Bill Foster, a coach who ushered the Charlotte 49ers into college basketball’s big time and later took Clemson to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, died Wednesday in Charlotte at the age of 79.
Foster had a 30-year record of 532-324 at five schools – Shorter (Ga.), Charlotte, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech.
In 1970, the 49ers turned to Foster to move their fledgling men’s basketball program from the NAIA to NCAA Division I. In five seasons, Foster not only accomplished that task, but he left a solid base that helped lead the 49ers to the Final Four shortly after he left for Clemson.
“Bill established a firm foundation for the program,” said Lee Rose, who succeeded Foster and coached the 49ers to the 1977 Final Four. “He had helped the program mature to the point that it was ready to take the next step.”
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Foster, not to be confused with the Bill Foster who coached at Duke during that era, recruited several of Charlotte’s greatest players, including Cedric Maxwell, Lew Massey and Melvin Watkins, stars on the 1977 Final Four team.
“He was a dynamic personality,” Maxwell said. “He will never get enough credit for putting that team together.”
When Maxwell arrived at Charlotte from Kinston High in 1973, he felt the full impact of Foster’s coaching style.
“He was a good coach, a demanding coach,” Maxwell said. “I thought at the time he was cruel with me. I was always wondering, ‘Why is this guy mad at me?’ He was always on top of me, wanting me to do this and that.
“But what he saw was a young kid who had the opportunity to get better. He wanted that out of me – more than I wanted it from myself. That’s one thing that makes a great coach.”
Foster already had recruited several excellent players to help the 49ers’ jump into Division I, including George Jackson (who still holds the program’s scoring-average record of 20.4 points), Robert Earl Blue, Rick Dobson and Jon Heath.
“Here I was a skinny kid from Kinston and I looked at those guys and just wondered how I would even make the team,” Maxwell said. “They could really get it. I didn’t know if I could play on their level.”
Led by a prolific Jackson, Foster’s 49ers went 23-3 in 1974-75. It was a team, Maxwell said, that was better than the 49ers who advanced to the Final Four two seasons later.
Foster had done well in his five seasons at Charlotte – enough to attract the attention of Clemson, which lured him away.
Before Foster left, Maxwell said Foster tried something else that – had it been successful – might have further altered 49ers’ basketball history.
When Foster left Charlotte for Clemson in 1975, he asked Maxwell to come along with him.
“I said yes, but Lee Rose said no!” Maxwell said. “At the end of the day, you would have to say it was the right move for me to stay.”
Said Rose: “That would probably be the way that happened.”
Foster experienced immediate success at Clemson. He was 156-106 in nine seasons with the Tigers. Clemson’s appearance in the Elite Eight in 1980 is the deepest the Tigers have advanced in the tournament.
In 1984, Foster went on to Miami, which was reviving a program that hadn’t played since 1971. After five seasons with the Hurricanes, he wrapped up his career at Virginia Tech, where he retired in 1997.
Foster had been battling Parkinson’s disease when he died at a Charlotte nursing home.
“Bill Foster is such an important part of Charlotte basketball history,” 49ers athletics director Judy Rose said in a statement. “He helped position our program for greatness and his love for the sport and his players will forever be a part of his memory and legacy. We are grateful to have had his leadership and our hearts go out to his family and to the many lives that he touched.”