It’s not quite as often as it once was, and sometimes the days and events are spread out a little longer, but there are always moments in my life when the voice of Henry Davenport makes an appearance and brings me a smile.
Thursday night was truly one of those days.
It has been 13 years now since Henry departed those of us who loved him so on that cold January day and even as I write this, I find it difficult to comprehend he is not here for this day.
He would have loved it.
When former UTC athletic director David Blackburn hired Jim Foster in the spring of 2013 to coach the Lady Mocs basketball team, it was absolutely the single most impressive hire in the history of UTC athletics. One needs only to look at the magnitude of UTC’s 58-41 win over Western Carolina to realize as much.
The win was the 900th of a 40-year coaching career. Want perspective on that? It’s more wins than Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp, and both those coaches have multi-million dollar arenas bearing their names.
The win ties him with former Texas coach Jody Conradt for seventh on the all-time list. The list ahead of him is littered with some of the great names in women’s basketball such as Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer, Geno Auriemma, Sylvia Hatchell and C. Vivian Stringer.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have met every one of those aforementioned greats in 30 plus years of sports involvement. If I could have only met one of them, Jim Foster would be my choice.
From Saint Joseph’s to Vanderbilt to Ohio State and now UTC, Foster has made an indelible impression, touching the lives of athletes and communities alike. He is the only Division I coach to lead four different women’s programs Top 25 rankings and NCAA tournaments.
As his friend and former assistant coach Geno Auriemma said recently: “to take four different teams to the NCAAs at four very different types of schools is pretty remarkable.”
What is even more remarkable is to see how the 69-year-old Foster connects with today’s generation of 18-year-old athletes, they drawing from his wisdom and experience and him drawing on their youth and energy.
The relationship with Henry was one of those remarkable pairings. It began innocently enough back in the early 90s when the SEC women’s tournament was played in Chattanooga. Henry often accompanied me and my Free Press cohorts to sporting events and he was by my side one day at a Vanderbilt shootaround. Foster noticed my high energy friend and asked me what the deal was with him.
I told him the basics. Henry had showed up at the newspaper one day to complain about our coverage of basketball. I had walked past the door to former Free Press sports editor Roy Exum’s office and heard a funny animated voice whaling away when Roy spotted me out of the corner of his eye and told Henry “this is the guy you need to talk to.”
From that day forward none of us at the paper could get enough of Henry and he became our companion. He oftentimes traveled with us to things like the Indianapolis 500 and of course his beloved basketball games. He was the life on our road trips.
Like I said, Henry was special in so many ways, but yes, he was special in that way too. He was a young gregarious strapping adult of a man with a childlike mind who had somehow managed to survive all life had thrown him on a disability check and a larger than life personality. We spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday together from that year on.
I later came to find out that Foster, a man with a mind like few others I have met, grew up with a sibling with Downs Syndrome.
Henry and he were perfect for one another, and soon it became a monthly ritual of washing clothes for Henry so I could pack him up on a Greyhound bus bound for Jim’s place in Nashville, and later, Columbus for extended stays with the coach. In a blink of an eye, Henry went from being the most recognizable fan at UTC games to the most recognizable fan in SEC hoops.
When he passed away, the SEC’s league office included it in their notes which are sent out media members across the South.
The tales of the two’s travels were legendary. There was the time he got on to Auriemma about his renowned scowl, telling him he should smile more often. Or the time he asked former Georgia coach Andy Landers with his signature slicked-back hair style why he put so much oil on his head.
Of course, my favorite was the night inside a McKenzie Arena locker room as Foster’s Commodores gathered for a pregame talk prior to the SEC tournament title game against rival Tennessee in 1995. The Lady Vols had squashed all comers en route to an 11-0 regular season title. Vandy had lost by 20 to them less than a month before and there was little indication that night was going to be much different.
The story as told by Jim was a more than somber atmosphere as his assistant coaches surveyed the locker room.
“We were beat before we walked out on the floor. You could see it in their faces, the tension and nervousness was everywhere,” Foster told me later that night. “I looked over at Henry and noticed his ankles were lumpy and I asked him how many pair of socks he had on as all the girls gathered around.”
Now Henry was eccentric to a point and one of his things were socks. My man had enough socks to furnish a small village and he always wore two and sometimes three pairs. On this particular night, it had rained, so Henry quickly went to his go-to excuse.
“He told me because of the rain he didn’t want get his feet wet so he had on extra socks,” Foster explained with a grin.
