By Tom Ballato
In 2010 Cornell went on a magical run to the Sweet 16. Cornell plays in the Ivy League, where the winner of league play received an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Cornell won the Ivy League three years in a row (2008, 2009, and 2010). In 2008 and 2009, Cornell lost in the first round of the tournament, but you could tell that something special was brewing. In 2010, Cornell finished 29-5 overall and 13-1 in the conference, and upset Temple and Wisconsin before losing to Kentucky. I talked with former Big Red center Jeff Foote about his career, his time at Cornell, and the magical run.
You played at Cornell for three years after redshirting and transferring from St. Bonaventure your freshman year. Describe your time at Cornell playing under coach Donahue.
Foote: Playing for Coach D was awesome. He worked hard to build up a good culture and brought in guys that really built on top of each other and fed off each other’s success. When I transferred in, the first thing I noticed was the difference in the feel and the dynamic of the team. There was a lot of very healthy competition, and it was fueled by the older guys. They constantly challenged everything in practice, the weight room, and off the court. The team was a lot closer. That continued to develop, and with each incoming class, it became tighter. We wanted to be around each other and were genuinely best friends.
From a playing and scheme perspective, coach Donahue may be the best X’s and O’s coaches I have ever played for. I think our offensive efficiency and numbers as a team can attest to that. He also did a great job of tailoring the offense to the personnel. If you go back and watch the three years I played, each year, our offense was different. Some of the overarching concepts were similar (get good open 3’s, play with spacing, beat teams with timing and movement), but the ins and outs were much different. My first year, I came off the bench, and the offense revolved around our guard play (Louis, Gore, and Witt mostly) with two big guys who could shoot and space the floor (Kreef and JHart). In my second year, though, the offense started changing due to necessity. Louis went down, Gore went down, teams were keying off on Witt, and Ski was just a freshman still learning the offense. Meanwhile, I had gotten bigger and stronger and was more confident, so the offense started to flow through me a little more. Then my final year, we had been together so long that the offense was extremely versatile. Louis could take over, Witt, myself, Reeves, etc. I think a further testament to Coach D was his decision to bring Jon into games more while Alex was battling injuries, and upon recognizing the tremendous effect he had on the game (Jon shot a very high percentage from three and spaced the opposing defenses so much) to eventually start him.
You made the NCAA Tournament each year you were there. In 2008 and 2009, you lost in the first round of the tournament, but in 2010 you reached the Sweet 16. Cornell was ranked #12, and you guys upset #5 Temple and then #4 Wisconsin.
How were you guys prepared so well for each game being the underdogs from the Ivy League Conference that only gets one bid to the tournament? Describe the emotions and feelings that went on with you and your team after each win.
Foote: With regard to your second question’s first part, we were prepared so well because we were seasoned. The first two tournament losses (the stomping we received by Stanford and the closer but still beating we took from Mizzou) prepared us for the atmosphere and the questions/media/distractions. We were going in loose, focused, and hungry. We had all talked in the preseason, and the seniors on the team knew it would be our last shot at something great, so we all pushed each other to get into the best shape, get better, and stay motivated throughout the year. We had some absolute battles in the preseason, and the competitive fire in each of us led to our games being very high quality. We hated to lose, and that included any pickup game, drill in practice, lifting competition, and Smash Bros fights (video games). At the same time, you had a brotherly dynamic. We loved each other and had each other’s backs for everything. So because of this, we grew tremendously and made our run.
As for the emotions after each win, there weren’t many right away, honestly. There was certainly happiness and joy, but after each one, we did not want to allow ourselves to lose any focus. It was a “Who’s next” mentality after the wins. I think there is a lot of nostalgia about those times now from everyone, but while it was going on, it was more a drive to go as far as we could. However, I know that after the Kentucky loss, there was a lot of emotion, a lot of us recognizing that we were done and that a special group of guys wouldn’t get to play another game in the Cornell uniform anymore.
I have to mention your teammates Lou Dale, Ryan Whitman, Jon Jacques, etc., and you guys had something special. Tell me a little about that.
Foote: You mentioned me, Lou, Jon, and Ryan for having something special, but it was much deeper than that. Us four, AT, Reeves, Dre, Max, Ski, Wire, Aro, Pete are a band of brothers, that still to this day talk on a daily basis. We have a major group chat, go visit each other often, and still cherish the brotherhood that we have.
You played in Israel, Spain, the NBA Developmental League, New Orleans Hornets, and Lithuania after Cornell graduated. You signed with a top EuroLeague team Maccabi Tel Aviv and eventually earned a call-up from the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets. What was that journey like?
Foote: As for my professional career, I bounced around a lot. I loved playing, but after my Lithuania season and my back surgery, I couldn’t move the same. I played one more year in Springfield, but I knew my time was likely up. Following that, I went to law school at the University of Miami, and during my three years, I worked as a graduate assistant coach under Coach Jim Larranaga.
What do you do now?
Foote: As for now, I work as an in-house counsel for a Real Estate Development Portfolio – Gator Investments (owned primarily by fellow Cornell grad, James Goldsmith and his brother Bill).
Cornell was a team that shocked a lot of people in 2010, but it was no surprise what they accomplished for some. They were the first Ivy League team to make it to the Sweet 16, set an Ivy record with 29 wins, and were the country’s top 3 point shooting team.