Most people in high school referred to him as Coach Chip, the charismatic and unpredictable defensive coordinator—I did some, too, but it was always apparent that he was so much more than just a coach; he was Chip Foster, the teacher, father and wise individual who was a bit unusual.
I remember my first day in his class when I was a junior. It was Advanced World Geography – do not forget the advanced part. “This is an ADVANCED course,” Foster would warn us. He would hold you to that, too. If you didn’t keep up your end of the bargain, he would remove you from the course. It wasn’t personal, and it wouldn’t mean that he didn’t like that student—he simply was teaching an advanced course, and it required a certain level of effort and want.
To some he was a football coach more focused on football—an entirely wrong assumption. He truly loves football, but he has a deep passion for teaching and helping students, too. Foster teaches U.S. History and AP U.S. History now, and he’s a football coach, somewhere else down the line.
We’ve had to shuffle our interview a couple times. He offers to talk to me at the school while Grenada High is on fall break. Outside it’s overcast, gloomy—the clouds, dark and endless, are ready to drown the day away should Mother Nature see fit. Foster, his young son, and I are the only people in the recently-renovated high school that now depicts a more modern flow throughout.
When we get to his room, he lobs a surprising revelation at me: “You know I’m getting out of coaching?”
Taken aback, I ask for confirmation, which he provides.
“Probably after this year, but definitely after next.”
My initial instinct, probably because of watching too much college football, is because Grenada has ridden the struggle bus in 2018. In their second year in Region 2-5A, the Chargers are 3-6 (1-3), struggling through the toughest district in Mississippi’s 5A classification.
That initial assumption proves false – he’s just evolved with life.
“Coach Chip,” as he’s been called for years, is ditching the coaching tag and earning his administrative degree, which he should have at the end of the summer, leaving the coaching profession in his rearview mirror to focus more on education and being a dad.
“I’ve done everything I wanted to do in coaching,” he said. “I’m comfortable where I am.”
Having evolved over the years and now being a father to two, his priorities are different than before. He loves football, don’t get him wrong, but he loves education and family more.
While he turns on game film for his young football-obsessed son to watch while we talk, I remember something he told me when I interviewed him a year ago.
“Now, we are learning what each kid needs.”
At the time, he meant it from a coach’s perspective, but, without me even asking, he brings it back up as I press about his administrative future.
Foster wants to be a positive influence on the lives of as many students as possible. He mentions a growing respect for interactions with students “who don’t play football.” That’s not a slight on football players—he’s just expressing a new side of himself … or well, a side he is fully embracing, finally.
I soon learn that the two of us share a common ideal: “[Most] issues in society can be fixed with school.”
But to fix society, schools can’t lose students. He recognizes as much. “Some kids, they get left behind. We have to do better.”
Foster thinks we have to adapt more to new information, to new children. “Students today are different from before. They’re more advanced—we have to help them in new ways.”
Foster’s not attacking any particular school district, especially the one he works for. He truly likes where he is, and he makes that abundantly clear.
He thinks it’s more of a systematic flaw—too much emphasis on the wrong areas, and not enough on the areas that matter.
There’s merit to his theories—in my personal experiences, the teachers, namely a dynamic duo of high school English teachers, who focus less on the dreaded state tests and more on the students and what they need to know tend to shoot up the ranks, in both the opinions of and performance by students.
As we’re talking, I ask when he felt the push to change his career trajectory—as he’s drawing up one of the “thousand” plays West Point’s offense might run because Grenada is still in the midst of a rough football season.
Foster perks up at the question, and I can sense what he’s about to say is important to him—one of those monster-truck, life-altering moments that can stick with a person for years, even if it takes them a decade or so to realize.
“I started to figure it out about six years ago, but I had a former Superintendent of mine tell me it would happen years before that.”
Dr. Jack McAlpin, now the Southern Regional Education Service Agency (S-RESA) Director at the University of Southern Miss told him years ago that “football coaches go one of two ways.”
Football coaches either go headfirst into football and become consumed by the sport—modern examples would be the meteoric rises from the high school ranks to major SEC programs and bowl games by Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze—or they “evolve” and fall in love with the educational side of their job.
McAlpin, who was superintendent of McGee School District, where Chip got his coaching start alongside his dad, told the young coach that he was the opposite of his dad.
That is, he wasn’t going to be consumed by football—he was going to love the other side of his job.
Years later, he was right. “I can do more good as an administrator, a teacher,” admits Foster with an air of enthusiasm, though it’s obvious his monster-truck, life-altering decision wasn’t made lightly.
Football has allowed Foster to reach many lives, but teaching, impacting all students, makes that impact look minuscule at best.
Foster was always an interesting figure—an odd-ball. In his class, we just never knew what he would say or do next. Like when he’d toss a shoe, or when he would stop and ask “wonder if it would hurt if I ran through that window?”
No, he’s not crazy. He just wanted to keep your attention. Sometimes it would be a shenanigan or two, other times it was a lively story that he would relate back to class. Or he’d start teaching the class U.S. History or English or Math or about a World Religion and then joke that he wasn’t paid for this extra information.
“You have to keep people’s attention. We, as humans, have a tendency to get bored and check out when someone is lecturing us, so I like to mix it up, maybe I’ll toss a shoe around.”
Coaches, football coaches in particular, get a bad rap in high school—many people just stereotype them as some football machine whose sole reason for employment is Friday Night Lights. Eric Taylor he is not—although Foster is more Eric Taylor, less Bud Kilmer; he lives for giving life lessons.
I can, however, envision him giving a speech similar to “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” After all, I’ve seen him emphatically meet his defense at the goal line in celebration after a key defensive stand that was nearly sabotaged on three occasions by questionable penalties.
A coach, a father, a teacher—they’re just labels. Separate, they’re occupations, but together, they start to foreshadow the man behind them. They’re no stronger or lesser a label than a journalist or lawyer or senator or writer. We can impact the lives of people around us regardless of our career or status—so long as we listen to what that little voice inside of us is screaming or whispering and give it our all.
In the wise words of the famous Max Ehrmann poem “Desiderata,” ‘Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time … Be yourself.”
If we could all follow those words and stay true to ourselves, we might just leave this world better than we found it, but we have to evolve—live, listen and learn—and embrace wherever those monster-truck, life-altering decisions take us.