Former Vanderbilt women’s head basketball coach Jim Foster is in his 39th season leading a college women’s basketball program. Foster began his head-coaching career at St. Josephs before the NCAA took control of the women’s game. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) governed women’s athletics before the NCAA became involved.
“Under that structure you had players come to you and audition their basketball skills,” Foster said recently. “You could take a player to the gym and work her out. When the NCAA arrived there was more structure, more opportunity because everybody started to get serious about basketball.
“We went from being an Independent to being in a league. At that time St. Joseph’s had 2, 200 students. We were in a conference with Penn Sate, Rutgers, Temple and West Virginia. There were four major state universities and a school that had 2, 200 students, so it took a lot of years to see drastic, significant changes.”
The Vietnam veteran said that the implementation of Title IX created more opportunities for college women athletes, which in turn gave them the motivation to start playing basketball at an earlier age. The law was enacted in 1972 to give women a level playing field with the men in college athletics and all other educational program receiving financial assistance.
In 13 seasons at St. Joseph’s (1978-90), the Pennsylvania native compiled a record of 248-126. After joining the Atlantic 10 conference in 1983, St. Joseph’s was invited to the NCAA Tournament in six consecutive seasons (1985-90), but never getting past the second round.
“The game today is a lot different than the game in the late 70s,” Foster said. “Just think of the players. You have to adapt and adjust as time moves on. The term ‘Millennial’ is used a lot today. What were we calling these guys in the 70s? What were we calling them in the 80s? What were we calling them in the 90s? Here we are in a new century and what are we calling them now?”
“The essential, consistent aspect is they are still between the ages of 18 and 22. That hasn’t changed. How are we interacting? How are we talking? How are we listening? I think you have to be a very good listener and hear what is being said, and also have a framework in which you want to play. But you’ve got to be adaptable and adjustable in the framework of what today is, and adverse as to what yesterday was and what tomorrow could be. It’s also important to have the flexibility and the ability to understand that they are still 18 to 22 years old.”
Before arriving at Vanderbilt in 1991, the Commodores achieved success under coach Phil Lee who had guided his teams to five NCAA Tournaments. Foster was attracted to the situation at Vanderbilt and the SEC.
“Ironically, we had played them in the NCAA Tournament (1989 - Vandy lost 82-68) before I took the job so it was in my frame of reference. I was ready to do something different. I had been involved in USA Basketball and had coached in the summers of 1989-93. At that point I was coaching some of the best players in the world.
“I was an assistant coach with the World Championship Team in 1990 in the Goodwill Games. I was with better players and I found the challenge of being with better players to be intriguing. I knew I could get better players at Vanderbilt than I was getting at St. Joe’s because that’s the way the world works. I had some other opportunities before to leave, but Vanderbilt was the right fit.
“I liked the way Vanderbilt handled the hiring. I met with Paul Hoolahan (men’s AD) and June Stewart (women’s AD) and talked with Gerry DiNardo (Vandy head football coach) and Eddie Fogler (Vandy men’s head basketball coach) and interacted with them. I liked the vibe and took the job.”
Foster found success right away at Vanderbilt by making it to the Elite Eight the first season and the Final Four the next. Some of his players at the time were Mara Cunningham, Julie Powell, Rhonda Blades, Julie Harris, Sheri Sam and Heidi Gillingham.
“We had a lot of interesting pieces with pretty good basketball IQs,” said Foster. “They were intelligent players. Shelley Jarrard and Misty Lamb both had a passion for the game that led to them becoming coaches. We had great size, and when you combine that with the basketball IQ, we were able to do some things on both sides of the ball that I believe allowed us to become a good basketball team.”
Heidi Gillingham (1991-94) was the Commodores center standing at 6-foot-10. She ranks 12th all-time in scoring with 1,593 points and was a three-time First Team All-SEC (1992-94) and also earned a Kodak All-American selection. Gillingham was selected to the 2010 class of the Vanderbilt Sports Hall of Fame.
