Rex Nelson: Coaching, Teaching, Winning Drive Joe Foley

It ate at Joe Foley every day during the two years he worked for the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department. Something was missing in his life.

During long days on the job along the highways of north Arkansas, Foley thought about how much he enjoyed sports, how much he would like to be able to make a living in a sports-related field. The thought rarely left his mind.

In one sense, Joe Foley is now far removed from those Ozark highways. In another sense, though, the women’s head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has never been more aware of his roots, the people who helped him along the way and the hard work it took to get where he is now. On the wall of Foley’s office at the Stephens Center on the UALR campus is a caricature of John Widner, the 2003 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee who gave Foley his first big career break and served as his mentor.

At age 57, Joe Foley seems to be enjoying himself more than ever. Having already been inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, Foley shows no signs of slowing down more than a decade after having reached that pinnacle.

UALR will play at Pacific in Stockton, Calif., on Friday in the first round of the WNIT. This marks the sixth consecutive year for Foley to have his team in the postseason.

  • During the 2007-08 season, UALR won the Sun Belt Conference West Division title for the first time as the Trojans went 23-9 overall and 14-4 in conference play. They were 14-0 at home that season and were invited to the WNIT, the school’s first appearance in that tournament.
  • In 2008-09, the Trojans won a second consecutive Sun Belt West title and again were invited to the WNIT. For the first time, UALR advanced to the finals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
  • In 2009-10, Foley led UALR to the NCAA Tournament for the first time after his team won a third consecutive Sun Belt West title and posted a fourth consecutive 20-win season. In the NCAA Tournament, the Trojans defeated Georgia Tech in the first round before losing in the second round to Oklahoma, which would go on to make the Final Four.
  • In 2010-11, the Trojans won the Sun Belt West yet again and captured the school’s first Sun Belt Conference Tournament title, earning the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
  • In 2011-12, the Trojans won a conference championship and earned a third consecutive NCAA berth with a second consecutive Sun Belt Conference Tournament title.
  • This season saw UALR win its sixth consecutive Sun Belt West title as the Trojans finished the regular season with 11 consecutive victories. Foley’s team made the finals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament for a fifth consecutive year before falling to Middle Tennessee. The Trojans are 24-8 going into Friday’s game.

There are plenty of basketball observers across the state who believe Foley is the best coach in Arkansas; not just the best women’s coach but the best coach period.

Foley, the son of an Arkansas state trooper, loved playing basketball and baseball while growing up in the Ozark Mountains at Melbourne. As soon as the basketball season ended during Foley’s sophomore year in high school, his family moved into a rental house at Harrison while a new home was being built in the Boone County countryside outside of town. Foley thought he would finish high school at Harrison, but things changed just prior to his junior year.

“When we moved into our new house, we discovered that the road that ran out front was the dividing line between the Harrison School District and the Alpena School District,” he said. “We were on the Alpena side of the road. The folks at the school district told us there was no choice. I would have to go to school at Alpena.”

Foley found himself attending high school in the small town between Harrison and Berryville that’s bisected by U.S. Highway 62. The close-knit community features old stone buildings in its tiny downtown and homes along picturesque Long Creek. Foley met Chris Fields, who became his girlfriend and, as soon as they had graduated from high school, became his wife. With a wife to support and bills to pay, Foley was happy to get the Highway Department job. In the hardscrabble hills of north Arkansas, Highway Department jobs were among the best jobs in those days. With each passing day, however, something gnawed deeper and deeper at Foley.

“I would go to basketball games and baseball games, and it would just about kill me that I wasn’t out there playing,” he said. “I knew I had to get involved in sports again.”

He talked to the coaches at the community college in Harrison — now known as North Arkansas College — and was invited to play baseball and basketball there. He attended class, played two sports and still managed to work part time for the Highway Deparment. His wife attended class and worked at the Harrison Daily Times for legendary Arkansas newspaperman J.E. Dunlap.

Chris, who wanted to teach special education, transferred to what’s now the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. Her husband, of course, went along. During his senior year at UCA, Foley was assigned to be a practice teacher at Morrilton High School under Widner, who was already an icon in the state’s coaching ranks. Foley was determined to soak up every bit of knowledge he could from Widner, an Alpena native who was a distant cousin of Foley’s father.

Widner’s coaching career had begun in the 1950s at Omaha in Boone County. There were later coaching stops at Green Forest, Flippin, Leachville and then Morrilton. Widner would end up coaching for 14 years at Morrilton with his Devil Dogs making multiple trips to the state boys’ championship game. His 1973 team won the state championship with a 32-3 record.

“Working with Coach Widner was when I found out that I didn’t know nearly as much about basketball as I thought I knew,” Foley said. “I was hungry to know more. Each time I could get on a bus to go to a game, I took advantage of the opportunity. If the Morrilton team was coming east through Conway, they would stop and pick me up. Coach Widner later told me that he had never had a practice teacher who wanted to go to every game.”

