published Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Wiedmer: UTC's Foster our town's newest gem

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's head basketball coach Jim Foster smiles during a presentation made to celebrate his 800th career win after UTC defeated Samford Saturday at McKenzie Arena.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's head basketball coach Jim Foster smiles during a presentation made to celebrate his 800th career win after UTC defeated Samford Saturday at McKenzie Arena.
Photo by Erin O. Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Let's pick up the Jim Foster story more than 30 years ago. Not at the beginning of his college coaching career, which started at St. Joseph's in 1978, because neither Jim nor his wife, Donna, can remember the first of his remarkable 800 wins.

But they both remember the Christmas Eve when Jim and some young St. Joe's assistant named Geno Auriemma tried to build a tricycle for Foster's oldest son, Christian, who was 3 at the time.

"It never worked and we couldn't fix it," Donna said early Saturday evening, just after Jim's University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's team beat Samford 63-50 to deliver him the Big 8-0-0.

"It just went down the road like this," she added, making a wobbling motion.

Added Christian, now 35, as he broke into a grin: "To this day, Dad probably doesn't know the difference between a flathead and Phillips head screwdriver."

Nor did Foster seem the least bit embarrassed by this revelation as he left McKenzie Arena for home, where he intended to quietly celebrate his milestone moment with family and friends over delivered pizza and a fine Cabernet.

"There's no probably to it," he said. "When I was in the Army with the 18th Airborne at Fort Bragg, I was going to be assigned to the Pentagon motor pool. I explained to them that that would be a disaster. I ended up at Fort Lee in Virginia."

And it isn't just common tools that sometimes get the best of Foster. Donna said that if she's out of town and calls to ask what he's had for dinner, he'll sheepishly reply, "Bean dip."

"He doesn't like to go out and get something, but he doesn't like to cook, either," she said.

But can he cook?

"Toast," Christian said. "Maybe eggs."

So maybe this coaching thing was, by far, Foster's best option. And aren't we all lucky that he chose that, even if the Mocs are getting in on his genius late in the game. Only 17 of those 800 wins have come at UTC, the rest won at St. Joe's (248), Vanderbilt (256) and Ohio State (279).

Not that the 65-year-old Foster seemed terribly excited to become only the 11th coach to win at least 800 women's college games during his first season at UTC.

"My concern is for you guys," he told the media afterward. "You'll have to think of a new question. We've been hashing over this one for a month."

If you think that to merely be a clever line, Donna said, "I didn't even know he was close to 800 until a few weeks ago, and I don't think he did, either."

It's not because he doesn't care. He cares deeply. Always has. Expects he always will.

"I've never lost the passion," Foster said as grandsons George and Oliver played nearby inside McKenzie. "I love the game; I love teaching the game."

Perhaps that's why the Mocs' Ashlen Dewart said of her first year coach, "He works hard for us, so we want to work hard for him"

Hard work alone doesn't win 800 games. Nor does smart work, though that clearly helps. To borrow a line from the winningest women's coach ever, retired Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, "[The players] don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

To watch the tribute video to Foster dance across McKenzie's video boards after win 8-0-0 was to know both how deeply he cares and how much others care for him.

There was Auriemma, he of the eight NCAA titles as the top dog of the Connecticut Huskies, talking about all he's learned from his former boss, including "how to smoke cigars and drink good Scotch."

But he also said, "He taught me how to be a great teacher, how to handle players."

There was Georgia coach Andy Landers, all smiles, saying, "You've patterned most everything you do after me," just before he held up a basketball commemorating the Bulldogs boss's 900-plus wins.

And this from Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, who said, "You represent our game with class and dignity."

Here's class and dignity: When Foster was at Ohio State, he played McGraw's Irish on the USS Yorktown, which had served in Vietnam at the same time Foster did. It was the first women's game ever played on an aircraft carrier.

Foster never volunteers any of this, of course.

As Donna said, "Jim's very humble. He doesn't want it to be about him."

But it was all about him Saturday. About his coaching and his life. Said Christian -- younger brother Andrew lives in Park City, Utah -- of his father's interests: "It's family, basketball, reading and wine."

Expanding, he said, "Dad never pressured us to play basketball. Andrew played some but moved on to lacrosse. He wanted us to find our own way."

To that end, despite those early problems with the tricycle, Christian now runs a semi-pro cycling club in Athens, Ga.

As he headed home for pizza and wine, Foster was asked what had changed over his 36 years in women's college hoops and 800 wins.

"When I started, it seemed we got to spend more time with friends and family," he said. "We'd have Christmas with Geno and his family. Now we're all in different places."

Fortunately for UTC women's hoops, and innocent tricycles everywhere, Foster's place is now our town.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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