Jim Foster made immeasurable contributions to women's basketball

Jim Foster, who coached at Chattanooga, Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Saint Joseph's, retired with 903 victories. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Jim Foster's Vanderbilt team had just upset Kansas 51-44 in the second round of the 1997 NCAA tournament, thwarting the Jayhawks' offense by largely neutralizing then-senior star Tamecka Dixon.

The game was in Lawrence, Kansas; most of the media there covered the Jayhawks and had expected them to win. When Foster walked into the news conference, they assumed the coach would make a standard opening statement extolling the Commodores' defense.

But Foster wasn't going to spoon-feed anyone.

Foster -- who retired Tuesday after 40 years with 903 wins and as the only coach to take four different teams (Saint Joseph's, Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Chattanooga) to the NCAA tournament -- expected people to pay attention and think for themselves. That included his players, his assistant coaches, the media and even fans.

He wanted to know what you knew. And if it was obvious you didn't know anything, he wanted to know why. There was no excuse for that.

It makes sense that Foster hired both UConn's Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw as young assistants in the late 1970s-early 1980s during his time at Saint Joseph's. They've gone on to be legends in the game, and there's no doubt Foster saw many of the things he most values -- responsibility, critical thinking, curiosity and clarity in decision-making -- in them.

On Feb. 1 this past season, Foster became the eighth coach in NCAA women's basketball history to reach 900 wins, leading Chattanooga past Western Carolina. That same night, UConn won at South Carolina, and when asked about Foster's milestone, Auriemma smiled and marveled at how Foster had won big at four very different types of colleges.

"He's a program-builder, and I knew that the first couple of years I spent with him," Auriemma said. "He has a good way of keeping everything in perspective. I'm proud to have worked with him and proud to be his friend."

Foster served two tours of duty in Vietnam before getting into coaching, and took a big-picture view of the joys and tragedies of real life into how he viewed wins and losses.

Obviously he wanted to win. But it was just as important to him to influence his players to notice everything around them: the roads they traveled on, the scenery they passed, the buildings they played in, the people around them, the headlines in the news. If his players put on blinders to everything except basketball, he would urge them to take them off.

A friend who played on Foster's most successful Vanderbilt teams in the early 1990s recalls how he was always reading several different newspapers -- "the whole paper, not just the sports section" -- and how he empowered players, stoking their confidence by saying they would be put in position to do the things they were fully capable of doing.

Foster did not win an NCAA title; he wouldn't weigh the worth of his career any differently if he had. He did take Vandy to the 1993 Women's Final Four. He also went to the Elite Eight four other times with the Commodores, and had three additional Sweet 16 trips while in Nashville.

He wasn't able to get past the Sweet 16 in his time at Ohio State (2002-13), but the Buckeyes won six consecutive Big Ten regular-season championships and four league tournament titles. He coached a lot of exceptional players, including current Sparks center Jantel Lavender and Jessica Davenport at Ohio State, and Sheri Sam at Vanderbilt. All have won WNBA championships (Sam won two).

It seemed clear that Foster didn't want to leave Ohio State in 2013, but the Buckeyes thought it was time to go a different direction. Foster could have retired then, but he still had the desire to coach, and there was a perfect-fit opening for him in Chattanooga after Wes Moore left for NC State. In five seasons in Chattanooga, Foster continued his success, going to the NCAA tournament four times.

Foster was a past president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, and coached multiple USA Basketball teams. Throughout everything, he was always available to his former players, always interested in what was going on in their lives. He was most proud of them if they just continued to grow as people.

The further we get from the 1970s, the more distant the ground-breaking decade for women's college basketball gets. Most schools launched their varsity women's sports programs then, in the wake of Title IX in 1972, some from club teams already in place and some from scratch. The coaches who got into the business then had no expectation of making much money or getting any fame.

The best of those coaches were pioneer-like, pragmatic, resourceful, collaborative and extremely hardworking. They continued to adapt to the changing times and technology. They helped develop the next generations of coaches.

What they did for women's basketball is immeasurable. And Jim Foster is not just one of them, he is one of the best.