For some coaches, the end of a season like Joe Foley experienced last spring might have led to months of second-guessing and what-ifs. Up by 16 points in a second-round game of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Foley’s University of Arkansas at Little Rock team ended up losing to Arizona State, thanks in no small part to a 25-foot heave that banked, then dropped for a three-pointer.
UALR women's coach Joe Foley. UALR’s average attendance was 1,438 last year, trailing many less successful programs and nowhere near the support Foley thought he might have. “We’ve got to get more people. … When you’re bringing in top 20 teams [to Little Rock] people have got to enjoy watching them play."
Without it, the Trojans may have upset the heavily favored Sun Devils and headed to Greensboro, N.C., to take on the No. 2 seed.
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 12, 1955, Harrison
IF I WASN’T COACHING BASKETBALL, I’d be a bum.
I RELAX BY fishing and golfing.
MY PLAYERS WOULD SAY I’M honest and tough.
MY MOST MEMORABLE GAME AS A PLAYER: Pitching in junior college against the No. 4 team in the country
MY FAVORITE ATHLETES OF ALL TIME: Larry Bird and Michael Jordan
THE LAST GOOD BOOK I READ was Leading With the Heart by Mike Krzyzewski.
A PLACE I’D MOST LIKE TO VISIT: Someplace exotic and tropical
THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT FROM A COACH: “You win with people, not X’s and O’s,” from John Widner, my mentor at Morrilton High School.
GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY? Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight and John Wooden
ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Intense
Reflecting upon the season, here’s what Foley remembers. “I thought our three seniors really turned the corner right after the year started, as far as dedication and being a team. I had so many people say, ‘I’ve never seen a team play so hard and so well together. Every word you say they’re just looking you in the eye.’ That’s something you strive for. Very rarely does it happen so well.”
Actually, it has happened often in Foley’s career, which is how he has managed to rack up 700 wins and two national collegiate titles from his high school coaching days to the present. Colleagues say he does it by being the ultimate practice coach, preaching defense and what’s known as motion offense, and then trusting his players to go out and deliver on the court.
“He’ll always say, ‘Practice time is my time,’” says Alicia Cash, Foley’s first star player at UALR and now an assistant coach. “‘The games are for you guys to go out there and have fun and do what you need to do.’”
“He doesn’t care if you know what he’s doing or not,” adds Texas A&M coach Gary Blair. “He’s going to out-execute you.”
Blair should know. Foley’s 700th win came in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament against Blair’s Aggies.
Foley, 60, has brought big-time women’s college basketball to Little Rock. The one thing he hasn’t done is bring big-time crowds to the games. It disappoints Foley but appears to rankle friends and supporters even more.
“My personal feeling is that he should have a bigger following in terms of the support that his program should get,” Trojan athletics booster Andrea Peel said. “I think it’s just this hidden gem in our city and state. It’s a really exciting and fun place to be.”
It’s a loud and sweaty place to be on a fall day in the Trojans’ practice gym. Basketball shoes squeak; players shout for the ball, apologize for hard fouls, bend over and breathe hard whenever there’s a break. Foley stands at center court, dressed in team purple shorts and shirt, one hand on his chin in what’s almost a contemplative pose. His north Arkansas twang is muffled.
“Shoulda picked up the ball … Can’t give up wide open there … We don’t need you handling it out there … Go straight.”
Foley is almost as low-key in games, but it wasn’t always thus.
“When I first started coaching, I was your typical Bobby Knight-type,” Foley said, mentioning one of his coaching heroes. “Now I’m the total opposite. Even my last years at [Arkansas] Tech, I understood I’m a lot better coach if I stay calm and enjoy the game.”
Foley won two national National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics titles at Arkansas Tech University at Russellville. He grew up a couple of hours to the north, in Melbourne, the Izard County seat, with his family moving to that portion of tiny Alpena that sits in Boone County before his junior year. The son of a state trooper, Foley played point guard in basketball and pitcher in baseball, always wanting the ball in his hands. In Alpena he met Chris Fields, a cheerleader who became his girlfriend and, after graduation, his wife.
Foley got a job out of high school with the Arkansas Highway Department as what he calls a “gofer,” but he was bored and couldn’t shake a feeling that he was missing his calling.
“I’d go watch a high school game, and I just couldn’t sit in the stands and watch people play,” he said.
His playing days weren’t quite over. He enrolled in classes at what’s now North Arkansas College in Harrison, playing basketball and baseball and working part time for the highway department.
Foley says he thinks that he and Chris were unusual in that they both knew exactly what they wanted to do. He wanted to coach, and she wanted to be a special education teacher. For the latter, they both transferred to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, which had one of the state’s few programs in that area at the time.
“She is very passionate,” Foley says of his wife. “She is just like I am with basketball; she puts in as many hours a day.”
At UCA, Foley was assigned to be a practice teacher at Morrilton High School under its basketball coach, John Widner, later inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame as the state’s all-time winningest coach. Although the bookshelves in Foley’s office are full of books written by coaching icons like Knight, John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski, he says it was Widner who had the biggest impact on him.
“The main thing Coach Widner taught me was how to read kids and how to reach kids,” Foley says. “He knew when a kid was ready to play, to be put in a situation to be successful. Up ’til then, I always thought it was defense you ran. I didn’t know why he was putting them in, then they’d go in and score 10 points and help shut a kid down.”
