When 80-year-old Bob Starkey thinks back to when he was a youngster growing up in Mineral County he recalls something his father said about him.
[cleeng_content id="t1" price="0.15" description="Read it now!"]“My dad would tell his friends, ‘All he cares about is sports.’ ”
As his life quickly moved along from Ridgeley High School to a stint in the U. S. Air Force, to a year at Potomac State, to playing three sports at Shepherd College . . . and finally to 52 years of coaching, Bob Starkey has proven his father to be right in his judgment.
Just last week, Starkey submitted his formal letter of retirement from coaching varsity basketball at Jefferson High to the county Board of Education.
The letter ended a stay of eight seaspons with the Cougars. It ended when grandson, Garrett, graduated from Jefferson High.
Fifty-two years of coaching.
Four years of coaching his grandson, who will be playing basketball at West Virginia Wesleyan beginning this fall.
“I had a goal back there when my dad told people about me and sports. My goal was to be a professional athlete or be a coach. I knew being a professional athlete was going to be a longshot, so it looked like if I were going to reach my goal it would be as coach.”
After leaving Ridgeley High, Starkey entered the U. S. Air Force. He had not graduated.
In 1952, at age 20, he came out of the Air Force and was ready to marry his high school sweetheart, Greta. There was one large problem, however. To marry in West Virgina at that time, a person had to be 21 or have a signed document from their parents giving permission for the marriage.
“I forged the wedding certificate. I changed my date of birth . . . made it look like I was 21 . . . and we got married,” said the coach.
Starkey did not use the G. I. Bill to go to college. He couldn’t because he was not a high school graduate.
“My wife and I lived on a farm in Fort Ashby. We got our rent money partially from milking two cows. I would milk them in the morning and she would milk them in the evening.”
If Starkey were going to be a coach, he couldn’t just write “cow milker” on his resume.
“I got a GED in 1954 and started to school at Potomac State (a junior college in Keyser).”
With his schooling being paid by the G. I. Bill, Starkey stayed at Potomac State for one year.
“I left Potomac State after one year and came to Shepherd. As a transfer, I had to sit out one year and still had three years of athletic eligibility remaining.”
While at Shepherd from 1955 to January of 1958, Starkey played football (he was a center) in 1956 and 1957, was a freestyle swimmer for two years, and was on the baseball team under Coach Cletus Lowe for two seasons.
Oddly enough, he didn’t play basketball while at Shepherd.
“I graduated from Shepherd in January of 1958 and sent out 55 applications or letters trying to find a high school coaching position. I was hired at Weir High in the Northern Panhandle. Four different schools agreed to hire me, but the job at Weir paid the most.”
At Weir High, Starkey was made the head coach in track and field and was an assistant in both football and basketball.
“Weir had some very good athletes, and the city of Weirton cared about athletics and the school’s teams. In my 5 1/2 years there, the school won three Class AAA state championships in football and one in basketball.”
While coaching track and field at Weir, Starkey had Vince Monseau, who would later play a major role when Starkey went to newly-formed Oak Glen High in the Northern Panhandle.
“Hancock County consolidated three small Class A schools and built Oak Glen. I could have stayed at Weir when the head football coach position came open, but would have to give up the head job in track and field. At Oak Glen, I could be the head coach in football, basketball, and track and field.
“I told Vince if I ever became a head coach somewhere beside Weir, he would be the first coach I would hire. He came to Oak Glen, where he was also the head wrestling coach. Oak Glen started winning wrestling state championships with him.”
In his five years at Oak Glen, Starkey’s football teams won three Ohio Valley Athletic Conference championships.
It was in 1968 that Starkey was hired as the head basketball coach at Shepherd. Dr. Oliver Ikenberry hired him . . . but then moved to another position and Dr. James Butcher was in place as the school’s president in the fall of 1968.
Starkey came into a coaching morass at Shepherd where his predecessor had been George Hill. Hill was in place for only one year but his problems with player’s eligibility and the use of funds are still clear in the minds of those at Shepherd even here at this time some 44 years later.
“When I came to Shepherd in 1968, we had a couple of work-study stipends to offer and two tuition waivers. I could have gone to West Liberty as an assistant football coach or to Shepherd as the head basketball coach.
“I knew the Northern Panhandle so my first recruit was Tom Dickman, the point guard from Wheeling Central Catholic. My first few teams at Shepherd had players from the Northern Panhandle — Jimmy Carnes, Vince Gilliam, John Roach.”
When Starkey successfully recruited Dave Russell, Rodney Sewell, and Mike Philippi . . . and later Antoine Makle and Mark Palmer, he was still doing it with a shallow pool of funding and the less-than-palatial Sara Cree Hall.
Russell became the school’s all-time leading scorer, but the first team that didn’t have him as its bulwark still went 33-3 overall.
“The first player we ever had with a full scholarship was Bobby Chuey (1985-89)”, Starkey remembered.
