CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Chattanooga's Jim Foster is on the verge of joining a select group of coaches.
A victory Saturday over Samford would make Foster just the 11th NCAA women's basketball coach with 800 career wins. Foster would be the first in the 800-win club to coach four different schools.
Foster is downplaying the milestone, because like most coaches he doesn't like to think beyond the next game. Foster remembers his previous milestone victories mostly for how they affected his team.
"The one that sticks out in my mind more than any other was the 500th," Foster said. "It was the semifinals of the SEC tournament. We beat Arkansas by two or four points or something (81-78) to go play LSU in the finals. That was my last year at Vanderbilt. ... We ended up with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament that year. If we'd lost the game, we wouldn't have had a No. 1 seed."
The only women's coaches with 800 wins are former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt (1,098-208), North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell (925-324), Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer (915-336), Stanford's Tara VanDerveer (911-204), former Texas coach Jody Conradt (900-309), Bentley's Barbara Stevens (899-246), Connecticut's Geno Auriemma (859-133), Georgia's Andy Landers (837-280), Montana's Robin Selvig (808-261) and Scranton's Michael Strong (803-180). Stevens seeks her 900th victory Saturday when Bentley hosts St. Anselm in a Division II game.
Foster is 799-310 in his 36-year career. Foster and Stringer are the only men's or women's college coaches to win at least 200 games at three different schools. Foster went 248-126 at St. Joseph's from 1978-91, 256-99 at Vanderbilt from 1991-2002 and 279-82 at Ohio State from 2002-13. He is 16-3 in his first season at Chattanooga.
"I think by any measure, he's had a phenomenal career," said Auriemma, who began his coaching career working for Foster. "He's done it at a high level, and he's done it the right way, where he gets the right kind of people in his program, and he makes sure they graduate and he makes sure they play the way the game is supposed to be played."
Foster said he was on an eighth-grade CYO team when he got his first coaching assignment.
"The coach got frustrated and quit," Foster said. "The parish priest told me I was the coach the rest of the year. I was a player-coach at 13."
Those humble beginnings launched a Hall of Fame career. Not only is he good at developing players, Foster also knows how to train promising coaches.
Auriemma was his assistant, first at the high school level and later at St. Joseph's. They remain close friends, and Foster told the story last week of how he and his wife recently sent Auriemma a picture of the Connecticut coach reading a book to the children of Auriemma, Foster and St. Joseph's men's coach Phil Martelli.
"If it wasn't for him, I don't know that I ever would have decided to go down this road," Auriemma said.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw also worked for Foster at St. Joseph's.
"He was my mentor right from the start," McGraw said. "He gave me my first college job. We've been friends. He's my son's godfather. We've kept in touch over the years whenever I've had a problem. My first few years at Notre Dame, I probably called him weekly, maybe twice a week. ... He's always been so important in my career and my life. I have so much to thank him for."
This milestone victory would cap an eventful 12 months for Foster.
Ohio State fired Foster at the end of the 2012-13 season, the only year the Buckeyes failed to reach the NCAA tournament during his tenure. Since then, he has taken the job at Chattanooga and entered the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
Foster says he enjoys being at a program outside the major conferences.
"Every Division I school at the highest level takes themselves a little bit too seriously and what they do a little bit too seriously," Foster said. "This is a game. We are in the education business. All of that other stuff - all of the minutiae - is just a byproduct. The reality of it is it's about those two hours (during a game). It's about the players."
But the next time Chattanooga wins, its coach will get most of the attention.
AP Sports Writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Conn., contributed to this report.