He had been through this ritual hundreds of times before. The pregame sauna, a few hours before tipoff. The final talk to the players, reminding them of what to look for from the opposition. Even the chewing gum, used more to keep from biting through his tongue in moments of tension than anything else.

It was all second nature to Bill Foster, but he was visibly nervous, rocking back and forth on his heels in the South Carolina locker room a few minutes before his team played Holy Cross.

Nine weeks before, Foster had left this building in an ambulance; he had suffered a heart attack. South Carolina had upset Purdue when Foster was stricken and, as he got ready to go back on the court Saturday night, Foster remembered that night.

"When they wheeled me out, I heard the cheerleaders saying, 'Look, it's Coach Foster,' and I thought, 'This can't be happening to me.' But it was. I wondered if I was going to die. I wondered about my family. I wondered if I would ever coach again."

Nine weeks later, after undergoing quadruple bypass heart surgery, Bill Foster came back. He still wore his hospital identification bracelet to remind him of what he had been through. He had lost weight and his complexion looked more pale than usual. But he still looked younger than 52, the straight brown hair barely flecked with gray, his eyes lively, his smile quick and warm.

Three minutes before tipoff he walked resolutely to the locker room door, pushed it open and headed toward the steps leading to the court.

"Got any smelling salts?" he said, grinning, to trainer Jim Price.

With that, he bounded up the steps and walked toward the court. The 8,862 fans in the Carolina Coliseum had not known for sure that Foster would be at the game; no announcement had been made.

When the crowd spotted Foster, the reaction was electric. Everyone in the building rose to applaud him. George Blaney, the Holy Cross coach, stopped to applaud. The referees stopped to applaud. Foster felt himself choking up as he tried to act casual, talking to Blaney and to South Carolina's assistant coach, Steve Steinwedel, who had run the team in his absence and was still technically in charge for this game.

Moments later, he sat down on the bench, having said before the game that he was going to be an observer. Less than two minutes into the contest, Foster's sharp eyes spotted a charging foul that the officials somehow missed.

"That was a charge," he yelled, showing the referee the correct signal. Then he shook his head in disgust.

Bill Foster was home again.

When his doctors examined Foster in December, they told him that one thing had caused his heart attack: stress. That surprised no one who knows him. Foster has always been driven, the classic workaholic, a man who achieved and achieved and wondered why he hadn't achieved more.

"I always thought the way you lived life was to work 20 hours a day and sleep, maybe, for four," Foster said. "I got to believing I was a cross between Jack Armstrong and Superman, that if I missed some sleep I could make it up later. I never stopped and worried about what I was doing to myself.

"Every loss I took personally. Every game I was uptight before, during and after. We lost, I couldn't sleep."

During his last season at Duke, in 1980, Foster was so tense that, after his team lost, he would get in his car and drive around aimlessly, listening to country music.

That's why he took the job at South Carolina. The pressures of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the feeling that few people appreciated the job he had done at Duke, taking a perennial loser to three straight NCAA bids, including a trip to the national championship game in 1978, drove him from a school he had once loved.

He came here, looking for a new start at age 50. And he found it. He and his wife Shirley moved into a gorgeous lakefront house, complete with pool and all the trappings of success and comfort.

The school, which has had a checkered athletic history, took to the stability he brought right away. As has happened everywhere he has coached--Bloomsburg State, Rutgers, Utah, Duke--Foster quickly became popular on campus as he undertook still another rebuilding job.

He was 31-25 the first two seasons (he now has 357 victories and 216 losses overall), and started this season thinking with a fairly modest schedule that 16 to 18 victories and an NIT bid were not unreasonable. On Dec. 11, Purdue came to town, an important game for South Carolina against a top 20 team that had just upset Louisville.

For Foster, the game had special meaning. In his last game at Utah, Foster had lost the NIT championship game--to Purdue. In his last game at Duke, Foster had lost the Mideast regional championship game--to Purdue.

"A lot of the guys that called later reminded me that it took an awful lot out of me to finally beat Purdue," Foster says now with a laugh. "Lou Goetz (his former assistant coach) said to me in the hospital, 'Coach, a heart attack after you lose to Presbyterian I can understand, but after you beat Purdue?' "

Now, he can laugh. That night, he could hardly breathe. Foster first began feeling sick at halftime and said to his assistant coaches as they returned to the bench, "Watch me, I don't feel very good."

With three minutes left in the game he told Steinwedel to bring the team doctor to the locker room as soon as the game was over.

"I was thinking it was some kind of bad virus or something," Foster said. "By the time I got to the locker room though, I was having trouble breathing, clearing my throat. I thought I was going to be sick. I went to do my radio show and felt like I had to lie down. By now I was trying not to think it was a heart attack. Then I heard somebody say we needed an ambulance."

Foster vividly remembers the ride to the hospital. "The guy back there with me was great. He kept saying, 'Coach, you're going to be fine, you look good to me.' I needed to hear that right then."

