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A Lasting Legacy

By Denise Alexander
 
Imagine a reality-TV show about a married couple with children who work together in a high-stress occupation, in offices just a few feet apart, putting in long hours that include nights and weekends. Sounds like it might make for some high drama and emotional fireworks, right? Not so with Bill and Judy Finney, whose pleasant professional partnership is as much a part of Marymount University as the landmark Main House.

Bill has been the Marymount women’s basketball coach since 1983, also serving as athletic director since 1989. Judy spent the first 14 years of his tenure as “head volunteer,” then came on board officially in 1997, when she was appointed as the University’s first sports information director. Together, the Finneys have become synonymous with Marymount athletics; they are widely known and respected in the local community, in the Capital Athletic Conference, and in NCAA Division III circles. But their most significant influence has, without a doubt, been on MU’s student-athletes.

When the 2010 basketball season concluded, Bill and Judy Finney announced that they would retire in August. Reactions to the announcement can be boiled down to a single sentiment: “Marymount won’t be the same without them – those are some big shoes to fill!”

Even if his efforts at Marymount were only about basketball, Coach Finney’s record would be impressive. He has a career total of 553 wins and has taken his team to 16 NCAA post-season tournaments. Under his leadership, the Saints achieved two Elite Eight and eight Sweet 16 finishes and went all the way to the Final Four in 2002. Bill Finney’s final season saw the team capture their eleventh Capital Athletic Conference championship. In recognition of these accomplishments, he has been named Conference Coach of the Year four times and Regional Coach of the Year twice.

And Judy has been there for the whole ride – from her early volunteer days, when she kept stats at weekend games and took vacation days from her job to help run the Marymount Tip-Off Tournament, to her current role, which include such diverse responsibilities as keeping stats for various MU sports, coordinating team travel arrangements, writing press releases, updating the Athletics website, helping to build and manage the Athletics Department budget, and even washing uniforms in a pinch!

Asked how it all began, Coach Finney laughs and says, “It almost didn’t! I was a ‘house spouse,’ taking care of our twin girls while Judy worked full time in public relations. By chance, I read that the Marymount coach had moved on to another college.

“Having played basketball at Syracuse and done some high school and youth league coaching, I thought I’d apply for the open position. I called cold and was told that they were close to hiring someone, but to come in the next day with my resumé. I didn’t have one, so when Judy got home that night, we put one together. I went in for the interview and within a week, I was hired!”

Bill Finney’s office walls are covered with team photos. He remembers the first Marymount game he coached, when the Saints took on Mount Vernon College. While he can’t recall the exact score, Bill does know that Marymount won by one or two points. He took this as a good omen.

That first season also marked the start of Coach Finney’s recruiting efforts for MU. He says, “My philosophy has always been that I will ‘go to Mars’ to get a good player. I’ve often driven hours to get to a high school game in, say, western Pennsylvania. For the first few minutes of the car ride, I’m thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ but then I start to get excited. And sometimes, I’ll have driven all that way just to see a prospect play for 10 minutes, but it’s worth it.”

Finney has found that it’s not hard to recruit for Marymount. He attributes that to “our excellent location; our size, which promotes personal attention and gives individuals the opportunity to shine; and our reasonable cost.” He is too modest to say that it is also because of the excellent reputation of Marymount’s NCAA Division III athletics program and coaching staff – a reputation that is due, in large part, to Bill Finney’s own efforts.

Coach Finney says that one of the most frequent questions that he gets from prospects is, “Why should I choose a Division III school? Why not Division I?”

His answer is simple: “I tell them, ‘You can play in Division III; you won’t be sitting on the bench.’ Plus, I point out all of the advantages that Marymount offers, beyond basketball. I discuss the academic scholarships and our friendly community. If they’re on a campus visit, I take them to a class, and I start asking questions of the professor as if I were the parent. Then, we get to hear the passion of the faculty member talking about his or her program. At the end, I turn to the prospect and say, ‘This is why you want to come to Marymount.’”

Both Finneys firmly believe that Division III sports reflect the spirit of Catholic higher education. Judy notes, “Marymount’s commitment to both academics and athletics is reflected in our players’ grade point averages. The GPA for the MU women’s teams has been above 3.0 in each of the past 12 consecutive semesters. And the GPA for all of our teams combined is higher than the campus GPA as a whole.”

