By Brian Delaney
December 29, 2010
In college basketball -- and nowhere is this more true than the Ivy League -- coaches believe great guard play, with the right supporting cast, can win championships. But great guard play coupled with a great big man usually translates into something special.
The 2009-10 season was exactly that for Cornell, which became the first Ivy League team in 31 years to win multiple NCAA tournament games. The rock of that team, regardless of season statistics or postseason awards, was a 7-foot center out of Spencer-Van Etten High School who, in his graduating year of 2005, was not considered a prospect even by Division III level coaches.
As Jeffrey Bernard Foote went from a basketball nobody to a walk-on at St. Bonaventure, to a perceived "project" at Cornell, to a first-team all-league selection and player of the year candidate as a senior on an NCAA Sweet 16 team, Big Red coach Steve Donahue tweaked his philosophies at both ends of the court to further utilize the Lockwood native.
By his senior year, Foote was not just an important piece of Donahue's puzzle but the keystone -- and an unequivocal emotional leader.
The offense didn't include him. It ran through him. His length, mobility and coordination defensively changed the way opponents attacked. If his teammates needed an emotional pick-up, Foote provided it.
"He instilled that confidence with us," guard Chris Wroblewski said. "To have that security blanket where you could throw it down to him whenever you needed to, and he'd get that bucket whenever he wanted. Also, he made everyone so much better. It was like having a 7-foot point guard that plays from the block."
Just as impactful was Foote's presence in his hometown community. Spencer-Van Etten students and alums flocked to Newman Arena to see their hero run the court, block shots and throw down crowd-pleasing dunks.
Cornell students became enamored with Foote, who'd return the favor by shaking as many hands and signing as many autographs as time would allow following each home win.
And there were plenty of wins. In his two and a half seasons at Cornell -- beginning with his debut at Bucknell on Dec. 19, 2007 -- the Big Red went 68-19 overall, 38-4 in Ivy League games and 32-1 at Newman Arena.
"I remember looking at the stands, seeing homemade Foote jerseys, people holding up big feet, the Foote Fetish (signs), things like that," teammate Aaron Osgood said. "People loved him around here."
For leading Cornell to successes in basketball never before seen on East Hill, for the countless hours of offseason work it took to get there, for the memorable moments on the court that galvanized the Big Red fan base, for the drastic improvement he showed over the course of one year, and for the positive impact he made on Spencer-Van Etten and surrounding communities, Foote has been named The Ithaca Journal's 2010 Kenny Van Sickle Male Athlete of the Year.
As a junior, Foote was a second-team all-league selection in addition to being named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. As a senior, he was infinitely better.
He added a significant amount of weight to keep opponents from muscling him around. He improved his shooting touch around the basket, shooting 62.5 percent as a senior compared to 53 percent as a junior. He averaged 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds. He finished third on the team in assists, and averaged almost two blocks per game.
He improved in every area, and his effort paid off when he signed a professional contract with international power Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Israel. In November, Foote was loaned out to Club Melilla Baloncesto, a Spanish second-division team.
"In the preseason, a lot of my motivation came actually from being named second-team (as a junior)," Foote said after he was named first-team all-league and defensive player of the year last March. "I kind of felt like I got a little shortchanged last year. It was a lot of motivation to get there this year."
Donahue saw that motivation sustained over the course of three years at Cornell. It's a rare thing, particularly for a player of that size who no one thought could develop.
"You see so many big kids, and you always hope that maybe one has a chance and you take a flyer on him," Donahue said. "You see it all around the country, all the programs where the kids really, unfortunately, never really develop into what you would hope.
"So Jeff ... I think he had a chip on his shoulder about how he looked, how he felt, awkward being as tall as he was, and he wanted to prove people wrong. That's kind of how he plays."
Teammates recalled him as one of the most competitive players they've seen.
"He was such a competitor on the court and such a good friend off the court," Osgood said. "For me, I guard him every day. I hated him on this court. Every time I got elbowed in the face, and ... he probably hated me when I elbowed him in the chest. But off the court, that was gone.
"If I fouled him hard and coaches didn't give him a call because he's seven foot, he was pissed. He would back my ass all the way underneath the basket and try to dunk on me the rest of the day."
Foote was one of several elite-level local athletes who excelled in 2010.
Lansing native and 2007 Kenny Van Sickle Male Athlete of the Year award winner Kyle Dake, won an NCAA wrestling championship as a freshman at Cornell.
