Will Wade now, their head coach in exile. (More on him later, too.) Wade is not with them here in person for the Southeastern Conference tournament, though Benford acknowledged the coaches have talked since Wade was suspended last Friday.
But all season long, these Tigers have been playing for Wayde Sims, their fallen teammate who was shot and killed in September, hours before LSU was to begin preseason practice.
Wayde’s parents, Wayne and Fay, will be here Friday to accept LSU’s SEC legends award on behalf of their son at halftime of the Tigers’ quarterfinal with Florida.
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The emotions inside Bridgestone Arena should be molasses-thick. And while Wade’s status with the team has changed, in a very real sense, Wayde’s status has not.
“You can’t imagine losing a brother like Wayde Sims,” Benford said earlier this week. “They’ve dedicated this season to Wayde. They talk every day about playing for No. 44. They say, ‘They have five, but we have six.’ It’s a brotherhood. It’s the closest group I’ve ever been around in 28 years at this level.”
Starkey, an assistant women’s coach at Texas A&M since 2012, is one of the few people who can fully appreciate the challenge Benford faces. He was thrust into the role of following a highly successful and highly popular coach and trying to steer the team through the postseason with distractions nibbling at them like a ceaseless tide.
In 2007, LSU women's coach Pokey Chatman abruptly resigned after the SEC tournament amid allegations that she had an improper relationship with a former player. Starkey was put in charge and led the Lady Tigers on an amazing run to a fourth straight Women’s Final Four.
“The absolute most important thing for me was to make sure nothing changed,” he said. “Our practice structure. Our defense. I made sure I sat on the same seat on the bus and in the film room.
“I didn’t want to give the appearance that I was taking over. I do think it helped.”
Benford has sounded a similar theme over the past week, stressing that he and fellow assistants Greg Heiar and Bill Armstrong are in his mind equals, still fulfilling the delegated roles Wade gave them all season.
“I think one thing that we try to do is keep it simple,” Benford said Thursday before a walkthrough practice at Vanderbilt. “We haven’t changed our routine.”
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At some point, though, motivation enters into the equation. For Starkey, it was the power of “68.”
Hockey great Jaromir Jagr wore the No. 68 throughout his 24-year NHL career. He said it was in remembrance of the Prague Spring of 1968, when political liberalization in his native Czechoslovakia was ultimately crushed under the treads of invading Soviet tanks. Jagr’s grandfather, a political prisoner, died that year.
Jagr’s story was something sports psychologist Kevin Elko shared with former LSU football coach Nick Saban.
“You’d sit in a circle and talk about someone you were dedicating your next couple of games to,” Starkey said. “It was a pretty emotional thing.”
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The Lady Tigers stitched together three straight wins before facing mighty Connecticut in the Fresno Regional final. At Elko’s suggestion the night before playing UConn, Starkey had his players go through a mental exercise.
“He told me to tell the kids that, before they went to sleep, to think back to the greatest game you ever played,” Starkey said. “Remember how it felt, how the game went. He said subconsciously that would stay with the kids overnight.
“Whether it worked or not, we had some kids play phenomenally well.”
What resulted was perhaps the Lady Tigers’ best-ever game against a quality opponent. Behind 23 points and 15 rebounds from All-American center Sylvia Fowles, LSU crushed UConn 73-50.
“We were a close-knit team,” Starkey said. “This LSU team seems like it is as well. When I see those kids interviewed on TV, they’re saying the right things.”
Of course, the proof will be in the results.
“I think their first SEC tournament game will be worth watching,” Starkey said, “to see if they’re focused and sharp or not.”
Wade himself upped the distraction meter Friday when he released a statement saying he wants to coach LSU again but still has no plans to talk to school administrators during the ongoing federal college basketball bribery investigation.
LSU volleyed with a repeat of its stance that Wade must talk to them before he can coach again.
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At this point, it looks like an intractable situation, one destined to keep Benford in his role for the duration of LSU’s postseason.
Like Starkey, Benford better have some motivational ploys ready.
His team will need them.