Does this mean that playing basketball at the Division III level is easy, or that Coach Finney and his players are not competitive? Far from it. This season, the women’s basketball team’s daily two-hour practices began at 6 a.m. – so they had to be in the training room at 5. And, truthfully, Bill Finney’s coaching style cannot be labeled “warm and fuzzy.” He says sheepishly, “I’m better known for booming and bellowing.”

“In all honesty,” Finney says, “I’m not trying to be their friend. I want to bring out the best in the players, to help them reach their potential. What makes it fun is watching these kids grow, watching them mature. I believe that the discipline of being on a team translates to being capable of taking on life’s challenges.”

And Bill Finney’s players get the message. Assistant Basketball Coach C.K. Calhoun, who graduated from Marymount in 2006, says, “Coach Finney’s style is intense; he demands excellence. It doesn’t matter if you’re a starter or play for just one minute of the game. He’ll go over every play until everyone gets it. And he’ll be hollering on the sidelines, even when we’re up by 25 points!”

Debbie Clise ’88 was one of Bill Finney’s first recruits. She remembers his and Judy’s dedication, noting, “They did everything! Before Marymount had bleachers, Bill and Judy were out there setting up chairs before each game. They swept the floors. They drove the team vans. They built Marymount’s program from the ground up and, above all, they made sure that we knew why we were there; education trumped basketball.”

Describing Finney as an “amazing man,” Debbie – who was named to MU’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006 – is not above some gentle ribbing. She chuckles, “I came to Bill’s last home game just to hear him yell again.”

Kati Hessler ’05, who played for Marymount almost a generation after Debbie Clise, echoes many of her comments. A member of the 2002 team that went to the Final Four, Kati says, “Winning is always a good thing. But we gained so much more from Marymount basketball than just a great record. We learned valuable life lessons that have molded all of us into the individuals we are today.”

Bill Finney is quick to recognize the important role that his wife has played in the success of Marymount’s athletics program. He notes, “Judy supports all of the University’s teams in more ways than I can detail. She’s a terrific sports information director; most nights during any given season, she is entering stats on the website at home until late into the evening.”

Judy laughingly provides an example of how crazy things can get: “On February 20, the basketball teams had a doubleheader at Hood College, which conceivably could have been Bill’s last game if we had lost. I would have liked to be there, but we also had a lacrosse doubleheader at the Germantown, Maryland, Soccerplex – quite a hike from Marymount – so I had to go there.

“This was right after the back-to-back blizzards. The fields had been cleared, but the snow was piled up on the sidelines. It was like we were fenced in by four feet of snow. And it was freezing! I sat there shivering, entering stats on the laptop. During the short break between the men’s and women’s games, I realized that I couldn’t feel my fingers! Five hours later, we finally headed for home.”

She adds, “The good news was that the women’s basketball team beat Hood, so I didn’t miss Bill’s final game after all!”

C.K. Calhoun extolls Judy’s skills, noting, “She is amazing! She travels to most away games and does the stats for 12 teams. She knows all the rules for all the sports. There’s a language for each of them, and she knows those too.”

C.K. quickly adds, “But Judy’s role is much greater than just these job reponsibilities. She and Coach Finney really care about the players. As all the women’s basketball teams can tell you, Friday night pasta dinners at the Finneys’ house are a tradition. Judy has cooked hundreds of meals for MU students-athletes over the years!”

As much as they have contributed to Marymount University, the Finneys have also made a significant difference in the Arlington community. Marymount’s athletics program reaches out to give back in many ways. Bill Finney and MU’s other coaches sponsor youth league clinics and summer sports camps. During the summer camps, Bill organizes an annual “College Day” seminar that connects MU athletes with younger players. And he supports the Saints’participation in community service projects, like canned-food drives to benefit the Arlington Food Assistance Center and the “Happy Hats” initiative, which saw Marymount student-athletes crafting little hats to be delivered to the pediatric oncology unit of a local hospital.

Summing up what Bill and Judy Finney have meant to Marymount, C.K. Calhoun observes, “Our team t-shirts say ‘DYB.’ That stands for Do Your Best. It reminds us that whatever you’re doing, you have to give it your best effort. This is the standard that the Finneys have set.”

It’s true. For nearly three decades, Marymount University and its students have been the beneficiaries of Bill and Judy Finney’s “best” – and that’s a legacy to be proud of.