Dennis Starkey, Thank You

Life Lessons I Learned from a Hall of Fame Coach

photo credit: petoskey news

First off, my high school coach, Dennis Starkey, a Hall of Fame basketball coach, wouldn’t want me sharing this with anyone, especially the public.

But that is the very reason I have to do it.

Sorry coach, just sit back and take a loss on this one, which is really a win for everyone else.

Coach wouldn’t want me to share what makes him a legend, what will make his greatness uncatchable in Petoskey Basketball history, not only in wins, but in the legacy he left behind.

But there are two real questions I have been pondering since I heard the news you retired.

  1. What makes a coach/leader great?
  2. How does a coach/leader leave a legacy?

Some people may say wins.

Titles.

Winning %.

But that’s not what I say. It is always the things people didn’t see from the outside that made you different. It was the boat rides in the summer when I was home from college. It was the keys to the gym when I’d call you at 10:00 pm. It was his navy blue suburban in three feet of white snow waiting to open the weight room or Central gym before school started.

You were a great coach because you cared. But that is such a cliche thing to say and a shallow description of who you were.

A coach leaves a legacy by more than just caring.

A coach that leaves a legacy is one you’ll never forget playing for, even 20, 30, 40, 50 years later.

I’m at 20 years and I remember playing for you like it was yesterday.

You left a legacy by empowering us to create our own special memories; by demanding we were a team of the highest standards on and off the court.

Coach Starkey’s Fire | photo credit: Petoskey News Review

I was proud to wear a tie and slacks to class on game days.

To put on the white and blue.

To sit in the locker room after practice and talk to you about my brothers’ lives, my parent’s divorce, my recruiting letters, or just life.

Thinking about the memories of our teams gets me misty-eyed on a moment’s notice. Maybe it is because we all capable of looking back on the best moments of our past and trying to get back them.

To feel them one last time.

I can still shut my eyes and feel my breath get taken away from Johnny’s 49 point night; envisioning Danny Hoffman’s slides and dives for loose balls; remembering Greg Fettig and I boxing at Pickerel Lake Road; seeing Goose sprint wildly down the court after hitting a three.

“Goooooooooose,” the gym would sing.

I reflect on all these memories, the smiles, the laughs, the team sleep-over trips, the Shane Battier clashes, the bus rides to play against Dane Fife, to the worst parts of inner-city Detroit in the middle of summer to find us the most competitive games, to find the best feedback from college coaches, the camps, the hours of tape, scouting, and most of all, recruiting John Flynn to come to — hehe, just kidding.

We can joke now, right?

We can laugh and look back with smiles and give each other giant basketball bear hugs of relief and pride. We can finally celebrate your career, your life, and your legacy.

I’ll never forget Karen making me a collage notebook of all my newspaper clippings. I still get emotional just thinking about all the things you and your family did for me.

A legacy coach is what you are; a living, breathing, culture maker of Petoskey basketball.

But what did you do? What did you say? How did you do it?

d2 | photo credit: petoskey news
I don’t know how you did it.

But I will look back on my death bed and smile about Coach Starkey, P-Funk, Coach Tamm, John Flynn, and our teams making unforgettable memories for the city of Petoskey, and for ourselves.

Let’s go back in time. Let’s start from the beginning.

I met you in seventh grade and that’s when the growth and coaching started.

You helped me learn the game, you put role models in front of me from the moment I went to my first Petoskey summer camp until the moment I graduated. You put mentors, friends, teachers, and coaches in my corner that challenged me to grow and push myself in ways other coaches didn’t.

I wanted to be great, just as much as you wanted to win.

So you brought in Dean Lockwood and Bob Taylor so they could influence me and teach me things I never knew. I still do drills I learned from you, even as a retired old bum with creaky ankles and a declining jump shot.

But to be honest, it wasn’t basketballs and peach baskets from the beginning.

I’m not the easiest player to coach. I still have my flaws, even now (oh boy, let’s not open that peach basket). I’m stubborn and my family dynamic wasn’t on good footing in 1995. We had struggles, but we never gave up. We worked through conflicts and built something.

And isn’t that the point of teams?

You taught me how to sacrifice and always, always, always, play for the team.

The team. The team. The team first.

I want to thank you for that lesson, for always being you, and always supporting me to strive for the highest of Petoskey Basketball’s standards.

I’ve never stopped wanting to be and win on a team — and that starts with my days playing for you.

Playing in my first high school **varsity game seemed to take forever. You may not remember it because you are so old now *wink wink, but it all started against Rudyard High, a U.P. team that we were expected to beat by a big margin. Earlier that day, when Coach Tamm told me in government class I was getting pulled up, I broke down and cried.

