The firing of coaches is met with a wide range of emotions by fans, with some firings eliciting happiness and shouts of “good riddance” from the fans while others spark anger in the fans for the loss of a beloved coach. The announcement that Jim Foster would not be returning as the head coach of the Ohio State women’s basketball team was met with a more complex set of emotions by many, including myself. My feelings regarding Foster’s firing would best be described as bittersweet. Foster was a great coach, and even better person, who markedly improved the women’s basketball program. At the same time, despite Foster’s dominance in the Big Ten he was never able to get the team to take the next step and the past three seasons had seen a decline even in the performance in conference.
As WVaBuckeye pointed out in the excellent first part of his series on Ohio State women’s basketball’s history of success, the Buckeyes dominated the Big Ten in the early days of the conference sponsoring the sport in the 1980s, also enjoying a run of NCAA tournament success during those years. By the late 1990s that dominance in the conference had evaporated, along with pretty much all of the postseason success. In the five years before Foster arrived, OSU had an overall record of 81-65 but went 35-45 in the Big Ten and never finished higher than a tie for fourth place in the conference. The Buckeyes did win the WNIT in 2001 but a sub-.500 record the following year led to the firing of Beth Burns as head coach and the hiring of Jim Foster.
When Jim Foster was hired, he was an established coach who had enjoyed success in previous stops at St. Joseph’s (PA) and Vanderbilt. At Vanderbilt Foster had led the Commodores to the 1993 Final Four and had enjoyed two additional appearances in the Elite Eight and three more in the Sweet 16 over a seven year span. Despite his success at Vandy, Foster always hated being second fiddle in his own state to Pat Summit and Tennessee and the offer from Ohio State gave him a chance to be the premier program in his state.
Foster had an immediate impact at Ohio State; in his first season at the helm he guided the Buckeyes to a 22-10 record, a fourth place finish in the Big Ten, and an appearance in the Big Ten tournament title where they lost a close game to Purdue. OSU would earn a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and advance to the second round before losing to host school Louisiana Tech, who at that time was still a minor power in the sport. Ohio State’s upswing would continue from there as the Buckeyes finished 3rd in the Big Ten the next year and then finished tied for first in the 2004-2005 season, earning them a share of their first conference title since 1993. That conference title would start a Big Ten record setting run of six straight regular season conference titles for the Buckeyes. Big Ten tournament success would come the following year as OSU won the 2006 Big Ten Tournament, their first ever, and then would go on to win three straight in 2009, 2010, and 2011.
So how why would you fire a coach that had won six regular season and four Big Ten tournament titles while compiling an overall record of 279-82 and why would fans be calling for this move? There were two key factors that led up to the eventual firing of Jim Foster. The first was a general decline in the team’s performance over the past three seasons. After winning the Big Ten for six straight years, OSU finished in a tie for third place in the 2010-2011 season, though that was made up for mostly by winning the Big Ten tournament. Last year the Buckeyes finished in a tie for second place in the conference but a gap was starting to appear between them and some of the other top teams in the conference. The bottom then fell out this season as the Buckeyes finished 9th in the conference with a sub-.500 record. The second reason for Foster’s firing was that despite his generally good performance in the Big Ten tournament, he struggled to achieve success in the NCAA tournament. OSU made the big dance in the first 10 years under Foster but only made it to the Sweet 16 three times and never advanced further than that. While all three of those losses in the Sweet 16 were to good or great teams, and weren’t really unexpected, the bigger problem was that the Buckeyes suffered several first weekend losses to teams that they should beat, including three first round losses, and never beat a team that they were expected to lose to.
In the end, the decision to let Jim Foster go was the right one. In recent years the team’s performance had been slipping and it seemed that the game was possibly passing Foster by. Additionally, Foster never matched the postseason success he had at Vanderbilt and when you are a coach at a place that has the resources that Ohio State does, conference success is not enough, you have to also perform well on a national stage. Foster built some incredibly talented teams but by the time the NCAA tournament rolled around those teams seemed to be worn down and they underperformed.