Foley’s first coaching job came in 1979 in Oxford, in Izard County, where he coached four teams — the boys and girls teams at the junior high and high school.
“We were in the gym until about 12 o’clock every night,” he says. “I was young. Me and my wife had a trailer on campus. It might have been the best job I ever had.”
Two years later, Widner hired Foley as an assistant at Morrilton, then brought him along when Widner took the head coaching job at Arkansas Tech. Widner retired three years later after resurrecting the Tech men’s program. At the same time, Foley accepted the women’s head coaching job at Tech, for what he assumed would be a temporary detour out of men’s basketball.
Instead, he found himself enjoying the difference.
“I think they have the team concept more than men sometimes,” he says. “It’s not all about them. To me, they try to give you everything they’ve got.”
Success undoubtedly helped make the transition permanent. Foley led the Golden Suns to NAIA national championships in 1992 and 1993, six NCAA Division II national tournament appearances, 13 conference titles and a 456-81 record. According to Blair, who was then the women’s coach at UA-Fayetteville, a big part of Foley’s success can be credited to a series of summer camps he ran that brought the state’s best high school players and teams to Russellville. “He was just one of their own, from a high school coach to a college coach.”
UALR hired Foley away in 2003, to a program mired in failure. He and Chris had raised a son and daughter in Russellville and weren’t anxious to move. But Foley was attracted by the challenge and the news that Little Rock financier Jack Stephens had pledged $22.4 million for the on-campus, 5,600-seat arena that now bears Stephens’ name.
“I told the administration when I came, the way I go about it, it’s not going to be a quick fix,” Foley said, meaning he’d need a couple of years to recruit his type of player. “You’ve got to have juniors and seniors teaching your freshmen and sophomores. You can’t do it all yourself.”
After modest progress, Foley’s team finally broke through in the 2006-07 season, the second played in the new arena, going 21-10. The next year, his team won the school’s first Sun Belt division title and made its first of three Women’s National Invitation Tournament post-season appearances to date. In 2010, the program won 26 games and received its first NCAA tournament bid, upsetting Georgia Tech before losing to Oklahoma in the second round. The Trojans have been back to the tournament three out of the last five years.
This off-season, UALR granted him a raise, a contract extension and more money for his assistant coaches, after word got out that the University of Kansas might be interested in poaching him.
Foley’s teams follow a fairly unusual route to success. Nearly all basketball coaches give lip service to defense, but Foley takes it to another level.
“If you mess up on defense, you pretty much know you’re coming to the bench,” says Asriel Rolfe, another former standout who’s now the program’s director of basketball operations.
Then there’s the motion offense run by his teams. Instead of set plays, Foley’s teams employ a set of principles built around screens, passing, reading and reacting to defenses and near-constant movement. He drills the concepts into players until they can carry them out on their own.
“We don’t know where they’re going” on any particular play, Foley says. “They’re actually coaching themselves.”
Foley says this year’s team may take longer than usual to grasp the system. It’s built of six freshmen, two sophomores, five juniors and two seniors. He has also packed the Trojans’ nonconference schedule with tough tests. At home, UALR will face No. 12 Texas, Louisiana State University (on Wednesday) Memphis and Tulsa before heading into their nonconference schedule. On the road, they’ll take on No. 13 Texas A&M and No. 17 Oklahoma. The season started Friday against Tulane in New Orleans.
“It’s not going to be an easy schedule to break in a new team, but I think it’s going to get us ready for the conference,” he says.
If nothing else, Foley fans hope that marquee names on the schedule will finally bring out bigger crowds to the Trojans’ home court, now nearly a decade old but still one of the finest facilities of its size in the country. Various explanations have been proffered for the modest attendance.
As Blair notes, the teams of UA’s flagship Fayetteville campus tend to monopolize the state’s sports fan base, although the Trojans certainly outperformed the Lady Razorbacks last year. The team’s games are played as doubleheaders with the men’s team, which has struggled in recent years. And women’s basketball programs in general have to work hard for fans.
UALR’s average attendance of 1,438 last year was only a bit lower than the national Division 1 average of 1,565. But it trailed many less successful programs and is nowhere near the support Foley thought he might have as the team started winning consistently.
“We’ve got to get more people, that’s one of the things we’ve got to do as a program,” Foley says. “When you’re bringing in top 20 teams [to Little Rock] people have got to enjoy watching them play.”
Of course, no one will ever enjoy watching these teams like their coach. Yes, he says, young athletes have become more difficult to coach since he started. There is less discipline in the home, more distractions and more unrealistic expectations of instant success. But the struggle is worth it.
The value of coaching goes beyond wins and losses. “We use athletics to prepare them for life,” Foley says. “I tell them they’re going to have to make sacrifices, budget their time, get knocked down and pick themselves up.”
All of Foley’s four-year players have graduated, with several following him into the coaching field.
As Foley described the last few games of last year’s season, he sounded almost like a spectator, and a happy one at that.
“When you get into the post season, the farther you go, it’s amazing how their level of play goes up,” he says. “It’s not anything you do as a coach. The surroundings bring out the best, if you can get them to relax. I’ve had about three teams like that in my career. Some coaches never experience that. I’m very fortunate.”
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