I called my best friend, John Flynn, who lived across the bay in Harbor Springs and told him, “Coach pulled me up! He pulled me, Johnny!”

Tingling with nerves and adrenaline all day, I almost exploded into a supernova when the varsity players let me run out of the tunnel with them. Central Gymnasium was packed, the energy was euphoric and the entire city was there to cheer on Stark Bomber’s team to victory.

For as long as I could remember, the city was buzzing for basketball. Coach Starkey built this buzz long before I got there.

I subbed in halfway through the first quarter. I nervously fumbled around the court like a rabid bat, flying around with no clue, and yet, I finished the game with six points, six steals, and six rebounds, but more importantly, one of my life’s goals was achieved: playing on varsity as a freshman.

After the game, I felt confident about my performance and thought coach Starkey would give me some recognition, maybe some kind of game ball for my heroic Rudyard performance.

photo credit: mlive.com

Coach said a few simple words and then everyone stood up.

“Let’s bring it in fellas, good win. Big one Friday. Let’s get ready to work in practice tomorrow. 1–2–3-TEAM,” we chanted together in unison.

Wait, what? That’s it?

I looked at Kevin Degroot. At my brother. At JB. The seniors, the all-staters were already heading to their lockers.

“Seriously, that’s it?” I asked my brother Jeremy.

“Yep,” he winked.

But I realized quickly this team didn’t care all that much about celebrating wins.

A win is a win, but the team always came first.

Always, always, always, team first.

What Made Coach Starkey Great and How Did He Leave a Legacy?

Your legacy will be more than your 553 lifetime wins. The fact that you are ranked 16th All-Time in Michigan wins, may on paper, say it all. But it doesn’t explain why you had 14 straight seasons over .500, 17 district titles, and 14 conference titles.

It doesn’t show the whole scope of your legacy.

I guess jumping center again Shane Battier who played in the NBA for 12 years makes me feel a little better about not getting a state championship with you.

But maybe people don’t understand how hard it is to have success at the highest level of high school basketball. The parity. The unknowns. The fact that a 17-year old kid can freak out and forget how to play for quarters at a time.

As my four seasons under Coach Starkey ended, and the program’s trajectory moved higher, and our two Final Four runs ended, and our wins column quadrupled, I’ll still always remember seeing the man with the mustache pacing the practice floor and preparing his troops for battle.

You were strong, Coach.

Stoic. Stubborn. Careful. Meticulous. Disciplined.

You wouldn’t budge on your principles and standards, but would rather mix up your well taught 2–2–1, diamond (hot), run-and-jump, man-to-man gap and recover defenses, or our motion read-react offense.

That’s greatness and it gave us the chance to learn how to play the game the right way.

But this is why you will leave a legacy and will have taught thousands of youth the most important lesson for success in life:

Hey kiddo, earn your own success and put the team first.

You never gave Johnny and I preferential treatment, well, unless you count the thousand times you gave us the keys to the gym whenever we asked you for them. And that isn’t even preferential treatment, that is the sacrifice, discipline, and giving the time it takes to build a legacy and greatness.

courtesy photo

Coach Starkey’s Admirable Qualities

He obviously had high standards for himself and for his team. He made you earn playing time. Trust. Respect. Loyalty. Your points. You had to play defense, with effort, with heart, and intelligence.

Most of all, you had to play for the team.

Coach Starkey showed up and competed every day. That quality alone rubbed off on me, the team, and his staff.

A fun fact about ***Coach Starkey: he is the best badminton player (ever in my book), seriously, I used to try and beat him in two on one in gym class and he destroyed me.

Every game.

Every point.

Coach Starkey is the epitome of competitive.

Of being fiery.

Of wanting, caring, and demanding winning the right way.

I have so much respect for the way he coached — because I think everyone should care and want to win the right way like him.

He did not win at the expense of making others coaches look bad. He did it with class, dignity, and respect.

If you have never been in a huddle with Coach Starkey, you should know he has this presence. He looks you in the eye and talks to you like a man. I mean his mustache is always there, maybe even quivering with anger or intensity when you aren’t playing to your potential.

See, when you play for Coach Starkey, there is an unwritten contract that you buy into something you don’t even completely understand; that you could run a thousand miles and lift a thousand pounds to make sure you win for this man.

That was how his tradition and legacy grew day by day.

Karen, Dennis & Cory | photo credit: petoskey news

It was these unseen qualities that made him great.

