Two years before Melanie Balcomb succeeded him as Vanderbilt’s head women’s coach, Jim Foster granted her favor.
In her sixth season at Xavier, Balcomb desperately needed an opponent for the 2000-01 season opener in the brand new Cintas Arena. So Balcomb turned to her mentor and then-Xavier men’s coach Skip Prosser and asked him to see if his good friend, Foster, would bring his Commodores up to Cincinnati. Foster graciously obliged.
How did Balcomb return the favor? By guiding Xavier to an upset of No. 20 Vanderbilt.
Foster, however, got revenge the next year as Elite Eight bound Vanderbilt thumped Xavier 78-56.
Twelve years later, the coaches are intertwined once again.
With a win over Auburn on Thursday (8 p.m., CSS) Balcomb will surpass Foster as the all-time winningest coach in program history. She is currently tied with him with 258 wins.
“One of the reasons I came here was because of the history, tradition and the success he had when he was here,” Balcomb said. “To be able to continue that and exceed that is humbling for me. I’m just thankful and grateful for the people who have helped our program accomplish that why I’ve been here.”
Foster, now at Ohio State, set the mark in 354 games over 11 seasons. Balcomb has also reached the plateau in her 11th season, needing just five more games to do so.
She has led the Commodores to at least 20 wins and the NCAA Tournament every season. Both streaks likely will continue as Vanderbilt is 18-9 with two regular-season games left and the Southeastern Conference tournament.
“It is a big deal,” senior forward Tiffany Clarke said. “She is a great coach. We’re helping her achieve this. So it is great for us to finally help her get there.”
For Balcomb, this is just a pit stop on the path to larger goals.
Though she led Xavier to an Elite Eight in 2000-01, she hasn’t been able to get the Commodores past the Sweet 16. She also wants to duplicate and expand on the school’s lone Final Four appearance — accomplished 20 years ago in Foster’s second season.
“The challenge was not to just continue it but succeed it, to go farther,” Balcomb said. “I don’t think I’m done here. I’m still here to try to do better and to get further than they have ever here in the history and to win a national championship. That is still my goal here at Vanderbilt. Maybe that’s why I’m still here — because we haven’t done it.”