KNOXVILLE - Texas A&M coach Gary Blair and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Jim Foster already have plenty in common.
Both have military backgrounds, Blair in the Marines and Foster in the Army. Both have won at three different schools. Each began his head coaching career outside the six major conferences.
Now they're about to share one more bond. Both are entering the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame tonight at the Bijou Theatre as part of an induction class that also includes former Mississippi player Peggie Gillom-Granderson, former Connecticut guard Jennifer Rizzotti, former Texas player Annette Smith-Knight and former Rutgers star Sue Wicks.
"I've been one of the grinders," Blair said. "I'm not a Geno [Auriemma]. I'm not a Leon Barmore. I'm not a Pat Summitt. I'm just a Gary Blair, the same type of career that Jim Foster has had. Our backgrounds are very similar, from the military on to starting at a small school to going to the BCS schools. We have plenty to still give back."
Blair is one of only three Division I coaches to lead two different teams to the Final Four, as he won a national title with A&M in 2011 and reached an NCAA semifinal with Arkansas in 1998. Blair, who also coached at Stephen F. Austin, owns a 645-263 career record in 28 seasons.
Foster and Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer, another Hall of Famer, are the only men's or women's Division I coaches to win at least 200 games at three schools. Foster went 248-126 at St. Joseph's from 1978 to '91, 256-99 at Vanderbilt from 1991 to 2002 and 279-82 at Ohio State from 2002 to '13.
Tonight's induction ceremony caps a roller-coaster year for Foster. He learned last summer he had been selected to the Hall of Fame. He was fired as Ohio State's coach in March after an 18-13 season, the only time in Foster's 11 years at the school that the Buckeyes failed to win 20 games or reach the NCAA tournament. He took over UTC's program last month.
"It's been certainly different," Foster said. "Different's a good word."
Foster will be joining plenty of familiar faces in the Hall of Fame. Auriemma and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw worked on his staffs early in their Hall of Fame careers. Through his work with USA Basketball, Foster helped coach numerous Hall of Fame players.
He also has plenty of history with Blair. They were Southeastern Conference rivals when Foster coached Vanderbilt and Blair was at Arkansas. They also faced off in the 1993 NCAA tournament, when Foster's Vanderbilt team eked out a 59-56 victory at Stephen F. Austin on its way to the Final Four.
"We were up by one with about 10 minutes to go in the game, and we were running and pressing. ... We were up and they hadn't hit a 3-pointer the whole ballgame," Blair said. "And all of a sudden, our shot clock goes out for 15 minutes, and Foster's over there just relaxed. All of a sudden, I've lost the momentum. ... They came back, hit two 3s and we ended up losing the game."
Blair and Foster aren't the only active college head coaches in this year's induction class.
Rizzotti has gone 255-150 and made six NCAA tournament appearances in 14 seasons as Hartford's coach, but she's entering the Hall of Fame because of her accomplishments as a player. The 5-foot-6 point guard played on Connecticut's 1995 national championship team and was the AP national player of the year in 1996.
"I was a fighter," Rizzotti said. "I never allowed anything to get in my way. I never allowed my size -- I never used it as an excuse. I found ways from within to compete. I felt like I wanted my playing career to be defined as a player who worked harder than everybody else, was willing to go through a wall and would have the biggest heart on the floor. I feel that's how a lot of people remember me. It makes me happy."
Gillom-Granderson, Smith-Knight and Wicks are the top career scorers at their respective schools.
Smith-Knight scored 2,523 points in her college career and led Texas to a 34-0 record and a national championship in 1986. Wicks won the 1988 Naismith national player of the year award and has the most career points (2,655) and rebounds (1,357) of any men's or women's player in Rutgers history.
Gillom-Granderson played at Mississippi from 1976 to '80 and remains the school's career leader in both points (2,486) and rebounds (1,271). She enters the Hall of Fame four years after the induction of her sister, former Mississippi star and current Connecticut Sun assistant coach Jennifer Gillom.
Although the Sun hosted the Washington Mystics in WNBA action Friday night, Gillom is expected to make it to Knoxville in time for her sister's induction ceremony.
"That's special," Gillom-Granderson said. "That's extra special."