COLLEGE PARK -- Suggest to Ohio State women's basketball coach Jim Foster that his life and career paths aren't exactly out of the coaching map book and he doesn't disagree.
How could he? You could hold the meeting of the coaches in men's or women's basketball who have done a tour of duty in Vietnam, taken a turn running a group home for neglected and dependent teens in Washington, as well as some time spent mixing drinks behind a bar in a phone booth.
"It's not the player-graduate assistant-third assistant-second assistant," said Foster with a grin the other day. "It's not that route. The road's a little windier, and there's some bends."
You'll have to look carefully for Foster tonight, as the Buckeyes (29-4), the second seed in the Philadelphia Regional, meet seventh-seeded Maryland at Comcast Center, because, unlike some of his contemporaries, the limelight won't naturally find him.
It's a guarantee that Foster won't look either as dapper or as self-reverential as Connecticut's Geno Auriemma. And his stare onto the floor, while intense, won't burn holes in his players the way Tennessee's Pat Summitt's will.
With his trademark sweater and glasses hanging around his neck, Foster, 56, looks more the part of the rumpled college professor and less a frenzied coach. All that's missing is the tweed jacket with the patches on the elbows.
"He's the best teacher-coach that I have seen," said Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger yesterday. "He's a master teacher. He absolutely understands people, he understands the game, and he teaches it. He's a basketball philosopher, because he's a life philosopher. He's an interesting guy. He reads books, he goes to the most interesting movies. He's politically very tuned into life in these United States. He's as good a friend as I've ever had in the business. It's a joy to be with him."
In a sport that is taking on more of the negatives of the men's game, what with backbiting and sniping from all corners, Foster, in his third year in Columbus after stops at Saint Joseph's and Vanderbilt, is one of the most respected coaches in the business, fielding calls from athletic directors for advice about coaching prospects at their schools.
"Jim has stood the test of time, and that's what we all have to do at this stage of the game," said Penn State coach Rene Portland, whom Foster followed at Saint Joseph's. "There are so many changes. Kids are changing, budgets are changing, demands are changing. We just keep on coaching. There's a group that just hangs in there and knows what we bring to the table for the student-athlete is good. Jim fits that mold, in that what he brings to the student-athlete is good."
What Foster has brought to his players is a wealth of knowledge from a life lived outside the basketball box.
"We're all a reflection of our experiences," said Foster. "Obviously, mine are different than most people in this business. I think all of those experiences were good ones, taught me a lot and prepared me for what I am doing."
Foster grew up in the Philadelphia area, enlisting in the Army in 1967 after a year out of high school to earn money under the G.I. Bill to go to college. He was shipped out to Vietnam for a one-year stint but re-enlisted for six more months in the summer of 1968, so that one of his younger brothers could avoid going there, according to the Ohio State alumni magazine.
When he returned to the States in 1969, Foster came to Washington and ran a teen group home for 4 1/2 years, bouncing from there to a Philly-area junior college, then to Temple before he was an assistant boys basketball coach at an area high school.
After two years of coaching boys, Foster began coaching the girls team at the high school and has been a fixture in women's basketball ever since. Surely, with a resume that includes 576 wins in 27 collegiate seasons, 20 postseason appearances and a trip to the Final Four in 1993 with Vanderbilt, Foster could have long left the women's game for the lucre of the men's game.
That would be the normal path for some, but Foster isn't the normal coach.
"What you see is what you get, and I think my players understand that," said Foster. "They understand that in the recruiting process. I'm not saying what a lot of other coaches are saying on the telephone, and I'm not talking about a lot of things that other coaches are talking about on the telephone. Therefore, I get players that I want to coach and players that want to play for me. I'm very content to continue that process."
Last Friday, Foster took his Ohio State players down to the National Mall, but hardly for a tourist trip. They visited the Lincoln Memorial, as well as the Korean War Veterans and National World War II memorials.
While inspecting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Foster showed his players the name of someone whom he had gone to high school with who lost his life in combat. It's the kind of lesson that resonates far beyond learning how to come off the pick-and-roll.
"Twenty years ago, I played for him, and at the time, you don't realize why he's doing things or saying things," said Debbie Black, who led the nation in steals for three seasons playing for Foster at Saint Joseph's. "And now, you piece things together and you say, "Wow, he taught me some valuable things.' "