“Heidi was a player that wasn’t passionate about basketball, but she was passionate about what she did in her life,” Foster said. “Even though basketball wasn’t something that drove her, when she played, Heidi held herself to a high standard and wanted to do it well. She was a good shot blocker and had a nice shooting touch.
“She was the anchor of our defense that allowed us to become a good defensive basketball team. We could shoot the ball extremely well and because Heidi could score on the low block and with Mara backing her up when she came in, opposing teams had to make the decision of whether to double-team or play us straight up. We had such good shooters that it was difficult to match up with us.”
Foster had this memorable moment about Gillingham: “There was a game where we were playing Western Kentucky in February 1992,” said Foster. “We had missed a shot or turned the ball over near the end of the game and we were losing by a point. A Western Kentucky player got the ball and started to run towards her basket. It was obvious that she was on her way to the winning shot.
“I don’t know where she came from but Heidi, one of her attributes is not foot speed, ran so hard and so fast that she got down the court and blocked the shot. It was a terrific basketball play. You are watching it from the opposite end of the court at Vanderbilt where our benches were, and you begin to envision the game ending in a negative fashion, but in a matter of a few seconds, it ended in a positive fashion with us winning the game (62-59).
The Commodores finished the 1992-93 season ranked No. 1 in the country after winning the SEC Tournament with a 30-3 record. With only 48 teams in the NCAA women’s tournament at the time, Vanderbilt earned a first-round bye and then dispatched California by a score of 82-63 in the second round. Vanderbilt then went on to defeat fourth-seeded Stephen F. Austin (59-56) in the Sweet 16 and sixth-seeded Louisiana Tech (58-53) in the Elite Eight. After an impressive run through the Midwest Regional filled with uncountable memories and experiences, Vanderbilt dropped their Final Four matchup in Atlanta to eventual-champion Texas Tech, who was led by Sheryl Swoopes, by a score of 60-46 in the semi-finals.
“We knew how to take advantage of other team’s weaknesses,” said Foster. “It was a fun season. Looking back on that season it was a heck of an achievement for that group. We had a tough way in the tournament. We had to go to Stephen F. Austin and win on their court in the Sweet 16, you don’t see that nowadays.”
“Stephen F. Austin had Gary Blair and then we went on to play Louisiana Tech with Leon Barmore, two of the great coaches in the women’s game. We had to beat them back-to-back. They were both constructed a lot different than we were. They were very athletic and aggressive, but I thought we did a great job maintaining our composure when we had to and making big shots when we needed them and making stops on defense.
“Sheryl Swoopes was a player that was very difficult to contain. I think she scored 26 points against us and that was the lowest for her in an NCAA Tournament game that year. She scored 47 (vs. Ohio State) in the National Championship game after they beat us. She was a special talent that won a national championship, Olympic Gold Medals and a successful professional basketball player. She is in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.”
In 11 seasons at Vanderbilt, Foster’s record was 256-99 (SEC, 84-53) with 10 appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Foster was asked about his most memorable Commodore teams.
“Obviously, the Final Four team would be in that conversation,” said Foster. “I think the last team that I coached there (2001-02, 30-7) was very talented and did some good things. We had a team that won a third SEC championship tournament. We were playing Tennessee in the championship game.”
“I was at home taking a nap and had not known at the time Sheri Sam called my wife to make sure she brought extra clothes for me that night because they were going to dump Gatorade on me when they won.
“It showed the confidence that group had that they were going to be the better team that night. We played in a pro-Tennessee crowd in Chattanooga, as you would expect. We had our small group of loud friends and supporters. It was a terrific win for our program.”
Under Foster’s tenure, the Commodores managed to defeat Pat Summit’s Lady Vols on three occasions. One of the most historic games in Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym history occurred on January 30, 1993 against the No. 1 ranked Lady Vols.
