Here's the thing about Coffeyville: In 1892 the Dalton gang rode in and held up two banks, and I when the shooting was over eight men lay dead. That made quite an impression on this southeastern Kansas town. In 1960 the locals opened a Dalton Museum and put markers where four of the men fell, and somebody even painted a sign that read DEATH ALLEY. Today, Coffeyville is an economically depressed blue-collar town of 14,000 people, 65 miles north of Tulsa. The boom times seem over for the Kansas-Oklahoma oil fields, and that only adds to the sense that Coffeyville's best days are behind it. Wendell Willkie once taught school in Coffeyville. Walter (Big Train) Johnson lived there. They're dead, of course.
Which probably explains why the folks in Coffeyville think so highly of Dick Foster, the 50-year-old football coach of Coffeyville Community College. Foster isn't merely a legend; he's a living legend. In a four-day span last December, Foster reaped more success than most college football coaches enjoy in a lifetime. On Saturday, Dec. 3, he celebrated the announcement that one of his former players, Mike Rozier, had won the Heisman Trophy. The next day he got his 100th career victory (against only 15 losses) and won his fifth bowl game. Also, he heard that another of his former players, Ron Springs, had set a single-season receiving record for the Dallas Cowboys. Then on Tuesday a jubilant Foster learned that his team had been named national J.C. champion.
Never mind that you never heard of Dick Foster. Coaches have. "He's a winner, there's no doubt about that," says Tulsa's John Cooper. Adds Jim Dickey of Kansas State, "He's certainly a coach who deserves to be known."
Then why isn't he? Maybe it's because Foster's teams have won the Wool Bowl, the Coca-Cola Bowl, the Beef Empire Bowl and the Jayhawk Classic Bowl, not the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton. Maybe it's because you can reach any school in Foster's Kansas Jayhawk Conference—it has eight football-playing members—on one tank of gas. Maybe it's because Foster can't hold on to a player for more than a year or two.
September 4, 1984
"You don't have to look too far for the reason," says Ken MacLeod, sports editor of The Coffeyville Journal. "No matter how good you are, you won't get famous by coaching at Coffeyville Community College."
The road to fame and riches in Coffeyville is State Highway 169—out of town. Rozier took 169 four years ago. After a successful freshman season under Foster, Rozier left for Nebraska, where he set a total of five Big Eight and NCAA rushing records. Before Rozier, Foster had Springs, who went on to lead the Big Ten in rushing for Ohio State, before joining the Cowboys. Other Foster players who've gone on to the pros include Los Angeles Raider cornerback Ted Watts, Michigan Panther linebacker Will Cokely, San Antonio Gunslinger defensive back Jim Bob Morris and Los Angeles Express running back Mel Gray.
The college ranks are impressively crowded with Coffeyville products. Seventeen of Foster's players are currently on major college rosters, and many others are at Division I-AA, II and III schools. "We've taken three of his players, and all three were starters the minute they hit campus," says Cooper. "Dick Foster gets more out of the average athlete than anybody I've ever seen in coaching."
That's an outsider's viewpoint. In Coffeyville, they put a little spin on the story, a little Western gothic. They convince you that when Foster arrived in Coffeyville in 1975, the wind whistled through broken shutters and tumbleweeds swept down Eighth Street. You picture a weathered stranger standing outside a saloon, the forlorn townsfolk gathered about him, staring in wonder at the notches on his gun.
"Well, it was bad," says Barbara Jean Pendleton, director of alumni affairs at Coffeyville, with a laugh. "Our Ravens had been winning since the 1930s, but in 1969 we began a losing stretch that lasted six years. We were really in the dumps when Dick came here."
Foster promised Coffeyville immediate success, and he delivered. His first team, with Springs in the backfield, went 11-0. Since then, the Red Ravens have been at or near the top of the National Junior College Athletic Association polls. (With the exception of virtually all the J.C.s in California, Washington and Oregon, most of the country's junior colleges are NJCAA members.) "I told 'em we were going to win," says Foster, "and winning made me look like a prophet."
When asked why he makes his waves in out-of-the-way Coffeyville, Foster replies with a fatalistic shrug. "You know," he says, "I've been asked that hundreds of times. A lot of the jobs are very political. It's hard to get in." He admits, though, that he has never gone job hunting outside the Kansas-Missouri-Oklahoma hub, where his mother, brother and five married children all make their homes. "I don't play golf, I don't fish and hunt," he says. "My life is football and my family." At Coffeyville, he can devote time to both.
No one can accuse Foster of taking shortcuts to further his career. He spent 14 years as a high school coach in Missouri (six years doubling as principal) before moving to Fort Scott (Kans.) Junior College, where he put together a 19-2 record over two seasons and guided the Greyhounds to the national title in 1970. From there he stepped up to Kansas, where he served Don Fambrough as head freshman coach and then as recruiting coordinator. Foster's respect for the popular Fambrough borders on adulation. "I think I'd give up my life for the man," he says. "He helped me in so many ways." Unfortunately, Fambrough was forced out in December 1974. The rest of the Kansas football staff—except Foster—was fired.
