Retirement of a Master Builder
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 9/5/96
On September 5th, 1996, Bill Foster announced his retirement from coaching, leaving Virginia Tech with so much more than we had when he arrived five years ago. Foster will coach next season, and after the season is over, he'll turn over the job to Bobby Hussey, his main assistant, right-hand man, and a former head coach himself (18 years at Belmont Abbey College and Davidson College, for a total of 287 victories).
I've got to be honest with you, folks - I'm intimidated by the task of writing about Foster's retirement, and when it comes to writing, almost nothing intimidates me. What can you say about Bill Foster? That he's a great coach? A gentleman's gentleman? A class guy? That he comports himself on and off the court with the utmost dignity at all times? You can say all of that and yet only scratch the surface of what the man has meant to our basketball team, its players, our school, and its alumni.
The Perfect Man for the Job
I remember when Foster was hired five years ago. I read the articles and took a look at his prior coaching record, which included a history of building programs up, taking them to the NCAA's, and leaving. He seemed to enjoy the challenge of rebuilding a program, and he seemed to be very good at it, but after time he seemed to lose steam and eventually wound up moving on. So we knew what to expect when he was hired, but by that point, it was all we wanted and all we asked of him.
At that point in time, from 1987 to 1991, Coach Frankie Allen had brought the program to its knees (I don't have anything nice to say about Frankie Allen, so if you're a fan of his, you might want to skip this paragraph). By the mid-80's, Charlie Moir had built a solid, sometimes Top-20 program, but in four short years, Frankie Allen reduced the Tech basketball team to a collection of players who were poorly grounded in the fundamentals and displayed no team chemistry or cohesive game plan at all. If not for the gift of Bimbo Coles, a Moir recruit, Allen's record would have been much worse. Add to that the decline of the Metro Conference, and Tech basketball had slipped from a position of playing on the fringes of the national picture to completely disappearing from the mind of the average college basketball fan.
Enter Bill Foster. His hiring looked like a stroke of genius by Dave Braine, and time has proven that notion to be true. Foster looked like the right man for the job of restoring the Tech hoopsters to national prominence. He had a talent for making something out of nothing, which is exactly what Tech needed him to do. At age 55, we weren't asking him to coach for 30 years and compile 600 victories at Tech. We just wanted to play in the postseason again.
The Man Can Coach
The thing that impressed me first about Coach Foster was his knowledge of the game. Tech went 10-18 in Foster's first year, and although the Hokies lost a lot of ball games, Foster always knew exactly why. None of this "we just didn't get it done" or "we got outplayed" crap for Coach Foster. He would break down the exact reasons, clearly and concisely, why the Hokies lost. And in those rare occasions that Tech won, he would explain why that happened, too. You could sense that if this guy ever had the players he wanted, the sky was the limit.
As Frankie Allen's players worked their way out of the system and Foster's first recruiting class (I call them "The Great Eight") matured, the signs of Foster's coaching began to shine through. Half-court defense, which had been missing from Tech for nearly 20 years, since the beginning of Charlie Moir's coaching stint, reappeared, and the Hokies began to win with it.
Another remarkable thing about Foster's coaching ability is that above all, he seems to understand the importance of team chemistry. He recruited a rebounder (Ace), a shooter (Watlington), a low-post juker (Shawn Smith), a solid, mistake-free point guard (Shawn Good), and a center with a soft touch from the outside (Travis Jackson). Add two hustlers to the mix (the Jackson twins), and you'll eventually reach Madison Square Garden with 0.7 seconds left and the NIT championship on the line. Swish.
And whereas Frank Beamer has had membership in the Big East to help boost the performance of his football team, Foster has had no such gift. He did it without the benefit of a big-time conference, building the NIT champs as the Metro Conference crumbled into dust around him. Never mind your opinion of the Atlantic 10, because Foster's team was NIT champs before they ever played their first A-10 game.
He took us from being nothing to being ranked 8th in the country. He took us on a ride through the NIT tournament the likes of which Hokie fans hadn't seen since the last NIT championship, in 1973. He took us to prominence in the national spotlight, to the point where appearances on ESPN have almost become routine, and everybody knows who Virginia Tech and Ace Custis are. He took us back to the NCAA tournament, where we hadn't been for a decade.
I'm not going to get mushy here (although Foster himself did start to cry during the news conference yesterday, and he immediately ended it, stopping mid-sentence and sitting down). I will say that the man did everything we asked him to, and more. His work at Virginia Tech is a testament to his coaching ability and his character. Tech's success over the last three years (66 wins) is a credit to Foster, his players, and Dave Braine, the man who hired him. I'm going to miss him when he goes, and I'm sure that you are, too.
What about the future for Tech? Bobby Hussey certainly seems to be a more than capable replacement. He brings the same intelligence and knowledge of the game to the table that Foster does, in addition to 18 years of head coaching experience. Perhaps most important is that by naming him as the successor, Dave Braine has once again shown his ability as an AD by avoiding the turmoil and uncertainty that accompany a long, drawn-out search for a new coach. I've said it before and I'll say it now: continuity of coaching is one of the keys to winning in college athletics.
Hussey is 55 years old, and he took Davidson to the NCAA's twice, posting two 20-win seasons, so he knows what to do. We shouldn't expect him to produce something like the NIT championship of 1995, because that's a once-every-20 years experience. What we should expect, and what I think he'll deliver, is continued excellence on the court, and just as importantly, off the court. After the debacle of Frankie Allen's tenure, my main concern is not going backwards, and with Hussey, I think we're in safe hands.