Jeff Fosnes recalls his career

March 3, 2010

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If Notre Dame University had a medical school in 1972, the name Jeff Fosnes might have been a familiar name to Irish football fans today as Terry Hanratty, Joe Theismann and Joe Montana. And Vanderbilt basketball history might have been different.

“I was looking for a private school that had a medical school attached to it,” said Fosnes (1972-76) former Vanderbilt basketball forward. “I was actually recruited to Notre Dame as a quarterback and as a basketball player. I loved it there, but they didn’t have a medical school. I could have received a scholarship in football. I was 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds and I talked to Ara Parseghian, the football coach at Notre Dame at that time.

Fosnes, 56, was a high school All-American basketball player at Wheat Ridge High School in Lakewood, Colorado. The versatile athlete had a passion for sports and was also an All-State performer on the gridiron.

“I played with a couple of great players in high school especially Dave Logan who was an All-State player as well,” said Fosnes. “We enjoyed playing some football together. I played quarterback and he played wide receiver. Logan would eventually play eight years with the Cleveland Browns as a wide receiver from 1976-84.

“He played college football at Colorado. During our sophomore year we lost in the semifinals of the state tournament, then the next two years we lost in the state finals. In football, with a great receiver in Dave, we probably threw for 2,000 yards. Dave and I also flew together to SMU to see about playing football there.”

At Wheat Ridge, Fosnes averaged 23 points per game and 15 rebounds as a junior and senior. Fosnes had outstanding grades and test scores, which gave him a numerous choices for college. Other universities interested in his services were Duke, Stanford, Princeton, UCLA and Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats.

In this era of high school basketball, the most prestigious high school All-American team was Sunkist, which consisted of, considered the top 10 players in the country. Joe Ford, a future teammate at Vanderbilt, was also a selection of that team. Vanderbilt head coach Roy Skinner landed both Fosnes and Ford.

During Fosnes’ freshman year, the Commodores were 20-6 (SEC, 13-5) and would start later in the season. Another freshman player to join Fosnes and Ford was Butch Feher.

“We [Ford and Feher] started for the first time at Kentucky,” said Fosnes. “There were some injury issues. Rod Freeman was hurt and we did start about the last 10 games. Joe just about started from the first of the year. He had a lot of confidence. You can’t really play this game without confidence. Joe, Butch and I thought we should have been starting right away, which may have been an error. We beat Kentucky a couple of times that year. We beat them in Lexington when they had won about 60 games in a row at home.

“Then we beat them at home when Joe hit a couple of free throws late in the game. I had a really good game against Tennessee the last game of the year. The reason I remember that my dad got to fly out from Colorado to see me play. We were the first freshmen class to play as freshmen. The NCAA allowed freshmen to play in 1972-73. I’m not sure the coaches knew what to do with freshmen playing in that league. There was some adjustment.”

The sophomore combination of Fosnes, Ford and Feher were so effective that they were solid starters during the 1973-74 season. Nashville Banner sports writer Waxo Green dubbed them “The F-Troop”. This is where the legend of the F-Troop began. In the 1960s there was a comedy television program named F-Troop situated in a western army fort in the late 1800s.

With seniors Terry Compton and SEC Player-of-the-Year in Jan van Breda Kolff, the Commodores were 23-5 and SEC champions with a record of 15-3.

“We knew going into that season we had a bunch of guys that could play well together. This was the way Coach Skinner designed things. He recruited kids that knew how to play the game. We knew we had a chance to be really good if we played well together. We had seven or eight players that really knew how to play the game. On the other hand, we knew there were going to be a lot of nail biters. If you go back and look at the scores, there were a lot of close games. We knew how to finish a game and make free throws.”

In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt lost to Marquette (69-61) that was coached by Al McGuire. Notre Dame, the Mid-East Regional favorite was upset by Michigan. The outcome of the Marquette game might have been different except for a pair of controversial plays that went against the Commodores.

“It was a close game and Marquette was a great team.” Fosnes said. “That regional had four of the top eight teams. Back then they sent teams to the region where they were from. Like UCLA always played in the West. The Mid-East Regional always had the Big Ten schools and this is where the SEC champions were sent. So we had Notre Dame who was ranked No 3 in the country and we were ranked No. 6 going into it. Marquette had Maurice Lucas, Bo Ellis and Earl Tatum. They all played in the NBA.

“The sequence that people talk about was when I got a back door cut and laid it off the glass, where I missed. A lot of people thought there was goal tending on my shot. Then they took it down the other way. Butch [Feher] went up for the block and Ellis dunked it on him, which was illegal. Dunking was banned during those four years I played. The sequence of me losing two points on the goal tending and the dunk, which should have been a technical and our ball could have changed the game.

“I remember Wayne Dobbs [Vanderbilt assistant coach] was so heated that he fell backwards off the bench when they didn’t call it a dunk. They asked Ellis after the game what he thought of it he said, ‘I didn’t mean to dunk it.’ That was his quote. There are always going to be close calls in a game like that.”

The Commodores would finish that season with a consolation loss to Notre Dame 118-88. Fosnes earned a spot on the All Mid-East Regional Tournament team after scoring 34 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the two games. The sophomore was selected to the All-SEC Second Team averaging 12.6 points per game and 7.4 rebounds. N.C. State, coached by Norm Sloan, won the national championship that season. Marquette would win the national championship in 1977.

The departure of Compton, van Breda Kolff, Lee Fowler and Bill Ligon meant a rebuilding year for Vanderbilt as Fosnes entered his junior season. Those Commodores were 15-11, SEC 10-8.