"It's the only time I ever considered leaving coaching," Foster says. "I saw guys that were good football coaches let out to pasture." He also saw, under new coach Bud Moore, what Foster calls "a different side" of college football. "With Bud it was like survival of the fittest," says Foster. "They really treated the kids brutal. I said, if this is what college football is like, I'm getting out of it. Right then I decided I was going to run my own program and not be dependent on somebody else." After three months with Moore, Foster quit Kansas and returned to the junior-college ranks.
But why Coffeyville? The school had no practice fields, no weight program, no locker room showers. Foster inherited a partially sealed-off hulk called Memorial Hall—"It was the kind of place that should've been condemned," he says—where his players had to dress in a dark hallway with chicken-wire lockers before being bused across town to a vacant lot where they practiced. "It was basic football," Rozier recalls. "We'd often practice in 110-degree heat on a field near the slaughterhouse. We practiced on pasture ground, the hard stuff, instead of grass."
Conditions at Coffeyville are better today, but the shock to tender freshmen is still considerable. "I don't think anyone would have a negative outlook when they look back," Foster says, "but I'd say 90 percent of our out-of-staters hate it here the first three months. There's nothing to do but go to class and play football."
Springs, the player most fondly remembered in Coffeyville, admits he wanted to fly back to Williamsburg, Va. when he got his first glimpse of the prairie. "Coach met me when I got off the plane in Tulsa," he says, "and I started seeing all these fields and farms. And when we got to Coffeyville there was a rodeo going on. It finally hit me that I was in the middle of nowhere...for the whole year...with nobody I knew." Coffeyville's starting fullback that year, Mike Hollerman, did more than think about leaving. After less than a week, he disappeared. According to former Raven quarterback Tim Pivonka, "He [Hollerman] was caught down at the bus station trying to cash in a jar of pennies for a ticket back home."
But if Coffeyville at first seems, in one player's words, "a small, desolate place," it wins its share of converts. "The people are some of the warmest I've ever known," says Springs. "It didn't matter whether you were black or white, they invited you into their homes. And Dick Foster, he was like a father at times, he was like a tyrant at times, and he was a great motivator. You had all three in one man."
Foster concedes that not everyone fits in as comfortably as Springs. In 1981 two Coffeyville players were arrested for drag racing on Eighth Street the night before a game. Last year a freshman defensive tackle left the team after repeated fistfights with his teammates. Numerous players have had better success than Hollerman at skipping town. There also have been occasional clashes between smalltown ways and the street-smart cockiness of city kids. One teacher thought Rozier disrespectful for always wearing his trademark cap in class.
"The most difficult player I've had to coach was Ted Watts," says Foster. "Ted was from the ghetto, and when he left here he didn't care much for me and I didn't care much for him. But a few years ago the phone rings and it's Ted. It's the first time I've heard from him since he left me, it must be three years, and he says, 'Coach, I never thought I'd call you and say I miss Coffeyville and you bein' on my back, but I do. If it wasn't for you, I'd probably be in jail.' " Foster shakes his head. "Hey, I hung up the phone and started crying."
Sentiment aside, it's the promise of similar conversions that enables Foster and other junior college coaches to attract top high school talent. If a prospect hasn't achieved at least a 2.0 average—if he's a "non-qualifier" in NCAA terminology—he must earn a degree from a two-year college to be eligible for competition and financial aid at a Division I school. Before 1981, one year at a J.C. was enough; thus, athletes were encouraged to load up on "puff courses" to achieve the necessary GPA.
"Qualifiers"—players whose grades qualify them for Division I out of high school—can transfer with eligibility and aid after attending a junior college for just one academic year, provided they maintain a 2.0 GPA. In either case, a junior college is often the answer for the player who may not be academically or emotionally prepared for major-college pressures. "I won't bring in a 1.1 student," Foster says. "I look for a baseline of 1.8 or 1.9." He laughs. "Don't get me wrong. If Rozier had had a 1.1, I'd have brought him in anyway."
Recruiting at Coffeyville is a low-budget enterprise, but that hasn't unduly hampered Foster. "If Coach Foster decides he's got to have a great running back," says MacLeod, "he gets on the phone and three days later a Rosie Snipes comes rolling in." It isn't quite that easy, says Foster, but MacLeod has put his finger on the right instrument—the telephone. Foster's phone rings incessantly, and when he's doing the dialing he can tie up the lines for hours. "I've never brought an out-of-state player in for a visit," he says. "Other junior colleges do, but we just don't have the funds."
Jayhawk Conference rules limit a team to 10 out-of-state players on a 45-man roster, so Foster can ill afford a mistake when he calls long distance for help. Snipes, a non-qualifier, was laying sod along highways in Sarasota, Fla. and taking night classes toward a high school diploma when the phone rang at his house. Forsaking the sod for the prairie, Snipes went on to average 9.2 yards per carry for Coffeyville in 1982. Last season as a Florida State sophomore, he averaged 6.6.
