Fo­ley can def­i­nitely han­dle the NCAA game

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - WALLY HALL

When then-Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Chris Peter­son de­cided to make a change in his Univer­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock women’s bas­ket­ball pro­gram in 2003 Joe Fo­ley was happy at Arkansas Tech, where he had won two NAIA na­tional cham­pi­onships.

His wife Chris had a good job in Rus­sel­lville. His kids C.J. and Mi­randa were happy.

It was all daf­fodils and sun­shine, al­though there was that squeaky lit­tle place in Fo­ley’s com­pet­i­tive spirit that made him won­der about coach­ing on the Di­vi­sion I level.

When Peter­son told a group of con­fi­dants his plan, Johnny John­son, who was then-ath­letic di­rec­tor for the Lit­tle Rock School Dis­trict, ba­si­cally told Peter­son he didn’t need a na­tion­wide search, just look 70 miles west. There he would find one of the best coaches John­son, a for­mer coach him­self, had ever seen.

Peter­son and Fo­ley were on the same page. They wanted to win. A twist of irony hap­pened a few years later when John­son be­came the Rus­sel­lville High School ath­letic di­rec­tor.

Dur­ing Fo­ley’s first Sun Belt Con­fer­ence me­dia days — and his first trip ever to New Or­leans — at a so­cial func­tion where Fo­ley knew none of the coaches, he drifted from a group of coaches to an­other group of coaches, lis­ten­ing and learn­ing.

He walked by one group of women’s coaches whose body lan­guage said don’t stop here, and when he was out of earshot one of them said, “Win­ning a na­tional cham­pi­onship in the NAIA isn’t like win­ning at the high­est level.”

At that time, UALR had won one con­fer­ence game since join­ing the Sun Belt, but that coach prob­a­bly didn’t know that Fo­ley’s first na­tional cham­pi­onship team had just six play­ers dress out.

In his first sea­son Fo­ley beat the coach who made that com­ment for the school’s sec­ond league win ever, but it was the be­gin­ning of a dy­nasty.

Fo­ley has now been named Sun Belt Coach of the Year five times and this Satur­day, against Florida State, UALR will make its fifth NCAA Women’s Tour­na­ment ap­pear­ance.

Many of the play­ers from Fo­ley’s Tech days say he has mel­lowed. Many of the play­ers from his cur­rent teams don’t agree.

He’s a strong dis­ci­plinar­ian who be­lieves if you don’t do it right in prac­tice you won’t do it right in a game, and his teams run a beau­ti­ful mo­tion of­fense and will suck the life out of you on de­fense.

How­ever, UALR is a huge un­der­dog as the No. 14 seed which has to play on the Semi­noles’ home court, yet, ob­servers clos­est to the pro­gram know never count Fo­ley out and say this may have been the best job of coach­ing he’s ever done.

UALR will need its best ef­fort of the sea­son.

The Semi­noles are 25-6 on the sea­son and their losses were twice to No. 1 seed Notre Dame, at No. 2 seed Texas, at No. 4 North Car­olina State and at No. 8 Syra­cuse.

Un­til the NCAA goes with neu­tral sites for all games the home teams will al­ways have a huge ad­van­tage.

At first, Fo­ley was all smiles, just happy to be part of March Mad­ness with a group of play­ers who got bet­ter as the sea­son pro­gressed.

Of his eight-player ro­ta­tion two are true fresh­men — both starters — one sopho­more, three ju­niors and two se­niors. His tallest starter is 6-1, while the Semi­noles have three play­ers 6-2 and one who is 6-3.

Fo­ley knows all of that and much much more, and the smiles have faded to miles of hard work and prepa­ra­tion.

It has al­most be­come a rite of spring for the UALR women to be play­ing in post­sea­son and for Fo­ley’s phone to start ring­ing. A lot of ath­letic di­rec­tors around the coun­try now know what Johnny John­son knew all those years ago.

Joe Fo­ley is an ex­cel­lent coach.

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