No one can talk about the legacy he left enough in today’s age of social media and not understanding the process. Now, parents complain online. Send emails. Tweet. Make posts. Make calls. Gossip.

The excuse-victim-mentality is growing.

Remember what coach is teaching: success is earned, not given.

Yet, nowadays, no one likes to have the conversations about what high school sports are missing; about how legacies are earned and how high school coaches are usually the best coaches for our youth because they have been doing it for decades.

Not everyone gets to succeed in life, you have to work for it.

Coach Starkey as been working and caring for decades. The State of Michigan should have doubled his salary and for that matter, all the teachers/coaches that care as much as him.

He knew that’s how you build the next generation. You invest in it.

But today’s modern game struggles with parents staying out of team dynamics, letting their kids fail and learn the hard lessons, or just leaving for another team because there is struggle, or judging your merit by some AAU rubric that leaves your high school career a proxy for success.

It’s Common to Compare Coaches You’ve Had in Your Career

And Coach Starkey gets best in class. I have had truly special coaches throughout my life. Batch, in soccer. Mike D’Antoni with the Phoenix Suns. Gary Waters at Kent State. Stan Heath who went to Arkansas. Brad Dean in Okapi Aalstar, Belgium.

Pro coaches, college coaches, coaches making millions of dollars.

You are at the top of the list. You are probably shaking your head, but I want you to stop for a second and enjoy what I’m saying to you.

Thank you for everything you have done for me.

Not seeing you in a navy blue sweater vest stalking the sidelines in a gym won’t seem right.

But in the end, after the sweat, tears, and millions of shots, talks, family dinners, keys exchanged, I’d still run through a wall for you. And the best coaches always leave an imprint on you — on what their life philosophy is, in the way they show their vulnerability and care for you, and in the way they selflessly sacrifice their time to help you get better.

I never thanked you enough, Coach so thank you from the bottom of my very full basketball heart.

photo credit: petoskey news

So this is my chance tell Petoskey what it meant to me that you were my coach, even after all the years and memories have passed.

Accept the Accolades, Remember the Process

Coach, you deserve every win, every award, every ex-player that comes home to check on you, every accolade, and every pat on the back.

As someone that really struggled with leaving the game, when you retire, don’t stop connecting with the people, teams, and players that still want to laugh and cherish their old days. Enjoy your life. Travel to Chicago. Do what you want.

Build your next passion, hobby, curiosity, or craft like you did basketball.

I’m sure our entire 1997–1998 Final Four teams and coaching staff would probably agree that is a recipe for success there. You had the most amazing staff of characters and role models. P-Funk. Coach Tamm. Coach Hewitt. These guys will be forever and ever be imprinted in my mind. I’m sure there are hundreds of other players that feel the same way.

You have given so much of your time, energy, and heart to the thousands of players you’ve coached and taught over the decades.

But Johnny Flynn and I, all the guys that made basketball the centerpiece of their young lives, my younger brother Damon, Cory, Dustin Dibble, all the guys I didn’t meet. All the players that have left and gone onto their lives. We all probably felt we could home and jump in your practice and compete like it was 1998.

Coach Starkey will not want to publicly celebrate his coaching career.

Coach Starkey knew what he was and he allowed us to find out who we were, especially if we were willing to work at it and show our value to the team.

Coach Starkey never told me not to shoot, but he questioned if I could get a better shot.

Coach Starkey put up with a lot. Thanks for putting up with me. No one knows how hard of a job he has, how much flack that comes with coaching and trying to get high schoolers to work together; to put everyone’s egos to the side.

You taught me many things about basketball, about tradition, about earning your spot, and they were the lessons I needed to learn to be successful in life. If you are reading this and have forgotten some of Coach Starkey’s principles, then remember and start practicing them in your life.

Family, sacrifice for the team, hard work, your community, your altruism, building your passions, success in life, all come from the inside, all come from having your culture, standards, and values lived out in your daily actions.

You prepared me for the toughness of college athletics and life after sports.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for everything you did that I didn’t see. Thank you, Karen, for always supporting us as well. No coach, no player, no one person can ever do it alone.

Congratulations Coach Starkey, on your career as one of the most successful basketball coaches in Petoskey and Michigan basketball history.

“Now, do you want to run it back on the badminton game or what?”

FOOTNOTES:

*Coach, seriously, how old are you?

**There was only one freshman before me in the history of Petoskey basketball that had been moved up to the varsity team and he was on the team I was being moved up too (not to mention, my older brother Jeremy who was an all-league/all-state player as well).

*** Coach Starkey gave me an A- in advanced gym class and I think the badminton test was my downfall. Am I remembering that right?