The telephone also figured prominently in Rozier's coming to Coffeyville. "I never even saw Mike Rozier," says Foster. Heard about him, yes. Foster's grapevine identifies high school prospects who combine dazzling moves with moribund grades. Nebraska recruiters told Rozier about Coffeyville, and Foster made his pitch by phone. He remembers getting a call from Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne, who had signed Rozier to a letter of intent. Osborne told Foster he thought Rozier would make his grades, but if he didn't, fine—he could go to Coffeyville. "That's all there was to it," Foster says. Rozier wound up in Coffeyville, gained 1,157 yards in nine games, went to class, made some friends and left town. "I had my 2.5 when I went to Nebraska," says Rozier.
Foster had something, too: memories of a backfield that would be the envy of any big-college coach: Rozier, Gray, who later played at Purdue, and Greg Iseman, who went on to lead Montana in rushing and scoring. Foster insists that coaching such talent is the easiest part of his job. He counsels many of his players and supervises team study halls in the school library. "Coach always checked to make sure you went to class," says Pivonka. "We had several guys who didn't, but you looked up and they were gone." Says Foster, "They will be disciplined. There are only two things I can't deal with—stealing and drugs. I'm not a halfway house in those two areas."
He is a halfway house to four-year schools. Like buyers at a trade show, as many as 125 college coaches and assistants visit Coffeyville every fall. Says Foster, "L never go out and recruit the next class until I've got all of my kids placed who want to play football." He can rattle off a list of Division I schools currently fielding Coffeyville alums, and the geographical range is impressive: Utah, Kentucky, Tulsa, Purdue, Syracuse, Kansas State, Missouri, Indiana State, West Texas State, Texas-Arlington, Florida State, Louisville. Foster plays no favorites: Coffeyville isn't a pipeline to one or two programs.
Neither, he insists, is Coffeyville a place where jocks can "launder" their grades with phony credits and gut courses. "They're not taking basket-weaving," he says. "They're taking science, history and math."
Foster recalls only a couple of instances in which a major college tried to tamper with a Coffeyville player. The most notable involved—who else?—Rozier, who wavered on his commitment to Nebraska. "Pitt came here under the pretext of looking at other players," says Foster, "but they were really looking at Rozier. They asked to talk to him, and I said no, but they recruited him hard on his Christmas break. When I heard about it, I just sat down with him and said, 'Hey, it don't work that way, Mike.' "
The knowledge that a player is safe from poaching is important to coaches who steer players to Coffeyville. So, too, is the job Foster does with them. "When it comes to football, Dick Foster knows his job," says Rozier. "His practices were the hardest I've ever been through." Says Dickey, "Any major-college coach is happy letting Dick have a kid for a while. They know he'll come out fundamentally sound and disciplined. And he'll know what hard work is."
If he's a running back or a receiver, he'll also know what it is to cross the goal line—often. Foster's teams have averaged more than 34 points a game over his nine-year tenure, and seven of his backs have had 1,000-yard seasons. "I'm an offensive coach," Foster says. "Defensively I hire good coaches and stay away from it." In 1978 quarterback Mike Long passed for 23 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards, but usually Foster wins with his great running backs. In 1980 he went to the wishbone because he had Rozier and all those other gifted backs, "plus a quarterback who couldn't throw the ball across the room but was a very good runner." Foster still uses the wishbone, although he prefers more of a one-back offense. "The wishbone isn't fun to coach during the week," he says, "but it's fun to run on Saturday when you light up the scoreboard."
Yes, the Coffeyville scoreboard has lights. The Red Ravens share 5,000-seat Ise Athletic Field with Field Kindley Memorial High, but Foster's program now enjoys, on a small scale, most of the amenities associated with bigger programs: a weight room, training room, film room, two practice fields and a 45-foot filming tower. "Hey, our highlight film is in color," Foster says proudly. He also has control, which is why he came to Coffeyville in the first place. The role of athletic director is shared among the coaches, but as one Coffeyville observer notes, "Foster pretty much dominates things. He gets what he wants."
So, too, do the Coffeyville fans, who anticipate another winning season. The Red Ravens have 15 starters back from last year's national championship squad, including star running back Rickie Wells. "Next year," Foster predicts, "people will be asking me if Rickie Wells is as good as Rozier." Their only worry is that Foster, who works on a one-year contract, will go elsewhere.
Foster doesn't dismiss the idea. "I'm 50 years old," he says, "but I feel I could turn the trick in one more situation." But then he shrugs, as if he has already given up on the notion. "I would have liked the opportunity to be head coach at a major college—I think I could have beaten the system—but there's no use crying over spilt milk."
No, and as a visitor points out, in Coffeyville he has complete control of a program, which he never would in the big time. "Amen," Foster says.