Former LSU coach taking days one breath at a time


Saturday, December 4th 2004, 11:15 am
By: News On 6


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) _ Former LSU coach Sue Gunter had problems for years _ shortness of breath, feeling lightheaded, sudden tiredness.

Then, last Jan. 4, the Hall of Fame coach was driving to LSU for a game against Arizona and things got much worse. Gasping, she pulled to the side of the road and called 911 on her cell phone.

``I couldn't get any air,'' Gunter said. ``I knew it was serious, I just didn't know how bad it would be.''

Now she knows.

It is serious enough that for the first time since 1983 the women's basketball season has started at LSU without Gunter on the sideline. Serious enough that Gunter has handed the job to longtime protege Pokey Chatman.

Serious enough that Gunter now is tethered to an oxygen tank, struggling for each breath.

``The biggest thing that happened, the main thing I've thought about, is when I made that call to 911, suddenly I was old,'' said Gunter, 65. ``I never felt old before that, but I sure have since then.''

She certainly didn't seem old before that. Despite her snow-white hair and the jokes she made about her age, Gunter was energetic and strong-willed, stomping her foot during games when a player messed up, glaring at offending players or officials.

She was the coach at Middle Tennessee State in 1963-64, then held the same job at Stephen F. Austin until 1980. She arrived at LSU in 1983.

Then, suddenly, Gunter was gone. With LSU in the midst of a run that would end in the Final Four, Chatman was running the team.

``I'd had some trouble over the years. They'd done a lot of tests, checked my heart,'' Gunter said. ``They hadn't identified it, but it wasn't as sudden as everyone thought.''

A smoker for more than 30 years, Gunter quit the habit in 1994. She had suffered from a variety of respiratory problems during childhood, however, and thinks that might have predisposed her to emphysema.

Gunter is considering a lung transplant.

``It's one of the things being looked into,'' she said. ``That's kind of spooky, though. Kind of scary. It doesn't add longevity, but might add a little quality of life.''

Still cheerful, Gunter stays busy. She has a storage room full of memorabilia to go through and is considering writing a book.

``I work an hour or so and then take a nap,'' she said. ``When you have an inability to breath it makes even talking tiring. I have to take my time at everything.''

Gunter watches all the LSU women's games on television. She attended the first home game.

``The problem is the doctor is really worried about infections,'' she said. ``It makes it hard because everyone wants to come up and hug me and talk to me.''

The transition from Gunter to Chatman has been smooth. LSU, which fell in the first game of the Final Four last season, began this year at No. 3 and moved to No. 1 this week for the first time since 1978.

``I keep asking people to pinch me to make sure it's real,'' Gunter said. ``It's really exciting. They earned it. They have worked very hard for it.''

Chatman played for Gunter for four years and was an assistant on her staff for 13 years.

``She's going to be a great coach,'' Gunter said.

Looking back on her career, Gunter feels nothing but satisfaction _ in what she's done, and in how far women's basketball has come.

Inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in June 2000, Gunter had 21 seasons with at least 20 victories and 708 wins overall.

``My entire career there were three people who really stood out to me,'' said former Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore. ``Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt and Sue Gunter. Those are the three coaches who I believe really gave us the game that we know and enjoy today.''

Gunter, who played a half-court version of the game at Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt, said one of her biggest successes was being able to stay in touch with players.

``I think about 25 percent of coaching is X's and O's,'' Gunter said. ``The rest of it is how well you handle players. How good a psychologist you are. How current you stay. Let's put it this way, I don't get up in the morning and put rap music on. But I know what rap music is and I know the kids like it.''

Gunter was an assistant at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal _ the first time women's basketball was played at the games. She was to coach the team at the 1980 Olympics, but the United States boycotted the games.

Among all her accomplishments, Gunter said few compare with seeing thousands of fans packing the stands for women's games.

``To walk out there and see that crowd was something I'd always dreamed of,'' Gunter said. ``I felt like I had come the distance then. I felt like the LSU program had.''