A women’s game record of 15, 317 fans were in attendance for the match-up with the No. 2 ranked Commodores. The contest was sold out 16 days before game day. It was the first advanced sellout of a Vanderbilt women’s basketball game. The fire marshals had to guard the door after there was no more room for fans. Vanderbilt lost 73-68.
“The game took on such significance with the fan base,” Foster said. “Nashville is the heart of Vol country even though that is where Vanderbilt resides. You are going to have a big turnout regardless. That game stood out since we gave out more tickets than we even had.”
“Not everybody could get into the game. Even Chancellor (Joe B.) Wyatt could not get into the game. Coach Summit was amazed that we were in that type of environment. It one of the first sellouts nationally. It might have changed people’s minds towards the women’s game.”
Foster left Vanderbilt for Ohio State as the Commodores all-time winningest coach after the 2001-02 season. It was speculated that Foster left Nashville because of the dominance of the Vols in the SEC or to have the entire state of Ohio to recruit. Foster said it was the latter.
“I had never worked at a state university,” said Foster. “I had worked at two private schools and the thought of working at a state university in a large state like Ohio was intriguing. Andy Geiger was the athletic director and I had a great respect for him. Jim O’Brien was the men’s basketball coach and was a close friend whose daughter worked for me. To me it was the opportunity to do something different in a different situation.”
Is there a difference in attitude and discipline toward coaching men and women in college basketball?
“Michael Jordan is worth $1.7 billion,” Foster said. “There is not a women’s basketball player that’s thinking they are going to be a millionaire playing basketball. A lot of the college men’s basketball players think they are at the level to be in the NBA. They start to make decisions to chase that money train.
“Women don’t have that opportunity. For the most part they make sound decisions relative to what their future could be and what they would like for it to be. They are more grounded. I think they are more realistic about what the world is going to be.
Foster left Ohio State after the 2013-14 season for his current position as women’s head basketball coach at UT-Chattanooga. His record with the Buckeyes after 11 seasons was 279-82 (Big 10, 136-46) with four Big Ten Coach of the Year honors (2005-07, 2009) and six Big Ten regular season championships.
Foster was enshrined into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. He has led UTC to three straight NCAA Tournaments as members of the Southern Conference. In his three seasons in Chattanooga, Foster has three Southern Conference regular season and conference tournament titles. So does Foster still enjoy coaching after 40 years?
“My attitude towards coaching are still very young and vibrate since my world is 18-22 every year,” said Foster. “That’s an interesting time to be locked into in my opinion. I see a lot of change, a lot of growth and a lot of understanding about things. They come in wide-eyed at 18 and are a heck of lot different generally speaking when they walk out at 22.”
Traughber’s Tidbit: Vanderbilt women’s basketball was played for the first time on campus in March 1897. In its only game played in the Old Gym, Vanderbilt defeated Ward Seminary (Belmont) 5-0 as co-ed Stella Vaughn scored the lone goal. In this era a field goal was worth five points. Vaughn was one of the first women to graduate from Vanderbilt and was hired to lead a women’s athletic program. “Miss Stella” was enshrined into the Vanderbilt’ Sports Hall of Fame last year. The Vanderbilt women began play with a schedule after the turn of the century. Games have been recorded until about 1920. The modern age for Vanderbilt women’s basketball was 1977 with part-time coach Joe Pepper leading the way.
Tidbit Two: You can read about the Vanderbilt women’s early history and the modern era beginning in this writer’s book “Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History” published in 2012 by The History Press. The paperback book includes 19 chapters and starts with Vanderbilt men’s first basketball’s game in 1893. That game was the first organized basketball contest involving a college team. The book covers Vanderbilt men’s basketball through the 2012 SEC Tournament Championship. Copies can be purchased at the Vanderbilt Bookstore, Amazon.com and Nashville area bookstores. Barry Booker wrote the Forward to the book.
If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.