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Former Northwestern baseball players, staffers detail misconduct, lack of accountability under Jim Foster

Things could not have gone worse in Foster’s first year in Evanston.

John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

In a matter of 72 hours, things have gone from bad to worse for Northwestern.

While already dealing with a hazing controversy related to the football program, news broke via 670 The Score and the Chicago Tribune Monday afternoon that highlighted a variety of allegations against Northwestern baseball coach Jim Foster and the “toxic” environment he created in his first year in Evanston.

Inside NU had the chance to speak to several players and people close to the team about what it was like to be a part of the team during the 2022-2023 season. All information reported by 670 The Score’s Danny Parkins and the Chicago Tribune’s Jonathan Bullington will be attributed as such; otherwise, the remaining information was confirmed and compiled by Inside NU.

The culture around Jim Foster’s baseball team was so bad, half the team ended up in therapy.

According to someone close to the situation, it wasn’t just the team’s performance on the field that suffered as a result of the coach, but the mental health of the athletes as well. The environment that the Northwestern baseball players existed in and played in was harmful to everyone involved, and roughly 16 players have entered the transfer portal since the conclusion of the season.

“Unlike the situation with Fitz, you without a doubt will not be seeing any support for him being signed off on by our team, which speaks volumes,” a transferring player said about Foster, referring to the football team’s letter of support of Pat Fitzgerald.

According to several people near the situation, the head baseball coach made no effort to get to know his players. At practices, he was often virtually absent, sometimes seen on his computer with his back facing the players. That, of course, doesn’t even include when he was literally absent. In January, there were approximately 18 preseason team workouts. Foster was in attendance for four.

“I didn’t even know he was on campus,” another former player said. “I was told he was in his office over in Anderson [Hall]. I had no reason to believe he was ever on campus in that month.”

In several press conferences and interviews months into the season that Inside NU attended or watched, Foster incorrectly pronounced many players’ names. At the end-of-the-year banquet in which parents of the athletes were also present, Foster gave speeches to honor each of the graduating seniors. His speeches were brief and seemed “disingenuous” and unprepared, with someone in attendance saying it was like he didn’t even know the guys he’d been coaching for nearly a year at all.

For one of the seniors at the banquet, in front of his family and everyone in attendance, Foster said, “You know, sometimes your natural talent can only take you so far.”

Foster may have been often disengaged from the team, but it was far worse when he was involved. The coach was abrasive during practices and games to not only the players on the team but also other staff members.

Against Saint Louis in March, an opposing player hit a ball that got through the infield. According to a player, Foster approached an assistant coach, who was in charge of defensive positioning, after the inning, and asked him why the shortstop was in that specific spot on the play. The assistant started to explain his reasoning, but Foster responded by getting in his face and yelling, “You shut the f—- up!” repeatedly until the assistant walked away.

“I have never seen an adult speak to another adult in that disrespectful of a manner,” the player said. “Especially not in the dugout in front of a team of players.”

Foster’s relationship with the assistant coaches was volatile, and the lack of respect given from him to his coworkers was a major reason for the filing of an HR report in November. The document of the report, obtained by the Chicago Tribune, described “bullying and abusive behavior” from Foster. The Tribune noted that there were times the coach would go into “expletive-laced tirades directed at his staff” and also mentioned inappropriate comments made regarding a female staff member.

The HR report found evidence that these claims were true prior to the start of the season, yet Northwestern did not make any changes to protect the coaches, players and staffers from the abusive environment. As a result, two assistant coaches — Dusty Napoleon and Jon Strauss — and the team’s Director of Operations, Chris Beacom, stepped away from the program around the time of the beginning of the season in late February.

The former Army Black Knight coach’s culture was one that lacked accountability, for himself and players on the team. If he made a mistake, he usually made it someone else’s fault, not his own, according to a player who has since transferred.

“When he was wrong, it was never, ‘Oh, I made a mistake, I apologize, I’ll fix it,’” the player said.

The team had a series of signs they’d relay to the position players with specific arm movements and orientations during games. Foster once discussed the signs with the team but did the signs backwards, which a player said may have messed the team up. Instead of taking responsibility, Foster tried to gaslight the players into believing his way had been correct the whole time.

There was also an incident in January between Foster and Strauss in practice. The Wildcats were practicing bunt coverages that didn’t work because no one ended up covering first base, and when Strauss called out Foster and said they needed to fix the issues, the head coach dismissed the fact that they needed to change anything. This devolved into a screaming match between the two coaches, according to someone near the event.

Accountability was a major issue within Northwestern baseball this year. Under Spencer Allen, who coached the Wildcats from 2016-2021, the team had to sign a commitment that if they failed a drug test, they were kicked off. A source close to the team said Allen's policy created a sense of commitment that was bigger than one’s self, something that didn’t exist this year.

There were virtually no punishments for those who didn’t uphold the standards that are normally assumed of Northwestern baseball, with one example just being to show up on time for practice. The same source noted there was an athlete who missed a lift workout once, and his “punishment” was to get his plane ticket last. The player ended up starting a game the next day.

Practices were also “a toss in the air” in how unpredictable they were. Foster often failed to put together plans, leaving the responsibility to the assistant coaches and not telling anyone what to do. When he did set up practices, it was often on things that a source close to the team said didn’t help them in games.