Public reaction to Foster's heart attack was universal. Foster is one of the best-liked men in the coaching fraternity, a former president of the coaches' association.

Flowers, letters and telegrams flooded the hospital to the point where hospital officials asked the family to try to tell people to stop sending things. Goetz and Bob Wenzel, who had played for Foster at Rutgers and then coached under him, arrived at the hospital shortly after the attack. Goetz, the first to arrive, was immediately grabbed by Shirley Foster.

"Get in there," she said. "You're family."

During those first few days, Shirley Foster amazed everyone. She would have been just as happy if her husband never coached. But when he chose it for his life's work, she supported him completely. Now, with that work threatened, she felt the need to help in any way she could.

Forty-eight hours after her husband was taken to the hospital, Shirley Foster walked into his locker room just before his team took the floor to practice for the first time since the Purdue victory.

She quietly and firmly told the players how proud Foster had been of them for their play against Purdue. She told them that he wanted them to continue to work hard and that he was thinking of them. And, she told them, "He will be back."

"I started crying when she said that," Steinwedel said. "She was so strong and so determined. We all needed that then and Coach Foster wasn't there to do it, so she did."

That Saturday, Ray Jones, Foster's other chief assistant, went to his pregame sauna. When he got in the sauna, it suddenly occurred to him that he was alone.

"That was the only time I cried," he said. "I just missed him. We all felt like--there was a game he should be here. I don't think any of us had it in us to really be into a game that night." The result was a loss to Rider.

But good things soon began happening. While he was still in the hospital, the university's president, James Holderman, announced that Foster's contract had been extended.

The team turned things around, coming from eight points down to beat Richmond, then winning 10 of 11 games, including consecutive victories over Idaho, Vanderbilt and Clemson. Saturday's 85-59 victory over Holy Cross raised the Gamecocks' record to 17-7.

More important, his doctors said the surgery was a success and that he could soon return to coaching. "As soon as the doctors said that, it was like magic," Shirley Foster said. "His attitude turned around completely."

Calls came from all over the country. Dean Smith sent a telegram, joking, "Some guys will do anything to get their team up for a game." When Eugene Banks, one of the key players on the great Duke teams, called and didn't reverse the charges, Foster said, "I almost had a relapse from shock.

"I just couldn't believe how many people cared," he said. "It made me realize how much I had to live for, to be thankful for. My family, my friends and all the people who really did care. It's the old cliche about stopping to smell the roses. I never had time for that before. Now, I'll make time. I have to."

Through it all, the question hung out there like a hanging curve ball: would he come back? Many of his friends hoped not; Foster takes losing so hard they were afraid a relapse was inevitable.

But Wenzel, now coach at Jacksonville, was always convinced Foster would return. "There was no way he wasn't going to take another shot at it," Wenzel said. "If he did anything else he would probably be just as compulsive and driven as he has been as a coach unless he's learned from this experience.

"I think he has learned. He's too bright not to. He knows what happened, he knows what he's faced. He's a guy who has never turned down a speaking engagement, who loved working. Now, he knows he can't do it that way anymore."

Jim Valvano, the N.C. State coach who played for Foster at Rutgers, has had countless phone conversations with his old coach since December and has heard him say he will reform.

"Everything he says makes sense," Valvano said. "He sounds like he's got it together. I really wish though he had waited until next season to come back, taken the summer and then started from scratch.

"He is an unbelievable person to me. I drive my wife crazy because half my life, when she asks me why I'm doing something, I start by saying, 'because Coach Foster did it this way.' Now, since he's been sick, it seems as if he's worried that I may be doing the same thing to myself that he did to himself. After we lost to Memphis State, when I went kind of wild on the bench, I walked in the door and he was on the phone telling me to cool it, to start enjoying things more.

"He wanted to remind me that we both love the game but at the same time he wanted to be sure I didn't let it do to me what it did to him. Here he is, recovering from a heart attack and he's worried about me."

Last week, with his team in last place in the Metro Conference, Wenzel got a letter. It was from Foster, telling him not to get down on himself.

"It was the kind of note," Wenzel said, "that keeps you from becoming a maniac."

On Saturday, a warm, cloudless day, a beautiful day to be alive, Bill Foster returned to doing the thing he loves most in life: coaching. He leaped out of his car on the way to the training meal saying, "Did you see Dean get those technicals?" a reference to the North Carolina-N.C. State game he had been watching.

Driving to the Coliseum, Jones kidded him about how the fans would react when he was introduced. Foster had said since the beginning he wanted his return to be quiet, with no fanfare. "Enjoy it," Jones said, "because if we start losing, they'll probably boo us out of the place."

"It won't bother me," Foster said with a laugh. "I'll just point at Steiny and say, 'He did it, not me.' "

He rested before the game, napping in the bed the school set up for him in an office across the hall from the locker room. Finally, it was time to get dressed.

He put on a white shirt, blue tie, gray slacks and a maroon jacket--the same outfit he had worn the night he almost died.

"We won that night," Foster said softly. "I always wear the same outfit after a win."