BOULDER - Bob Foster likes to call it "some kind of illness," and the handful of high-profile football coaches who have summoned him couldn’t be happier about his affliction.
At 68, Foster is Colorado’s newest assistant coach, having signed on earlier this summer to work with the Buffaloes’ outside linebackers for at least one season.
And if form holds, that’s what he’ll do – stay for a year and lend nearly four decades worth of coaching expertise to defensive coordinator Ron Collins and an understanding ear to head coach Dan Hawkins, who played for Foster at California-Davis.
Right about now, you should put away any preconceived comparisons regarding Foster’s age and his energy level. His tank has plenty left.
Or as Hawkins says, "This guy can’t go halfway. He’s either all in or all out. He will just wear himself slick ... I think the retirement thing is great in that he can back away and rest up a little bit, then come charging back in."
"The retirement thing" requires a footnote: Since the mid-1990s, Foster has been college football’s equivalent of an interim pastor, or if that analogy doesn’t suit you, try defensive troubleshooter.
For various personnel or strategic reasons – sometimes both – coaches such as Oregon’s Mike Bellotti, now the Ducks’ athletic director, California’s Jeff Tedford, whom Foster met while Tedford was at Oregon, and now Hawkins have kept Foster’s name and number on speed-dial.
Usually it’s been for one season of contract work although he spent two seasons (1998-99) assisting Bellotti, another of his former players, and served two stints (2002, 2006) at Cal helping Tedford.
This season will mark his second tour with Hawkins, who telephoned Foster from Willamette University in 1995 and coaxed three good seasons out of him, including a 13-1 finish in 1997 that culminated with an NAIA national championship game appearance.
Foster could manage those gigs because he had engaged in a "golden handshake’" with Cal-Davis, having retired in 1992 but soon afterwards realizing his ignition hadn’t been completely switched off.
At that time, the state of California was enduring a budget crisis (sound familiar?) and football at Cal-Davis might have wound up on the chopping block.
Foster couldn’t bear that, so he asked the school if he could return at 49 percent of his salary and see the crisis through, which he did for the next three years.
Then Hawkins called ... then Bellotti ... then Tedford, twice ... then Hawkins a second time late this spring when CU offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich left for Oregon.
"I’ve been retired more times than (Brett) Favre,’’ Foster said the other day, laughing.
But the coaches he’s left retirement for have a clear understanding of what he can offer, and they allow him to offer it on his terms.
Foster has reached the age and stage where the usual assistants’ chores aren’t expected of him. The guys he works for now know that, and they draw up his duties accordingly.
When he answered Hawkins’ second call this spring, Hawkins said he told Foster, "Coach, you got no camps and no recruiting. He said I beat out (Chris) Petersen (the Boise State coach who succeeded Hawkins), who told him he would recruit Starbucks and Boise High School’’ if he would spend a season on the Broncos’ staff.
Because of uncanny attention to detail and experience, Hawkins figures Foster can be a major contributor to the defensive staff. Barely two weeks into the CU stint, Hawkins said Foster already had offered "four or five tweaks’’ to the Buffs’ defensive alignments, including the better positioning of a linebacker to play the quarterback option read.
"From a technical standpoint, (Foster) is absolutely phenomenal,’’ Hawkins said. "In the old days when I first coached with him, we used 16 millimeter film. You burned a lot of film if it was kept on hold for one play or sequence.
"But he’d get into (studying) a formation and just sit there and stare at it. And I’m not kidding, sometimes it’d be 15 minutes with not a word being said. He’d be running through every single scenario in his head – every single thing that could happen.
"If there was instance in there where there could be a problem, he’d fix it. He’s phenomenal that way.’’
Foster might be masterful with X’s and O’s, but his passion is for the players – the ones he coached at Cal-Davis back in the day and the ones he’ll coach at CU this season.
When Helfrich left the CU staff, Hawkins called Foster and dangled a six-month contract. Remembered Foster: "I said I would, for two reasons. One, I think I have some kind of illness for football and young people. I can’t get them out of my system. Anytime I get a little rest, I feel like I have to go back to it.
"But the biggest reason I decided to do it was coach Hawkins. He is one of the best ... everything is not just in terms of winning and losing. What he does is about life and teaching young people important things for their future. It’s way more than winning and losing – and sometimes that’s what we lack a little bit in our profession because the winning and losing thing is so huge.
"He won’t let his principles down for that. I respect him so much ... there’s not many people I would have said yes to. In fact, he’s the only one I could think of. I just hope I can help him some, and if I can help him some I’m really going to be happy I did it. I think I’ll help him personally, but I hope it helps the team.’’
In his Coach Fix-It appointments up and down the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, Foster and his wife, Carol, have been housed in dormitories and even shared homes with visiting professors.
In Boulder, which he says reminds them of "Berkeley, only cleaner – whatever that means,’’ they’ll be in a downtown apartment. And he won’t say for how long.
"I never say always or never,’’ he said. "Chances are it’ll be one season and out, but I’m wise enough after all these years to not say I’m totally done. I don’t want to be foolish about it, though.
"Hopefully, I’m going to have as much fun as I can and do as good a job as I can.’’
His resume shows pretty good work, indeed, which Tedford recognized when he took over at Cal in 2002.
"The team he took over was 1-10 (in 2001),’’ Foster recalled. "He said, 'Coach Foster, you’ve never had a losing season in your career; you need to come to Cal and help me get it going.’ ’’
Cal went from 1-10 in 2001 to 7-5 in 2002, the first of Foster’s two seasons in Berkeley. His second time around, the Bears improved from 8-4 in 2005 to 10-3 in 2006.
His presence in Boulder is no guarantee of a breakthrough season for Hawkins, who is past due for one. But for anyone playing the percentages, the "Foster edge" might come into play.
"All I know is that he’s a special, special individual,’’ Hawkins said. "Every guy who ever played for him – I don’t care whether they started or never played – they all loved him. And he is one of those guys – he can hang with the governor or the maintenance guys . . . he’s just such a special person in that way.
"Everybody that knows him is always trying to (bring him back). I feel deeply honored, I really do, to have him here.
"At CU, he’s so much the right thing for the right time. He’ll get guys to meld, he’ll be a settling factor on defense, he’ll systemize the defense.
"I can see him hanging it up for another couple of years but if one of the guys in the Davis (UC-Davis) tree or whoever really needed something, he’d be back.’’
If Hawkins and the Buffs finally get that swig of success, Bob Foster might not be allowed to leave.