KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame added its 15th class this past weekend, a stellar group that included two coaches and four former players. The six inductees had assigned seats scattered across one exhibit area of the hall, but they often weren’t sitting in them when reporters approached – they were standing at the wall reading about past honorees and seminal moments in the women’s game.
The inductees were interviewed one-on-one by Swish Appeal and asked three questions – how did they get in the WBHOF, what did the honor mean to them and who had the greatest impact on their basketball career.
The inductees, coaches Gary Blair and Jim Foster and former players Peggie Gillom-Granderson, Jennifer Rizzotti, Annette Smith-Knight and Sue Wicks, offered expansive answers. We begin with the coaches inducted.
Gary Blair “made all the right steps”
Blair, the head coach of Texas A&M;, can drain the batteries of a reporter’s tape recorder, and he didn’t disappoint.
That was in contrast to his speech during the induction ceremony, during which he was brief – and funny.
Blair thanked his family profusely, especially his wife, Dr. Nan Smith-Blair. He said her birthday is April 1, and he has missed so many celebrations because he is at the Final Four, which coincides with the coaches’ annual meeting. Blair has gotten two teams to the Final Four – Arkansas in 1998 and Texas A&M;in 2011 when he won the national title. His wife accompanied him for those trips.
She told him: “If you were any damn good, we would celebrate together.”
“That is why she has doctor in front of her name, and I have coach,” Blair said.
How did Blair earn his nod to the WBHOF?
“Surround yourself with good people, get into women’s basketball sort of by mistake waiting on a basketball job and make the best decision of my life to stay with women’s basketball,” Blair said. “I am a product of Title IX. I am one of the first men who got a chance to coach women back in the inner city of Dallas. I made all the right steps – Louisiana Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Arkansas and Texas A&M;, it doesn’t get any better.”
“I’m a builder. Now, can I sustain it? Can I keep this thing going? We need to get back to the Final Four. We need to have a few more All-Americans, and I need to learn how to coach better in big games.”
What did the recognition mean to him?
“It’s everything. When Sue Donohoe (vice president of the hall) called me last summer and told me, I just broke down,” Blair said. “This was never one of my dreams at all. My dream was taking my team here (to the hall) when we played Tennessee and showing them what the history of the game was all about.
“It never even entered my mind that I could be up here with people like Leon Barmore and Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma. Those are the ones that are the great, great coaches. I’m the grinder. I’m the hard worker. We’re going to grind it out. We’re going to play defense. We’re going to scrap. And we’re going to be the best that we can be. I think I’ve helped the game grow. This is our platform, and we’re still in the growing stages of women’s basketball.
“We need to start putting more butts in the seats and to do that you’ve got to be creative in marketing. The marketing director starts with the head coach. That is who the head coach has to be to help sell our product.”
Who had the greatest influence on Blair?
“It wasn’t any of my family because none of them are athletes. My granddad played baseball so that’s why I learned baseball,” he said. “I am a student. I read five newspapers a day. I don’t use the Internet or any of that stuff unless someone pulls it up for me.
“Bob Schneider coached at West Texas State and Canyon High School, Dean Weese with the Wayland Flying Queens, Jan LaHodny, a great high school coach. She could have been the best Texas A&M;coach they ever had. Leon Barmore at Louisiana Tech, he taught me preparation. He gave me a great break in my life from being a high school coach to becoming an assistant coach.
“And Sonja Hogg, she was the first lady of women’s basketball, she changed the way people dressed in this game, she changed what a press conference was all about. She had the flair. I used to kid her that she was the Dolly Parton of women’s basketball. And it worked. All three of us are in the Hall of Fame now.”
Jim Foster’s key: “Survive a long period of time”
Foster has won at least 200 games at three different schools – St. Joseph’s, Vanderbilt and Ohio State – and the 1993 USBWA Coach of the Year will now take the helm at a fourth one, Chattanooga.
How did Foster earn his nod to the WBHOF?
“Survive a long period of time,” he said. “I just finished my 40th year of coaching, 35 in college. I am now at my fourth university, and I have had a lot of good players, and I have had a lot of good assistant coaches. When those kind of combinations happen, the results are usually pretty good.”
What did the recognition mean to him?
“That is the hardest question for me to answer because I don’t have a feeling about it yet. I have to experience something,” Foster said.
The phone call about his selection came from Carol Callan, a WBHOF board member.
“Carol Callan has been a good friend for 25 years,” Foster said. “It turned into more of a discussion and went in a lot of different directions. It was more of an intellectual exercise than it was an emotional reaction. I am sensing it is going to be a very neat experience.”
It was for Foster. His young grandsons attended the ceremony, and he got emotional during his speech.
Who had the greatest influence on Foster?
“I was pushed in the direction of coaching at a very young age,” Foster said. “I had coached four teams by the time I was 16. We got rid of our eighth-grade CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) coach halfway through the season and the parish priest said you’re now a player-coach.
“A couple of years later I was coaching two teams in different parts of Philadelphia. The GI Bill was my scholarship. I was attending Temple and coaching at St. Joseph’s. Jack Ramsay is the modern day father of St. Joe basketball. When you are around someone like him, whenever I had those opportunities, you jump at it. I was named the coach the same year Jim Lynam was named the men’s coach, and Jim is someone I have leaned on heavily over the years. Geno (Auriemma) was my assistant at St. Joe and then Muffet (McGraw) so I’ve had some pretty good people to talk basketball with.”
For more on the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction, stay tuned to our storystream on the event.