Now you have to remember Foster is a native Philadelphian and whereas the term used in our neck of the woods is galoshes, up North they refer to the boots worn by most in wet conditions simply as rubbers.
“I looked at him and said ‘well, Henry, don’t you have any rubbers?’” he asked innocently enough.
Well, that got ol’ Henry going and anyone who ever saw him get going knows it is a sight to behold.
“Oh, come on now coach. Come on coach. I don’t do that, I don’t do that, I don’t do that,” Henry laughed and exclaimed out loud, obviously familiar with the slang term rubbers.
Between Henry absolutely losing it with laughter and the Vandy girls soon joining in, it was a regular ol’ gigglefest in the locker room and suddenly all that tension and uneasiness of what awaited outside those door in bright orange had disappeared.
When the dust had cleared inside the Roundhouse an hour or so later, Vandy had handed Tennessee a 67-61 loss, claiming the SEC tourney title and a No. 1 NCAA seed a week later.
“I’m not sure we would have won that game without Henry breaking the mood,” Foster said.
And as the Vandy girls climbed the ladder one-by-one to cut down the nets afterwards, there was Henry climbing the rungs to get his snipet. A part of that championship net sat on his dresser and was perhaps his grandest possession until the day he died.
Yes, Foster and I were bound together at the hip in our love for Henry and as much as I respect the man, I think I adored him even more. Much like Henry made those around him better people, Foster has made those in his life better. He made me better.
He made me particularly better as a writer. In the world of deadlines there are very few sports writers who don’t have a story all but written in their head by the time a final buzzer sounds. Foster quickly got me out that habit during his 11-year tenure at Vanderbilt. You see, Foster always has a different perspective on things whether it is wins and losses, or the plays and moments which decide them.
He notices the small things in the game. The intricate details easily overlooked. He could take whatever angle I had preconceived for a story and send it down an all together different path. And his version was always better than mine. Smart people can do those things, and Foster is a virtuoso when it comes to perspective.
I have lots of favorite memories of the times I’ve spent with the Hall of Fame coach but one of my most cherish was the running joke I had with him during Vanderbilt’s run the school’s only Final Four in 1993.
Foster loves his black sweaters, and seeing as how the times I saw him most were at games, I started asking him if his entire wardrobe was black sweaters or did his wonderful wife Donna have to wash the same one 2-3 times a week. I used to kid him that I was going to put a secret mark on one when he wasn’t paying attention and check it the next game to see if it was the same sweater.
Vanderbilt won the first SEC tourney here in Chattanooga that year and carried that momentum all the way to Atlanta for the school’s only Final Four appearance. It was perhaps my favorite team of Foster’s with the likes of the 6-foot-10 Heidi Gillingham manning the middle, sharpshooters Shelly Jarrard, Julie Powell and Rhonda Blade, and a freshman named Sherri Sam. Misty Lamb and my all-time favorite Mara Cunningham provided depth on a team that earned a No. 1 national ranking in a state dominated by the Lady Vols.
The regular-season game between the two giants pitted No. 1 vs. No. 2 and the game was not only sold out weeks in advance in Nashville, the fire marshall locked the doors when the crowd reached overflow. It was one of the first true sellouts in women’s college basketball.
Anyway, Foster spotted me at the media availability inside Atlanta’s old Omni Coliseum and decided he was going end the sweater talk once and for all. He told me that if Vandy won the national title, not only would he give me the black sweater on his back, but he would tell me if it was his lucky one or he had a closet full of them. If they fell short, I would never bother him again with it.
One of the game’s all-time greats, Sheryl Swoopes, and a dreadful shooting game by Vandy the next night put an end to my questions, and to this day I’ve never asked him about the sweater(s) again. It didn’t stop me, though, from trying to get my secret undercover agent Henry on it years later when he stayed in the coaches home. Check his closet, Henry, and report back to me.
Apparently loyalty was one of Henry’s better traits. I never got my answer.
When Henry died unexpectedly in 2003, Jim was in the middle of Ohio State’s season and he was devastated by the news as we all were. Despite all that was going on in his nightly Big 10 battles, Foster found time to call a few people who loved Henry as well and I had a check within days to pay for his funeral and a tombstone.
Jim Foster is special and as the country fetes his accomplishment today, I do so as well, but he will always be so much more than a story, a quote, or a Hall of Fame basketball coach with 900 wins next to his name.
(Email James Beach at email@example.com)