Three decades after Widner’s coaching career had begun at Omaha, Foley followed in his footsteps by starting his own head coaching career at a small school in the Ozarks. Foley began coaching in the fall of 1979 at Oxford, an Izard County community between Melbourne and Salem on Arkansas Highway 9. There were 153 students from kindergarten through the 12th grade, and Foley coached all four teams – junior high girls, junior high boys, senior high girls and senior high boys. He took his senior girls’ team to Oxford’s first state tournament appearance in almost two decades.

After two seasons at Oxford, Foley answered his phone one day and heard the familiar voice of John Widner on the other end of the line.

“I had always told Coach Widner that if he had an opening at Morrilton, I wanted to coach there,” Foley said. “I was there three years. I coached the eighth-grade teams for him the first year. I coached the ninth-grade teams the second year. I was Coach Widner’s assistant the third year.”

Widner was contacted by nearby Arkansas Tech University at Russellville. Tech desperately needed someone to resurrect its once-dominant men’s basketball program, and Widner seemed an obvious choice. He decided to try his hand at college coaching and asked Foley to come along. In his first season at Tech, Widner led the Wonder Boys to 22 wins and the 1984-85 Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship. It was the school’s first conference title in 23 years.

“The great thing was getting to know those AIC coaches like Cliff Garrison, Don Dyer and Bill Vining (all Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductees),” Foley said. “Every game in the old AIC was a clinic.”

Three years into his tenure at Tech, Widner decided he had accomplished what he had been hired to do: He had turned the program around. He retired with the most combined wins in Arkansas basketball history. His record was 875-197. Foley hoped to remain at Tech as the assistant men’s coach. When the position of head coach of the women’s program came open, Tech decided to let Foley try his hand at coaching females.

“I figured I would coach the women for two or three years and then get back into men’s basketball,” Foley said. “But everything kept getting better and better. After a few years, I had no desire to go back to coaching men. The women’s game is more of a team game, and that fits my style. They realize how important it is to set those screens and pass the basketball.”

Foley became the head women’s coach at Tech in the fall of 1987. By the time he left Russellville in the spring of 2003, he had led the Golden Suns to NAIA national championships in 1992 and 1993, to six NCAA Division II national tournament appearances and to two NCAA Division II South Regional championships. Tech had 20 or more victories for 16 consecutive seasons under Foley as he compiled a 456-81 record and won 13 conference titles, including capturing five consecutive conference crowns on two occasions. In the decade of the 1990s, his teams were 285-53.

“I turned down several Division I jobs,” Foley said. “Russellville was a nice town, and I wanted to raise my kids there. We were happy.”

Yet there was a subtle sense of restlessness, a bit like the feeling he had experienced back in the Highway Department days.

“I’m looking for the right word,” Foley said. “Monotony is not the word, but it’s close. People were beginning to take winning for granted. In the back of my mind, I had always wondered how I could do against the best coaches in the country at the Division I level.”

Down the road in Little Rock, Chris Peterson had come to UALR from Creighton University in 2000 as athletic director. After more than a decade without a women’s basketball team, UALR had resurrected its program in the fall of 1999. Tracy Stewart-Lange struggled to records of 5-23, 6-22, 8-19 and 5-23 in her four years as head coach.

“I wasn’t actively looking to leave Tech,” Foley said. “And I knew I couldn’t recruit quality players to play in the old UALR field house. Coach Peterson told me that Jack Stephens was about to fund a new on-campus facility. I had a friend who worked over at Stephens Inc. I called him, and he confirmed that something big was going to happen.”

Stephens, the famed Little Rock financier who had once chaired the Augusta National Golf Club, donated $22.4 million, the largest gift in the history of the university. The $25 million Jack Stephens Center now ranks among the finest basketball facilities of its size in the country.

“If there’s a nicer, more efficient 5,600-seat basketball venue in the country, I would like to see it,” Peterson said.

Foley’s wife initially was resistant to making the move from Russellville to Little Rock.

“After about a week, she agreed to it,” Foley said. “Now, she loves UALR.”

On April 16, 2003, Foley was introduced as the new UALR coach. The women’s team continued to play in the old on-campus facility the first two seasons (the men’s team was playing in what’s now Verizon Arena) as Foley’s Trojans went 10-17 and 10-19.

“I might have had my doubts from time to time those first two years, but I wasn’t about to admit it,” Foley said.

By the 2005-06 season, UALR was in the Stephens Center and Foley’s team improved to 13-15. During the 2006-07 season, Foley led the team to a 21-10 record and a 12-6 conference mark, placing UALR second in the Sun Belt West. UALR finished third in the nation in scoring defense, and Foley won his 500th career game against North Texas. Finally, there was light at the end of the tunnel.

UALR has owned the Sun Belt West ever since. The fire Joe Foley felt while working for the Highway Department all those years ago still burns inside him. There are games and championships still to be won, young people still to be coached, new chapters still to be written.

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