“We were a little bit young,” said Fosnes. “I scored quite a bit and Butch scored over 20 points a game. So we worked as hard as we could. We didn’t sit out much. We played nearly 40 minutes a game and I think we ran out of gas. Personally, it was a difficult year. Academically I was taking organic chemistry and other difficult courses while I was trying to get into medical school. Playing all those minutes and trying to carry the game like Butch, Joe and I were doing was a physical drain.”

In that season, Fosnes scored career high 39 points against Jacksonville (107-104 loss) in the USC Trojan Invitational Tournament. Fosnes was the tournament MVP. That 39-point effort is fifth all-time for a Vanderbilt single-game record. Tom Hagan (1968-69) holds the record with 44 points.

“That was a crazy game,” said Fosnes. “It was double overtime and I made a bad play at the end of one of the overtimes to give them a second shot to win. They hit a basket at the buzzer to tie it. Butch had about 34 points himself. It was just one of those games where I was shooting well. We ran a lot of back door cuts and the shots were falling down. I was like 16-of-24 and this was prior to the three-point shot. It seemed like every time my dad came to see me play, I played well. He went out to the LA Sports Arena to watch two games, one against USC (98-93 loss) and the other against Jacksonville.”

As a junior, Fosnes was a First Team All-SEC selection while leading the Commodores in scoring with 22.1 average and 9.0 rebounds. Fosnes also shot 55.1 % from the floor to lead the Commodores.

Vanderbilt was 16-11 (SEC, 12-6) for Fosnes’ final year in a Commodore uniform.

“We were a little more focused that year,” Fosnes said. “The younger guys started playing better. It seemed like we had more of a team concept. Butch and I didn’t score as much, but I think it was more of a concept to get more people involved. It was a great team effort until the end. We had a real shot to win the league, but we went on the road and lost tough ones at Ole Miss and at LSU. That was life in the SEC. We didn’t have enough depth. We finished third in the league. It was a good and successful year.

“One of my best memories from my senior year is Coach Skinner coming up to me at Kentucky where we had a national TV game the next day, which I just happened to miss the last second shot to lose it. He let me know that I had been accepted to Vanderbilt’s Medical School. We were warming up on the court for practice at UK.

“We lost to Alabama in overtime the last game of the season. I’ve talked to Coach Newton [the Tides’ coach at the time] since then and he said that was the best game his team had played all that year. We lost in overtime, showered, went home and heard the announcement on the newscast that Coach Skinner had retired after the night of our last game. He just walked into the pressroom and hung it up. That is how Coach Skinner was.”

Fosnes, Feher and Ford came in together as freshmen and graduated together as seniors. The trio has become a legend in Vanderbilt basketball lore and a memorable part of the university’s history. How does Fosnes feel about being an F-Trooper after all these years?

“I was honored to be part of that group,” said Fosnes. “We were close from the get-go. It was also a wonderful time to play. The fans have been so kind to us over the years. It was back before there were professional teams in Nashville and only 13 home games a year. The place [Memorial Gym] was always packed and for big games there were people sitting under the hoops in a standing-room only type crowd. It was a wonderful time to be in Nashville playing basketball at Vanderbilt.”

Fosnes repeated as First Team All-SEC in his senior season scoring a career 1,579 points. He led the Commodores in scoring 17.9 points per game and finished second to Clyde Lee’s all-time career record of 1,691 points. Fosnes currently ranks ninth in career all-time in scoring at Vanderbilt.

Fosnes finished his career with a 15.5 PPG average connecting on 51.2 % of this shots. He ranks fourth all-time in field goals made (651) and fifth in field goals made in a season (238). Fosnes also became Vanderbilt’s first player to earn Academic All-American as a junior and senior.

Fosnes played in the 1976 East-West All-Star game in Tulsa, OK and was coached by North Carolina’s Dean Smith. He was drafted into the fourth round of the 1976 NBA draft by Golden State, but would forego a professional career to enter medical school.

“I talked to Golden State before they drafted me and told them I was accepted into medical school and that is what I always wanted to do and I was tired of playing,” said Fosnes. “They understood that and told me they would pick me up later in the draft in case I changed my mind.

“They called me the day of the draft to say they selected me in the fourth round and asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I was going to medical school and they said they would call me in the summer when camp opened to see if I was still solid on that decision.”

Fosnes followed up his basketball career entering Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine. He was one of 83 students selected from 6,100 applicants. After finishing his residency at Bayfront Medical Center with the University of South Florida in 1983, Fosnes moved to Springfield, Tenn. where today he is a family practitioner.

Looking back on that decision not to play in the NBA does Fosnes have any regrets not giving the NBA a look?

“Maybe there were a couple of times during anatomy or physiology class that I thought I should have given the NBA a try or like my third year of medical school,” laughed Fosnes. “The Vanderbilt Medical School was a special place and I feel blessed to have gotten in there. I have no regrets on that regard.”

Dr. Fosnes is a season ticket holder for Vanderbilt basketball, football and baseball. You can usually locate him on the first row bleachers behind the Vanderbilt bench. With all the accolades that Fosnes was honored as All-SEC, Academic All-American, SEC champion and a prolific scorer, what makes him most proud as he looks back on his playing days at Vanderbilt?

“I am really most proud of that SEC championship team and the way we came together with a mixture of youth and experience,” said Fosnes. “That will always be No. 1. Beating Kentucky five out of eight times was a great accomplishment also. For me personally, scoring was my strength, but I was really proud of that Academic All-American stuff my junior year and unanimous choice as a senior. That was special.”

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