Wiedmer: Foster will feel at home in our city, UTC's arena

Wiedmer: Foster will feel at home in our city, UTC's arena

May 11th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Former Ohio State coach Jim Foster is the coach of the UTC women's basketball team.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

A couple of hours before he was introduced as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's new women's basketball coach Friday afternoon, Jim Foster and his wife Donna were driving around the Bluff View Art District when they spotted a large metal sculpture that looked somewhat familiar.

"I think that's a Russell Whiting sculpture," Donna said. "Kind of like the ones we have at home, only much larger."

Indeed, a quick phone call to the prestigious A Muse Gallery back in Columbus, Ohio, confirmed Donna's hunch. Chattanooga was feeling more comfortable and familiar by the minute.

"This was our weekend getaway from Nashville when I was at Vanderbilt," said Foster, the Hall of Fame coach who already has won 783 games during stints at St. Joseph's, Vandy and Ohio State.

"We'd have coffee and sandwiches at Rembrandt's, dinner at Tony's Pasta or the Back Inn Café. Tour the art galleries. A perfect weekend."

Now they'll call it home, at least partly because we've always made them feel at home, from those 1990s Southeastern Conference tournaments inside McKenzie Arena forward.

Home. It means different things to different people. For some it's four walls and a roof. For some it's a general place, a town, a region, a state. For some it's family. For others it's a state of mind, where old, good times are not forgotten.

For the Fosters, it's a little of each. He won SEC tourney titles with the Commodores inside McKenzie in 1993 and 1995, and there's no reason to doubt that he'll add a few more Southern Conference regular-season crowns for the Lady Mocs atop that same court

Continued domination of the SoCon would also mean he'll quite possibly improve on the tremendous legacy of the man he replaces, Wes Moore, who actually spent three days at the Fosters' Ohio home a few years ago watching OSU practices and picking the Buckeyes boss's brains.

Perhaps recalling Foster's 1995 SEC tourney crown over UT inside the same arena where Moore's Lady Mocs toppled the Lady Vols last fall, longtime UTC booster Pam Henry half-joked with assistant Katie Burrows, whom Foster will retain: "I was concerned you'd have to teach someone how to beat Tennessee, but he already knows."

It's all so overwhelming, spectacular and somewhat unbelievable that you wonder if the Mary Poppins term "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" isn't the only word grand enough to describe it.

Moreover, it instantly elevates new UTC athletic director David Blackburn's credibility and reputation to something approaching bronze statue status -- think Whiting would be available? -- less than three weeks into his job.

Think anyone's worried now about Blackburn's decisions being tinted Clorox Orange from his previous two-plus decades at Tennessee? When you can hire a Hall of Fame women's coach whose constant goal it was to defeat UT, you've proven your sole concern is for the school that signs your paychecks.

The only question now is whom Blackburn hires to top this for the still-vacant men's job. Bob Knight? Out-of-work former UCLA coach Ben Howland, who's been to three Final Fours? Former Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, he of the 10 NBA titles?

Lastly, for those few silly souls who fear the 64-year-old Foster is here only to cash a final paycheck or two before retiring, the man who's reached a Final Four, four Elite Eights and 26 NCAA tourneys in 28 years prior to last season still loves piling up the W's.

"I love competing. I love winning. I love being around young people. I love watching them grow," he said.

Yet because Foster has come to Chattanooga, it must also be said that he never loved being around any young person more than the late Henry Davenport, the unofficial mascot of both UTC and Foster's Commodores teams during the 1990s who died in 2005 at the tender age of 40.

As gently as this can be written, Davenport was mentally challenged. His loud, passionate cries of "Where's the defense?" and "Who's got the middle?" could wear on friend and foe alike at sporting events. His karaoke performances at David's pub were legendary.

But Foster had grown up with two mentally challenged siblings, and he befriended Davenport as soon as they met.

"Henry had a unique and simplistic way of looking at things," Foster said. "He gave you another view of life."

We could all use another view of life, so here's an idea for UTC and Foster to foster going forward:

On a mid-December weekend each season, host the Henry Davenport Invitational. Invite Vanderbilt and two other Tennessee colleges. Earmark at least half the revenue -- or all the profits, whichever is greater -- earned from tickets and concessions for the Orange Grove Center. Invite area choirs to perform Christmas carols at halftime of each game. Knowing the money is for a charity, the NCAA could brand it an "exempt" event, which means it would count only one game against a team's schedule. Can anyone think of a better Christmas gift and lesson for our community?

Asked on Friday what Davenport had taught him, Foster said, "Don't predetermine where you'll get your wisdom."

Or, as Blackburn is skillfully teaching us, where you'll find your next coach.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com