Wiedmer: Foster and Auriemma could open a pals' hall of fame

UTC coach Jim Foster and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma before the game Monday, November 30, 2015 at McKenzie Arena.

They first met over lunch at Montgomery County (Pa.) Community College more than 40 years ago. Jim Foster was just back from Vietnam and searching for his future. Geno Auriemma was a few years younger, an Italian immigrant with a stubborn streak.

"We were trying to put together an intramural basketball team," Foster said Sunday as he prepared his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team for Monday night's game against Auriemma's top-ranked Connecticut Huskies. "And we were both playing on the team."

Now both have reached the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame as coaches after Auriemma initially assisted Foster at high school and college stops, and they've remained the closest of friends, their lives intersecting during holidays, vacations and any other time they can get together. They're so close that Auriemma's daughter named her first two sons Christian and Andrew, which also are the names of the Fosters' two sons.

"We're not together as often as we'd like," Foster said. "But when we are, all we do is laugh. And it's the kind of laughter that makes your stomach hurt."

Monday night inside McKenzie Arena was no laughing matter for UTC. Auriemma's three-time defending NCAA champion Huskies methodically and masterfully wore down Foster's feisty Mocs, winning 79-31, their fourth win in four outings this season by 40 or more points.

Said Auriemma: "We knew this was going to be a different kind of game. Grind it out. One possession at a time. (But) when we play defense like we played defense in the second half, it's hard to play against us."

Countered Foster: "This is the best basketball program that women's basketball has ever seen. Their intensity and their attention to detail is refreshing. As a coach, it's a pleasure to watch."

It marked the fourth straight time Auriemma has beaten his mentor after Foster won the first three meetings earlier in their careers.

But for all the UConn's coach's preposterous success - only the late UCLA men's coaching legend John Wooden can match Auriemma's 10 NCAA titles to date - he told the New Haven Register of Foster convincing him to be an assistant on his Bishop McDevitt High School girls' basketball staff: "Who's to say where I would have ended up had he not convinced me to work with him at that high school? Sometimes fate has a way of taking you places that you had no idea you were ever going to go to."

Said Foster of that long-ago hire: "I knew (Geno) was going to be successful. But I really had to talk him into (coaching). We both had to grow and survive."

Auriemma recalled growing and surviving as Foster's assistant for two years at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia and how Foster initially eschewed scouting opponents because Wooden didn't believe much in scouting during UCLA's dynastic run of 10 NCAA crowns in 12 seasons.

"(Jim) thought that what we did as a team was way more important than what the other team did, and I agree with him there," Auriemma wrote in an email. "He said that Wooden never scouted. So I came to practice one day and I was looking for (former UCLA greats) Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and (Gail) Goodrich and all those guys and I didn't see them. So I said to Jim, 'I think we better start scouting.'"

Foster smiled at the memory.

"It wasn't that I didn't believe in scouting," he said. "But in those days you had to travel to a game to scout somebody. I watch a lot of tape, but there wasn't much tape available. We had a $1,000 recruiting budget. I couldn't see spending it on scouting instead of recruiting."

That wasn't the first time they'd had a difference of opinion.

During those Montgomery County Community College days, the two found their intramural team facing a team of convicts from Graterford Prison.

"These were real tough guys," Foster said. "This was no ordinary pickup game. But Geno was determined to drive it inside against them, and every time he did, they kept smacking him to the ground. I kept saying, 'They're going to kill you,' but he wouldn't stop. Finally, they just crushed him. Somehow Geno got up, went to the locker room and never came back."

Auriemma recalled a vacation when his family, the Fosters and St. Joe's men's coach Phil Martelli's family were all staying in the same beach house - one family on each of the home's three levels - and everyone feared Foster might not come back from a bike ride.

"I think he thought he was going to be the next Greg LeMond back then," Auriemma said. "All of a sudden, he just left and went for like a three-hour bike ride. We were like 'Really? We don't have enough problems with our own kids, and now we have to watch yours, too?'"

That said, he's also proud of what Foster has taught him beyond basketball.

"The greatest things I learned from Jim Foster are to play great defense, share the ball, talk and then drink great wine and eat great food after a game and then try to find a great cigar," he said. "Those things are still staples for me."

As Auriemma wrapped up his postgame time at the podium, he recalled a time he had to watch a Foster-coached Vanderbilt team bury one of his early UConn teams in a tournament in Hilton Head.

"I did the best thing I could do to help my team," he said with a grin. "I got thrown out of the game."

A few minutes later, it was Foster's turn to meet the media and someone asked him if he recalled that distant victory over his best buddy.

"Those are a lot easier to talk about when you're up 50 than when you're down 50," he replied.

Either way, their latest meeting done, it's likely both men left McKenzie in search of some great food, great wine and a great cigar, all of it hopefully washed down with enough laughter to make their stomachs hurt.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at miedmer@timesfreepress.com.