Since its first appearance in 1974, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women’s basketball program has upheld a tradition of skill and success. Now under the direction of third-year head coach Jim Foster, the team continues to expand its achievements and challenge the top teams in the country. Foster’s rich history in the sport, consistent coaching style, and confidence in his players’ abilities create a winning combination for the Mocs to build their past success into an even more impressive future.
Finding a Leader
Following former head coach Wes Moore’s departure for North Carolina State, UTC athletic director David Blackburn was tasked with hiring a new women’s basketball coach immediately after being hired himself in 2013. “The first thing I did was meet with the girls,” Blackburn explains. “Within a minute of my walking in the room, I sensed a very experienced, tough-minded, talented group. They had a swagger about them before we even began dialogue, so I knew we needed a coach with experience.” They needed Jim Foster.
UTC’s established degree of success (they’ve won 14 SoCon titles since 2000, including 11 straight, and have made 11 appearances in the NCAA Tournament), coupled with an energetic athletic director, assured coach Foster that UTC was the right fit for him. Foster brought with him a decorated history in basketball and a passion for coaching that’s never waned. In his more than three decades as a head coach, he’s led four teams to 28 NCAA Tournament appearances, notched more than 800 wins, and been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
According to Foster, his passion for the game is inspired by the youth he interacts with. “I enjoy college-aged athletes because I think the process of what’s going through their heads is interesting, entertaining, and somewhat pliable,” Foster says. “I’m hanging out with people on a daily basis that keep you engaged and keep your mind young.”
According to Blackburn, coach Foster knew he was inheriting a program with a solid foundation and one supported by people who understood the importance of shaping and continuing a legacy. “He felt good about Chattanooga, and he felt good about inheriting what [former head coach] Wes Moore had built,” Blackburn says. “He felt like he could take it and build upon it, and he’s done that.”
Foster maintains that part of what positions him to improve and develop the program is his experience in a variety of situations. He served as head coach at St. Joseph’s, Vanderbilt, and Ohio State, all storied basketball programs with an expectation of victory. He also recognizes that coaches can get comfortable in a certain place, and that it can affect the forward momentum of a program.
“The goal is to maximize the players we have, get them to be as good as they can be, and roll from there.”
“It was easy to see the strengths of the players here, and because of that, it was easy for me to walk in and figure out the subtle changes I would make,” says Foster. “You’re looking through a different set of eyes. The strengths are apparent, and you don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time in those areas. Wes had a philosophy that was successful, but maybe I want to use one player a little differently than he did. That’s just a nuance of how you look at the game or how you look at that group of individuals.”
Developing Skills On and Off the Court
Moving into his third season as head coach, Foster is maintaining a focus on fundamental skills. He cites legendary basketball coach Pete Newell, saying that basketball is an over-coached and under-taught game. He constantly reminds his team to keep their vital abilities sharp, and he’s ready to see how they can bring their skills together to form a cohesive unit. “The goal is to maximize the players we have, get them to be as good as they can be, and roll from there,” says Foster. Foster holds his players accountable for a high level of effort and performance every day. In recruiting, he zeroes in on key personality traits that he feels are just as important as physical displays of skill on the court. He looks for tough-minded, hard-working players who can live up to his expectations of effort and selflessness in their game. “I think to be successful here you have to get the right kind of person. If you make the right decision about who they are, getting them to start working toward who they can be is a lot easier,” says Foster.
Blackburn and Foster both value the development of their athletes on the court, in the classroom, and in life. “I think the mission of athletics is to equip our student athletes to be successful wherever they are,” Blackburn says. Coach Foster is of a similar opinion. He believes skills learned during their time as players directly transfer to success beyond college. “I think student-athletes, when they finish the process, have a much better awareness about time, prioritizing, and working for the common good,” he says.
Foster has witnessed many of his former players move on to excel in basketball, but whether it’s in the realm of sports or not, he’s proud of their accomplishments. “I couldn’t be happier to see people I’ve worked with or who have played for me go on to have success and enjoy what they do as a career,” he says. “It’s fun to see those you spent so much time with and were so invested in having success, whether it’s as a coach, player, or entrepreneur.”
Tough Opponents, Challenges Await
The Mocs’ 2014-2015 season was a strong one: their final record was 29-4, and they tallied a 25-game win streak, the third longest in the school’s history. The team had the 27th toughest schedule in the nation, but they were still able to notch big wins over the University of Tennessee, ranked fourth at the time, and Stanford, ranked seventh. They cracked the AP Top 25 in January and propelled up the ranks, eventually reaching 17th, the highest national ranking in school history. And thanks to a loyal fan base, paired with the impressive athleticism on the court, UTC led the Southern Conference in attendance for the 2014-2015 season and ranked 68th in the nation with an average attendance of 2,177.
Statistics charted during this exciting last season prove that Foster and his team are on track to take the program to a new level of success. Starting forward Jasmine Joyner’s performance last season ranked her fifth in the nation for blocked shots with a Southern Conference record of 132. Starting guard Alicia Payne finished last season with the leading Southern Conference assist-turnover ratio of 2.39, ranking her 19th nationally.
Media company Athlon Sports has the UTC women ranked 22nd in their preseason poll. The team was also picked to win a fourth straight SoCon title, according to the league’s coaches poll. But Foster isn’t focusing on preseason predictions. “Despite all the reputation, talk, and expectations, it’s still about the performance on that particular day and developing players that want to see how good they can get,” says Foster.
With a strong group of starters returning, fans can look forward to a successful senior performance from Payne and another impressive year from Joyner, now a junior. Sophomore guard/forward Keiana Gilbert and junior guard Chelsey Shumpert should showcase a deeper mastery of their skills that will be evident in their game and allow them to be more engaged on the court. Joyner, Shumpert, and Payne were named preseason All-Conference and Joyner is the preseason SoCon Player of the Year.
There will be new additions to watch for this season as well. Queen Alford, a transfer who sat out last season, is poised to make an impact at guard. Expect to see valuable minutes from her as well as Ansley Chilton, a redshirt sophomore forward, and Ashlyn Wert, a redshirt freshman forward. Foster says all three players have greatly improved their game and it’s time to show it.
The Mocs will face a challenge in their 2015-2016 season right away as they host defending National Champions and preseason number one Connecticut. The visit from this perennial powerhouse will bring a familiar face to town: UConn’s renowned head coach, Geno Auriemma, who coached with Foster at St. Joseph’s. But the imminent arrival of the talented UConn squad and his former assistant Auriemma to McKenzie Arena doesn’t faze Foster.
“We have the best team in the country coming here. You can’t argue with that,” Foster says. “Schools our size don’t play schedules like this. It’s a great opportunity for Chattanooga and a great opportunity for our players.”
With a new season kicking off, the team is set to build and grow from last season’s triumphs. It’s a task both Foster and Blackburn are ready to take on. “Our team is good enough to go toe-to-toe with most any team in America,” Blackburn says. “I’m not saying we’re going to win, but we like the challenge, and we’re good enough to take it on.”