Of all the basketball coaches I have admired and adored in a lifetime of sports, there are three at the very top. UCLA’s John Wooden is dead. Pat Head Summitt is no longer active. And Jim Foster was introduced on Friday as the new coach of the Lady Mocs. In all candor -- Wooden, Summitt, Foster – most definitely belong in the very same sentence.
No one in Chattanooga, outside of a small handful, knows how great a human being Jim Foster really is besides me. Oh, he’s a great coach alright – now 11th on the winner’s list of all-time – but when I learned the Hall of Fame coach would return to the McKenzie Arena and shower UTC women with the same glow of goodness that Wes Moore established here, my eyes watered.
It had been whispered back around Christmas that a badly-warped sense of values at Ohio State – where cash from championships has displaced character and integrity at Probation U – was threatening Foster’s 35-year string of brilliance. Forget being ranked in the Top 10 five of the last eight years, when he only won 18 games this season, the fickle flinched and the stabbing dagger was cold.
Every bit as mystifying, or be it miraculous, is that his feet would land in Chattanooga. No matter what the future holds for new athletic director David Blackburn, now he will forever be remembered for making the greatest hire in UT-Chattanooga’s athletic history since the day Scrappy Moore showed up in 1931.
I first got to know Jim in the early ‘90s after he left St. Joe and was hired at Vanderbilt. I just knew him vaguely but when Leroy Fanning got the crazy notion of bringing the SEC basketball tournament to Chattanooga, my job was to “stack the deck.” The tournament had been in Albany, Ga., if you could ever imagine, and as women’s basketball finally began to blossom, I remember there were six or seven cities bidding against us.
When Leroy, who was a referee in the SEC at the time, and I went before the selection committee in Birmingham, I actually felt sorry for the other cities because I knew it was unanimous before we ever went in the room. I’m not going to say Foster was one of our confederates back then, but he was a key in convincing a couple of others that it wasn’t going to turn into a Big Orange “advantage.”
We hosted the tournament for five years before – quite frankly – it simply outgrew us. The SEC moved it to Columbus one year and it bombed. But because of our great fan base, now well-educated by how great the women’s game had become, we got it back in both 1999 and 2000 before ticket demand took it to the Memphis Pyramid with twice as many seats.
About the same time we brought the SEC to town, a young black kid named Henry Davenport stormed into my office and hotly demanded more coverage for UTC basketball. It was immediately evident that Henry was a touch “simple minded.” He was also funny and tender and needy and delightful and smart and dumb and inquisitive and lonely – all at the same time.
So soon he fit in with my crowd of sports writers like a glove. I’m not going to get into all of it but with free food, free medical care, and the greatest crowd of playmates a sports nut could ever hope for, he was set. Further, if there was a seat in the car, he’d go be a “sports writer” too. I could always cop a ticket for “Hank.”
I guess Foster had been at Vanderbilt just about long enough to become a legend that first year Vandy came to Chattanooga with the rest of the league. In the way he constantly studies everything around him and is so keen on helping others, Foster soon saddled up beside me and whispered, “Who’s the kid?” I told him Henry was our mascot. He wanted to know more but I didn’t think much about it at the time.
The next year, several weeks before Foster and Vandy would win their second SEC championship in Chattanooga, Henry walked in my office the same way he did that very first day and announced he wouldn’t need my help getting him a press pass. Then he jutted that jaw out and told me, “I’m going to help coach the Vanderbilt team! They need me to coach the deee-fense!”
Soon Henry started riding the Greyhound to Nashville where he would stay with the Fosters and “coach.” Again, I’m not going to get into too much of it but during his first trip he was mortified to find the Fosters had a dog. Henry was deathly afraid of dogs until Jim Foster required him to take that dog on three or four walks every day. The dog loved Henry. That, quite simply, is coaching.
Henry died of a massive stroke in 2005 and Jim Foster helped bury him. But Henry was just one spot in Foster’s halo. He does more for so many others every day, as the players at St. Joe, Vandy and Ohio State will so easily attest. I giggle about what is in store for our Lady Mocs but relish what is going to happen to the entire UTC family.
Foster will go to football practice. He’ll ask a trainer about her mother. He’ll talk X & O with the new men’s coach until 4 in the morning. There is a great story about the time he got the Lady Buckeyes, or Buckettes or whatever they are called, on a bus in Washington and gave the driver instructions to the Viet Nam memorial.
None of the players had any idea Foster had fought in Viet Nam, or that he did a second tour so his brother wouldn’t have to go. And none of them can talk about what their Coach told them that day because they become too emotional. Oh, they’ll tell you the talk changed their life and that they would lose just one more game all season, it deep in the NCAA bracket.
So, you see, I know a lot about Jim Foster and now I can begin to learn a lot more. I guess it has been 15 years since I walked down the hall of the UTC athletic department. That’s more about me than anybody who is there now, but yesterday I dropped by to leave a call with my cell phone on it. I just want him to know my eyes watered when I heard the good news.