Russell, Sewell, Philippi, Makle, Palmer and Chuey are all in the Shepherd Athletic Hall of Fame. Starkey is also in that same Hall of Fame.
Starkey’s basketball teams won 363 games in his two decades at the school.
Those teams scored heaps of points and held their full-house audiences’ attention with 100 points or more many times.
But what those audiences came to remember was the toughness of the personalities of the individuals and the fact that Shepherd was never really out of any game. All of Starkey’s teams played hard and played that way to the bitter end.
With Russell, Sewell, Philippi and company they became the toughest, high-scoring team any similar-sized school ever faced. Russell was the toughest competitor. But he was only inches ahead of Philippi.
Shepherd became known for its reluctance to lose.
During the first part of Starkey’s tenure at Shepherd there were some famous comebacks and infamous games on the road — games where either Starkey’s brother (nicknamed “Skeets”) or his wife, Greta, had differences of opinion with fans or officials . . . or both.
In a game at Frostburg that those involved in still recall like it was yesterday, the whole tone was one of very rough play and uneven officiating.
When play had stopped, the Shepherd team formed a circle on the court — all facing outward in a perfect self-protective stance. “Skeets” was showing the unwilling Frostburg fandom the reasons he had so many wins as a boxer. One after another fell before his blows. And Shepherd escaped none the worse for wear.
Greta, usually associated with baking assorted goodies for the players, once chased an official through the hallway and into his locker room at the antiquated basketball facility at Virginia Military Institute. The official was not safe in his dressing quarters as she came in seeking retribution for the wrongs he had done to Shepherd.
In 1988, Starkey’s close friend and Shepherd’s head football coach for 15 seasons, Walter Barr, had left the school and was coaching at Loudoun County High in Leesburg. Barr told the administration at Loudoun County High and several Board of Education members that Starkey might be willing to come to Virginia.
“My last year at Shepherd I was making $35,000. I took the basketball job at Loudoun County for $20,000 a year more than my salary at Shepherd.”
While coaching at Loudoun County High Starkey had two of his one-time Shepherd players — Tim Leber and John Piccolomini — as his assistants.
Many of Starkey’s Shepherd players went into coaching. “There was a time when over 30 players I had coached at Shepherd were coaching basketball,” Starkey said.
After five seasons at Loudoun County, Starkey left public school coaching and went into business with Leber. The two ex-coaches conducted basketball camps/clinics they called “Camps-2-U” for junior high and high school-age players.
Following that short break from actual public school coaching, Starkey was hired as the head varsity basketball coach at South Hagerstown High. He didn’t teach. He just coached.
At South High for nine years, he had two teams reach the Class AA state tournament in College Park. One of his players — Jesse Gutekunst — became Hood College’s (Frederick) all-time leading scorer while playing for Coach Tom Dickman. One of Starkey’s former players at Shepherd — Carlton Branson — was an assistant coach at South Hagerstown High.
Starkey later took the basketball job at Jefferson High. He was a mere stripling at age 72 years when he did.
Starkey came to Jefferson High when Cougar teams were not competing well against Martinsburg or Hedgesville. He and his assistants Jay Earle, Jayson Jones, and Richard Lewis had some winning records but didn’t reverse the altogether success the Bulldogs and Eagles maintained.
Half of Starkey’s eight seasons were with Washington High in existence. Half of his eight seasons were with his grandson Garrett on his teams.
For 52 of the last 54 years, Starkey has been a high school or college coach.
He has seen many changes take place. Sports in Weirton in the late 1950s were as much a way of life as eating and sleeping. Sports at Jefferson High or South High are not the same, not nearly the same.
“I used to look forward to the games more than anything. Now, I look forward to practices more than anything,” the just-retired coach said.
“Most of all, I’ll miss the interaction with the players. I won’t miss the interaction with some coaches.
“The times back then were better for coaches than they are now.
“There is always some pressure to win, but now there are the added problems with parents and other adults. Society has what I call a ‘Little League Mentality’. Everybody is entitled. People expect to be rewarded for just being there.”
Nobody was rewarded — or expected to be — at Weir High or Oak Glen. Nobody was entitled at Shepherd where only a few came to school with any kind of vuition waiver or partial scholarship.
The trophies for “anybody that breathed” beliefs have come to the front only lately.
Fifty-two years of coaching in high school or college.
“All he cares about is sports” said his dad more than 70 years ago.
“My goal was to be a professional athlete or a coach,” said Starkey recalling his formative years in Wiley Ford across the Potomac River from Cumberland.
And now at age 80 comes retirement from the sidelines . . . and steps a little higher into the bleachers to see his grandson play at West Virginia Wesleyan or to see more of Tom Dickman’s games in the new basketball facility at Hood College in Frederick.
Sports are not leaving Starkey alone . . . and he is not going to leave them alone. But he won’t be milking cows by hand anymore, either.