State trip 'very special' for Tom Foster

Longtime Norwalk assistant shares emotional moment with head coach Steve Gray
Mark Hazelwood
Mar 19, 2014

Even days later, just recalling the moment brings Tom Foster to tears.

“Very special, as you can tell, yes,” Foster said, fighting back his emotion as he recalled the events of Saturday afternoon.

Norwalk beat Lima Bath, 54-53, in a Division II regional championship game that featured 16 lead changes and three ties. The win sent the Truckers (27-1) to the state championships for the first time, where they face Dayton Thurgood Marshall (22-5) at 10:45 a.m. Thursday at Ohio State University.

When the buzzer sounded, 13th-year Norwalk coach Steve Gray raised his arms in celebration, then immediately turned around and grabbed Foster for a long embrace.

It was an emotional moment for the 67-year-old Foster, Gray’s right-hand man for 22 years. Never have the two reached the state championships together.

“It’s been a long, long ride ... a long time together,” Foster said. “Through some ups and downs. We had been close before, but this is special. I consider myself so lucky and humble that this is going to be my third time down at the state championships. I think of all the good coaches, friends of mine, that have never made it. It’s just so special.”

Foster grew up in Centerburg, in Knox County, about halfway between Mansfield and Columbus. After graduating from Otterbein College, he took a teaching job at Fredericktown in 1969, where he spent the next 33 years wearing many coaching hats in basketball, football, baseball and track and field.

Eventually Foster found himself at Lexington, where he was an assistant coach on two state championship teams in 1988-89 and 1990-91. When Gray took over at Lexington prior to the 1992-93 season, he immediately called Foster and put into motion what has become a close friendship.

“He told me he was going to coach guards, and I stopped him right there,” Foster said. “I told him I coach the guards, not post players. That was our first little introduction, and he’s always kidded me about that. He points out I dictated to him how it was going to go. I guess in a way, I did.”

From there, they built a unique coaching relationship. Fans who have seen Norwalk play for the past decade or more can often see Foster hopping off the bench and giving Gray some coaching tips — or a piece of his mind.

“On the bench, none of the coaches can talk to me but him,” Gray said of Foster. “Everything goes through him. There are just too many people. My other assistants have great ideas, but he’s my filter. He’s just my confidant, my adviser ... he’s one of my best friends.”

Said Foster: “I had told him way back, ‘If you hire me, I am not a yes man. I have my thoughts and opinions and am going to share them with you. If you don’t like them, that’s fine, but you are going to hear from me.’ That’s the way we’ve always operated. He’s probably fired me 20 times, and I think I’ve quit on him 10 times. So as you can see, it’s a good relationship.”

Making this season extra-special for Foster: coaching a player he calls the best point guard he has ever coached in his 30-plus years: Norwalk senior Ben Haraway.

An 1,100-point scorer with almost 500 assists, Haraway is a two-time All-Ohioan and the only player in Northern Ohio League history to lead the league in assists for four straight seasons.

“First of all, he’s a great person, that makes it easy to coach him,” Foster said of Haraway. “He listens, besides being very talented. I’ve had really, really good point guards I’ve coached throughout my career. But Ben ... the young man has a special place in my heart. He’s the best one I’ve ever coached.”

Haraway said it’s easy to respect Foster because of his knowledge of the game.

“He’s been coaching for a long time and certainly knows what he’s talking about,” he said. “He’s a great coach who expects a lot out of me.”

When asked of Saturday’s embrace, Gray said it was a culmination of the relationship he has built with Foster.

“He’s been with me all the way, the ups and downs, the highs and lows,” he said. “He took last year’s loss to (Mansfield) Senior as bad as any loss we’ve ever had. It stuck with him, the lost opportunity. These kids have no idea how important they are in his life.”

Last season, the Truckers were 24-0, and had blasted through most of their schedule with ease and a No. 2 ranking in Division I. But a 44-42 last-second loss to Mansfield Senior in a district semifinal ended any dreams of a state berth.

After a year of dwelling on that defeat, Foster is overjoyed to see the Truckers reach the big stage Thursday.

“We mentioned to them how disappointed we were in losing to Mansfield,” Foster said. “We had been to regionals when this class was sophomores, so the next step obviously was to make it to Columbus. The next step is to win it all. We’ve made it very clear we’re not going down there just satisfied to make the trip. We’re going down there to win.”

This late in his career, Foster knows it takes some luck to be a part of a four-year run that Norwalk has experienced.

“Our philosophy is we’ve always been really good coaches when we’ve had great players,” he said. “You don’t win 57 in a row or go 74-3 and win district and regional championships without really good players. You just don’t. They have been very coachable, too. That’s what’s really made it a great ride.”

Meanwhile, Foster is still waiting on an event to take place between himself and Gray. Years ago at a University of Cincinnati basketball camp, Gray lightly challenged Foster to a 100-meter sprint on the track. 

But when Foster issued the challenge, something came up.

“Steve said he pulled his hamstring,” Foster said, laughing. “That’s what he said. Yeah, sure he did. I’m still waiting.”