Cornell lacrosse player Rob Pannell was named the Division I Attackman of the Year after leading the Big Red to its third final four in four seasons.
Former Ithaca High swimming standout Alex Meyer won the gold medal at the 6th FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships on July 22, 2010, in Roberval, Canada.
Foote even had competition from his own team in point guard Louis Dale and small forward Ryan Wittman, Cornell's all-time leading scorer and the 2009-10 Ivy League Player of the Year.
Depending on the opposing coach, opinions differed on the Big Red's most important player. One thing was agreed upon: players of Foote's size and skill level were extraordinarily rare. For Cornell, it was the difference between being very good and being great.
Summarized Wroblewski: "Foote was the one we all looked to when the game was getting tight."
"There were times where I map up a play and I mess it up and he grabs the board and he redoes it," Donahue recalled late last season. "That's your seven-foot center doing that. That's not your point guard. So he's just been an incredible delight to coach and be with. The stuff he does on the basketball court -- I always say if he was six-seven, he'd be good. He'd be a really good player. That he's seven foot makes him very special."
Ithaca Journal Male Athletes of the Year
1961 -- Dave Auble, Cornell wrestling
1962 -- Gary Wood, Cornell football
1963 -- Gary Wood, Cornell football
1964 -- Richie Miller, Ithaca High football, baseball, basketball
1965 -- Jeff Stephens, Cornell wrestling; Jim Harris, Ithaca College football
1966 -- Doug Ferguson, Cornell hockey
1967 -- Ken Dryden, Cornell hockey
1968 -- Tom Parr, Ithaca High football, baseball; Bruce Pattison, Cornell hockey, golf
1969 -- Ed Marinaro, Cornell football; Steve Webster, Ithaca High football
1970 -- Ed Marinaro, Cornell football; Steve Webster, Ithaca High football; Tom Snickenberger, Ithaca High football, hockey, baseball
1971 -- Ed Marinaro, Cornell football
1972 -- Dave Pitzer, Ithaca High football, basketball, track
1973 -- Norm Freeman, sailor
1974 -- Dave Remick, Ithaca College football
1975 -- Mark Iacovelli, Ithaca High wrestling
1976 -- Mike French, Cornell lacrosse
1977 -- Eamon McEneany, Cornell lacrosse; Mark Iacovelli, Ithaca High wrestling
1978 -- Joe Holland, Cornell football; Karl Steffen, Ithaca College baseball
1979 -- John Laper, Ithaca College football
1980 -- Bob Ferrigno, Ithaca College football
1981 -- Don Van Gorder, local golfer
1982 -- Brian Hayward, Cornell hockey; Tod Hart, Ithaca College basketball
1983 -- Derrick Harmon, Cornell football; Darren Eliot, Cornell hockey
1984 -- Mike Tallman, Ithaca High golf, hockey
1985 -- Ken Bantum, Cornell basketball
1986 -- Doug Dadswell, Cornell hockey
1987 -- Tim Goldstein, Cornell lacrosse
1988 -- Mike Scott, Ithaca College football
1989 -- Jim Atsedes, local golfer
1990 -- Mike Fusilli, Ithaca College wrestling
1991 -- Todd Wilkowski, Ithaca College football
1992 -- Jeff Wittman, Ithaca College football
1993 -- Kevin Cartmill, Ithaca High golf, basketball
1994 -- David Hirsch, Cornell wrestling
1995 -- Chad Levitt, Cornell football
1996 -- Chad Levitt, Cornell football
1997 -- Jason Elliott, Cornell hockey
1998 -- Brandon Lehman, Ithaca High wrestling
1999 -- Toby Foster, Candor High basketball
2000 -- Ron Amato, Ithaca College baseball, football
2001 -- Matt Underhill, Cornell hockey
2002 -- Doug Murray, Cornell hockey
2003 -- Nick Park, Lansing High golf
2004 -- David Grossman, Ithaca High hockey, lacrosse
2005 -- Josh Felicetti, Ithaca College football
2006 -- Christian Thompson, Candor cross country
2007 -- Kyle Dake, Lansing wrestling
2008 -- Andrew Byrnes, rowing; Jordan Leen, Cornell wrestling
2009 - Max Seibald, Cornell lacrosse
2010 -- Jeff Foote, Cornell basketball