One day after his team failed to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time in his 11-year tenure and just days before the school is slated to host the opening rounds of the tournament in Columbus, Ohio State announced that women's basketball head coach Jim Foster would not be back at the helm next season.
The Columbus Dispatch reported that the Hall-of-Fame coach had been fired. However, the Ohio State announcement did not specify whether Foster had been fired or had resigned or retired. Ohio State associate vice president and athletic director Gene Smith ducked requests to clarify that question, Foster himself declined media requests for comment on the announcement and Miechelle Willis, the Ohio State executive associate athletic director who directly oversees the women's basketball program, described the move as a "mutual agreement."
If the parting of the ways was involuntarily, it could be costly for the school. Foster had four years left on his contract and was the league’s highest-paid coach with a salary of $789,350 this past season.
At a brief news conference, Willis added, "In summary, Gene [Smith] and I met with Coach Foster this morning, and it was decided that Jim would no longer return as the head coach for our women's basketball program. ... We are still ironing out the details of the ...." Willis then paused, fumbling for words, before continuing, "of the end of Jim's career here, and all I can say is that he will no longer be our coach."
Willis described Foster's demeanor as "very stoic" throughout the meeting.
The move was at one and the same time both shocking and unsurprising. Shocking simply because of Foster’s impressive record at the school. His Buckeye teams won 77.2 percent of their games (279-82), claimed six consecutive Big-Ten regular-season championships and four Big-Ten Tournament championships and made a school-record 10 consecutive NCAA-tournament appearances. Foster was named the conference's coach of the year four times.
Foster's record of success antedates his arrival in Columbus: He is one of only two coaches - men's or women's at any level - to win at least 200 games at three different schools (Saint Joseph's, Vanderbilt and Ohio State). Over the course of his 35 years as a collegiate head coach, Foster compiled a 783-207 record and took his team to the NCAA tournament in 26 of the 28 years the tournament has been played, including an exceptional run of 13 back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. He is the eighth-winningest coach in Division I as measured by total wins. Foster has also been a mainstay of USA Basketball's developmental programs and served as an assistant coach on the bronze-medal-winning 1992 U.S. Women's Olympic Team (Barcelona) and the gold-medal 1990 World Championship Team.
At the same time, however, Foster's departure was not terribly surprising given the combination of the Buckeyes' poor season this year (Ohio State finished 18-13 overall, but had his first losing season in the Big Ten, going 7-9), combined with longer-standing rumblings over his failures in the postseason, particularly at the NCAA tournament. In seven of his 10 NCAA tournament outings, Foster's teams have been upset in either the first or second rounds and the Buckeyes have never advanced past the Sweet 16. The lowlight of his tenure came in 2007 when his fourth-seeded Buckeyes lost to then unheralded and No. 13-seeded Marist in the first round of the tournament.
Pressed for an explanation of the reasons underlying Foster's departure, Willis acknowledged that ""there has been some discussion with the postseason production, or lack thereof."
The move was also unsurprising because in recent years the Buckeyes have clearly been a troubled bunch. The 2010-11 Buckeye team, anchored by four-time Big-Ten Player of the Year Jantel Lavender (the only male or female basketball player to accompilsh that feat in conference history) and fiery point guard Samantha Prahalis, both of whom have since gone on to career in the WNBA, underwent well-publicized stint of internal conflicts, accompanied by a midseason losing stretch that lasted long enough to put an end to OSU's six-year grip on the Big Ten regular-season championship. The team did regroup in time to capture the conference tournament title, however, but fell to Tennessee in the Sweet 16.
Last year, the Buckeyes showed more cohesion but failed to nail either the regular-season or the conference tournament titles, and their postseason ended with an early exit in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
For much of the season, this year's edition of the Buckeyes seemed to be going through the motions, leading arch-rival Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant to note that “they don’t always play hard.”
In fairness, however, the team was plagued by nagging injuries and illnesses, so much so that after suffering the double indignity of failing to make the NCAA Tournament field Monday despite serving as a host for the first two rounds starting this coming weekend, Foster declined the consolation prize of a trip to the WNIT. “We just have a couple kids that have put off some things that they need to have done medically and to ask them to do it a couple more weeks, just to me the players are more important than that,” Foster explained.
In his statement announcing Foster's departure, Smith spoke glowingly of Foster’s academic success, commitment to the school and community and his treatment of the basketball players. "Jim Foster has meant so much to so many over his career," Smith said. "His work in mentoring young people on and off the court has been exceptional. The Ohio State women's basketball program was made better under Jim's leadership over the last 11 years. He and (wife) Donna have been wonderful representatives of our university and we wish them the best."
Willis, too, said all the right things. "I have known Jim for more than 25 years," she stated in a written released by the University (which did not include any comment from Foster). "We go way back to his days at St. Joseph's and mine at Temple. I have always had all the respect in the world for Jim's basketball mind and commitment to the development of young women in his programs. His contributions to women's basketball have been recognized nationally throughout his career. I am really appreciative of the 11 years that Jim has devoted to The Ohio State University."
Yet, at the end of the day, as impressive as it was by many measures, Foster simply failed to meet the University's expectations for success on the court. In another context, Smith has acknowledged that his coaches are judged mainly on their winning records: “That’s what we do. We want to win every contest.”
Willis also made clear that the school's expected more out of Foster's replacement. "We need to get to the level where we want to be. We expect to be in the Final Four -- on occasion. And definitely, the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight are expectations that we have. And we're just looking for someone who can come in and do that, develop the kids to get there."
The heavy weight attached to winning it all is evident in the school’s treatment of Foster when it is compared to their treatment of former football coach Jim Tressel. Foster’s teams excelled in the classroom and there was never a hint of scandal associated with his program. But he didn’t win enough and now he is out. Tressel’s teams were plagued by scandal, culminating in numerous NCAA violations which left his program ineligible for bowl games this past season. But though he was ultimately asked to resign, Tressel was treated as a returning hero during an appearance at an OSU game in 2012.
According to Smith, the search for Foster's replacement has already begun, and because of the salary the school is willing to pay, this should be the premier job opening this offseason. Some are already speculating that Buckeye great Katie Smith, who is nearing the end of her WNBA career, might be invited back to Columbus. But it's unlikely that the school will hire anything less than a proven head coach. It was a surprise when Ohio State lured Foster away from Vanderbilt. The next hire may well be just as surprising.
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