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.
"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."