“We would have practices sometimes [when] we’d be bunting in four of our five cages for 30, 40 minutes,” the source said. “Nothing against bunting, but we’re going to go face Texas State Week One, and we’re facing Levi Wells throwing 95 [miles per hour]. We have our Spinball machine, which can throw 95-mile-per-hour fastballs, curveballs, sliders, any pitch you want. We have it for 85-mile-per-hour fastballs, and we’re bunting off of it. That is not the way to win baseball games.”

Northwestern ended up losing all three games in the opening weekend to Texas State by a combined score of 56-18. The Wildcats allowed 24 runs in the final game of the series.

In practice, the players were also instructed to bunt fastballs and hit curveballs. Meanwhile, in games, they were taking curveballs and hitting fastballs, so the time they spent practicing did not help the team in games all that much.

This obviously did not translate to winning, as the Wildcats went 10-40 in 2023 with a lowly 4-20 record in Big Ten play. Players went so far as to say that from a developmental standpoint, none of the players got better because of anything that Foster did. In fact, one player said those who improved did so in spite of Foster and because of the massive amounts of work they put in on their own.

Another issue that really hit the team hard came right after the season ended regarding Buddy Baseball, a “non-competitive recreational league for boys and girls with special needs,” according to the Buddy Baseball website. One of the Northwestern managers, who regularly volunteers with the organization, brought up the idea of the Wildcats helping volunteer to Foster, who has a daughter with autism. Foster was on board with the opportunity, but it only went downhill from there.

The manager told Inside NU that Foster would consistently push back their meetings to set up the event and postpone them without telling her. Eventually, they finally met and planned a volunteer date with the help of Northwestern’s Assistant Director of Community Relations, Rebekah Sigman.

However, five days before the event, Foster told the manager that since it was during Northwestern’s pre-finals Reading Week, NCAA rules prohibited organized team activities, and they would have to cancel the event. The ruling, though, does not prevent the players from volunteering on their own time, and after the manager had discussions with Sigman and Northwestern higher-ups, players were allowed to go to the event under the presumption that it was on their own time and not an organized activity. Twelve players planned to volunteer at the event.

Two hours before the Buddy Baseball game, the manager received a text from one of the players saying Foster was not allowing any of them to go, even though they had been cleared by Sigman and other members of the Northwestern athletic department. The organization had rescheduled the day to fit with the baseball team’s schedule, they had ordered pizza for the event, the Buddy Baseball players and parents were all “decked out in Northwestern gear,” and when they found out the team wouldn’t be there, they were heartbroken.

The Wildcat players who were planning on attending understood how bad it made them look, but felt even worse inside by the sheer fact that they had promised to go and couldn’t be there, even if it was out of their control.

“The NCAA prohibits organized activities during specific times and defines what an organized team activity is, and this did not fall under it,” the manager, who quit the team shortly after said. “Someone above him okayed it. He didn’t even give the players a reason, he just told the players they couldn’t go.”

In the aftermath of the troubling Northwestern baseball season, at least 16 players have entered the transfer portal out of the 35 that were on the team’s roster this past year. The team also loses several graduate students and seniors, meaning the Wildcats will likely return less than half of their roster if Foster remains as head coach. All three of the team captains from 2023 are also transferring to another school next year, two of which would’ve been seniors next year.

The ‘Cats are no strangers to losing talent to the transfer portal. Sean Sullivan just became a second-round MLB draft pick after transferring last year to Wake Forest, while Ethan O’Donnell (Virginia) and Jay Beshears (Duke) were each sixth-round selections on Monday. However, an exodus often comes with a coaching change, such as last summer, and is highly unusual for a team in which the coach remains at the school.

A source involved with the program emphasized just how massive it is for the program to lose not only that many players, but also those who are currently rising seniors.

“Those are kids that have put three years into this university, into the school, into the team, into this community and are willing to forego their Northwestern education so that they can play for a different head coach,” the source said. “That is something that we should be embarrassed by.”

Another former player, who’s since left NU via the transfer portal, echoed the same sentiment.

“I feel bad for the underclassmen; this was their first experience of college baseball and it’s not supposed to be like this,” the player said. “You’re not supposed to get a new coaching staff midseason. You’re not supposed to be 10-40. I feel for those guys that had to leave through the portal, the freshmen and sophomores who are eligible, because they’re getting the chance to get a world-class degree taken away from them because their baseball experience wasn’t what it was supposed to be, and that’s just not right.”

After being recruited to a top 10 academic university with the promise of developing their baseball skills against Big Ten competition, many of the same athletes who marched through the Arch with starry eyes and big aspirations will not even get the chance to walk across the graduation stage with their Northwestern degree, let alone finish out their collegiate careers in the purple and white. In an average transfer class, athletes have a variety of reasons for leaving. For former Northwestern baseball players leaving this year, there is one common denominator.

Things will likely get worse before they get better. The NU baseball team would likely have to completely reshape its roster to rebuild after the major losses, and the program would require a complete culture makeover.

However, there’s one thing that former players, coaches, staffers and managers all agree on, and that’s that nothing will get better until Jim Foster is gone.