Foster’s Ohio State Legacy
Despite the unfortunate end to his time at Ohio State, Jim Foster leaves behind a rich legacy that should be remembered and celebrated by OSU and Buckeye fans everywhere. Foster took a program that was at best a middle-of-the-road Big Ten program and returned them to the dominance that they had previously enjoyed in the conference. He led OSU to a record 6 straight Big Ten regular season titles and 4 Big Ten tournament titles over 11 years; his four tournament titles is the most of any coach in Big Ten history. During his time in Columbus, Foster led the Buckeyes to an overall record of 279-82, giving him more wins than any other OSU coach; Foster won 77% of his games at Ohio State which is also the best winning percentage of any coach in program history. While Foster will also be remembered for his struggles in the NCAA tournament, he did lead the Buckeyes to 10 of their 21 tournament appearance and the streak of 10 in a row was the longest in program history.
The success of Foster’s teams wasn’t just due to his coaching; much credit also has to do with the caliber of players that he recruited. While some people criticized Foster for being lazy when it came to recruiting, he did land several players who will go down in Ohio State and Big Ten history. Foster recruits Jessica Davenport, Jantel Lavender, Samantha Prahalis, and Tayler Hill have rewritten major parts of the Ohio State and Big Ten record books with all five of them ending up in the top 5 for career scoring at OSU. Lavender became the first, and so far only, player from a BCS conference in football, men’s basketball, or women’s basketball to be named Conference Player of the Year four straight years. Lavender would combine with Davenport and Prahalis to create a streak of 8 straight years where a Buckeye won the Big Ten Player of the Year award. The achievements of Foster’s players carried into the classroom and his emphasis on education was reflected in the fact that nearly every player who ever played for him during his entire career graduated college.
My Memories of Foster
I was a sophomore at Ohio State when Jim Foster was hired and was very excited about his hiring and the better days that I expected it to bring. As a member of the athletic band which played at women’s basketball games, along with men’s basketball and hockey, I got an up close view of the success of the team and sort of got to go along for the ride as I traveled with the team to Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Many of my favorite memories of my time at Ohio State come from the women’s basketball team under Jim Foster and those good memories continued even after I graduated.
It is tough to rank my favorite moments of the women’s basketball team under Foster as there were so many. My favorite would probably be the team winning the Big Ten regular season championship my senior year. OSU had to win its last regular season game, a home match against Penn State, to earn a share of the Big Ten title that year. That game proved to be a special event as it was the first, and so far only, sellout of the Schott for a women’s basketball, this set a Big Ten women’s basketball attendance record that will probably never be broken by another school. The sellout crowd got to enjoy a Buckeye victory that day and then got to watch as Foster and the team cut down the nets and lifted the Big Ten trophy.
My second favorite memory came the year after I graduate from OSU. I traveled down to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament that year and thanks to some connections, got to watch the championship game from the floor as the band and cheerleader photographer. Ohio State jumped out to a huge first half lead over Purdue and looked poised to coast to their first ever tournament title but the Boilermakers made a ferocious second half rally to erase a 17 point halftime deficit to make the final 10 minutes of the game a tight, back-and-forth affair. With the game tied at 60 with forty seconds left, Buckeye guard Marscilla Packer got the ball in the corner and sank the game winning three-pointer to give OSU the 63-60 victory and the tournament crown.
Another one of my favorite memories occurred off the court my senior year when Ohio State traveled to College Park, Maryland for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Foster took the team out early and took them to Washington DC where they visited the Vietnam Memorial. Foster was a Vietnam vet who had actually signed up for a second tour of duty in order to keep his brother from having to go to Vietnam. I do not know what was said at the Memorial but stories from the team afterward seemed to indicate that it was a very moving experience that had a major impact on them. To me this moment was the perfect example about how Foster cared about more than just winning basketball games.
Ohio State now turns their attention to finding Foster’s replacement and athletic director Gene Smith has promised a national search to begin immediately, frankly I assume a national search is a given for any new OSU head coach in any sport. This will be a crucial hire as the program is positioned well to continue to improve and truly become a national power in women’s basketball. The Midwest produces lots of women’s basketball talent and a good, energetic coach combined with Ohio State’s resources should be able to exploit that talent pool to put together a team that can compete for national titles. The recent retirement of coaching legend Pat Summit at Tennessee has also opened up the recruiting game in the middle of the country and the Buckeyes can take advantage of this. In the next week or two, look for an article that will examine some of the top possibilities for the next OSU head coach.
Despite how Foster’s career ended, his contributions to Ohio State women’s basketball are truly remarkable and deserve recognition from not only the fans but also the athletic department. Foster deserves a place in the Ohio State Hall of Fame and hopefully we will see him inducted very soon. On a personal note I would like to thank Foster for all he did for the program and all the great memories that he provided me and other fans over the years and I wish him the best of luck in whatever his future holds.