Bob Finley’s Passing-25 Years Ago
By Wayne Wood
It was 25 years ago this summer that Buccaneer Coach Bob Finley died on the Berry High School field in the stadium named for him. Those of us affiliated with that era of time will never forget the days preceding that Sunday afternoon of July 31, 1994 and the days, weeks and months following. That summer was a time of transition from the location of W.A. Berry High School to the new location of Hoover High School.
Few people in education ever gave as much of themselves to a high school as Bob Finley did for W.A. Berry. He came to Berry in 1964 as the head boys basketball coach and to assist Larry Wilson in football. Coach Finley had an incredible coaching mind and maximized his talents to the fullest.
After Wilson left, Wayne Sims became the head football coach. Finley remained to assist Sims although the seasons of 1966 and 1967 were struggling years and Sims left. Fellow Berry assistants Joe Perkins and Gerald Gann (whom Finley had known for many years) had to encourage and persuade Finley to apply for the head job in 1968.
Finley knew he couldn’t be head coach of both basketball and football at the time so he decided on football. The program had to be restored and strengthened thus Finley and his staff set forth with a incredibly strong work ethic. A successful 9-2 season was the result. The following year of 1969 was even better as the Bucs went 11-1 losing only to Robert E. Lee/Montgomery 14-7 in the state title game at Legion Field.
By this time, Finley was also athletic director and he worked to ensure the success of other programs. He set high standards for himself and his fellow coaches in all aspects of coaching, teaching and daily life.
The Bucs continued to have winning seasons throughout the 1970’s although they didn’t make the football playoffs again until 1977. That year they went 13-1 and win the state title. In 1978, the Bucs went unbeaten until losing in the 2nd round of the playoffs.
Although the 1979 season wasn’t quite as successful, there was one noted event that year. Berry named its football stadium Finley Stadium in appreciation of the head coach after the proposal was initiated by the students and faculty.
After an average year in 1980, the Bucs went 10-0 for the 1981 season but lost in the 1st round of the playoffs. 1982 began slow but the Bucs rebounded to make the state title game which ended in a 10-10 tie with Enterprise for a share of the championship. The years of 1983-1987 were up and down seasons. During 1984, Finley also took on the role of head basketball coach for the girls. He also helped sponsor the girls young softball program.
The season of 1988 was similar to 1982 in that it began slowly but rebounded to make it to the state title game where the Bucs lost to a powerful Mobile/Vigor squad. It was during this year that the Hoover City School System began.
There was also a new facility across town called the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium (the Met) which the Birmingham Barons baseball team had relocated to the year previous. The Bucs played two of their home games there including a 34-7 win over Vestavia in the very first game. There was also a section of land nearby the stadium which was about to be developed called Hoover High School.
From 1989-1993, Finley continued as head coach of the Bucs yet the years were winding down as the high school called Berry was to be relocated to the newly built facility which was scheduled to open in 1994. The Bucs played more and more home games into the 1990’s at the Met with only one home game in 1993 played at Finley Stadium. The Bucs lost in the 1993 semi-finals at the Met. It would’ve given Finley 199 career wins and an opportunity to win career victory 200 at Legion Field in the state title game but sadly it didn’t happen.
Finley had considered retirement for sometime. During his career, he had turned down a few opportunities for college coaching as well as one very lucrative chance at another high school in Alabama in 1985. He was selected to the Alabama High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 1992 and had accomplished enough for any coach to be satisfied with and retire with dignity.
The closing of Berry and the opening of a new school across town with changes forthcoming seemed like the perfect time for Finley to complete his last chapter as the Buccaneer coach. Although he had been under an extreme amount of pressure from a variety of sources, he wasn’t quite ready to finish it. Finley told a longtime Berry colleague (Coach Mary Birdwell )whom he had known since college days at the University of Tennessee that he was going to “stay here another 10 years” if possible.
I personally have a lot of mixed emotional memories from the summer of 1994. It was a very tough time for Coach Finley knowing he was leaving a place he considered home at Berry. He had done a lot more than just coach and teach at Berry. Influencing young people’s lives with good character and sportsmanship was vital to him and a lot more important than wins and titles.
Bob Finley wanted to continue to influence the young people in Hoover in a positive way. He wanted more than memories at Berry and desired to continue that at the new Hoover High School. He once shared with me in June of that year his desire to see the Buccaneer tradition continue at Hoover. It was a lot more than a nickname, school colors and records. It was the spirit he had helped to foster and develop with the student/athletes he had worked with. Finley knew I was one of those who shared his sentiment and would also continue that desire like a commission with a purpose.
The struggle for Finley was the devotion for the old place mixed with the yearning for newer and bigger facilities at the new Hoover High. He had always been a great steward of his resources and worked hard many times making a lot out of a little which he often did at Berry. For instance, he was so proud of a brand new office desk he had in his new office at Hoover and would jokingly tell others, “Look at what I have now compared to what I use to have.”
A large new locker room, a much bigger weight room, more and larger athletic fields and gyms included with a large new school complex was almost impossible for him to believe. Yet he was also very grateful for this new opportunity to start in a new fresh school building. It would be even more amazing to see how further and larger it has become 25 years later!
Through July of 1994, Coach Finley was splitting time working on the fields at both Berry and Hoover. Caring for field was more like a hobby to him than it was real work. Cleaning toilets, sweeping floors and or any other custodial-related duty was not beneath his dignity. Being a servant to people was his life. It was during the last week of that month that I remember with sad emotions.
On Tuesday evening-July 26th, Coach Finley and I were lining off the Berry football field just before the boys were to participate in what today would be called 7-on-7 (offensive vs. defensive skill players of backs, receivers, linebackers and defensive backs). After a few lines were completed with the coach on one side of the field and me on the other, he just sat down and stayed there.
I thought he was adjusting the string but the length of it began to alarm me and I went over to him. Eventually, more of us began to gather around him as he complained of pain in his arms and shortness of breath but after awhile he slowly got up and recovered to began work with the boys. We stayed alarmed however.
Two days later, I went over and helped him finish the work of lining off the field from the 20-yard line to the 50-yard line. We didn’t have enough paint so we hand fed the 50-yard line with old-fashioned chalk dust. It was during this slow process that I asked him about his medical condition and he was candid in telling me about it and that he’d be okay. I was satisfied to a point.
Three days later on a Sunday evening, I received a call from my uncle that he saw on the news that Coach Finley had passed away that afternoon working on the Berry field. In fact, I was planning to call Coach Finley later that night and ask if he needed help on the Hoover field. Though it was a shock of sadness it didn’t catch some of us off-guard because a few of us knew something was wrong with him.
The following Tuesday (August 2), we had services and burial for a man who was dearly beloved and deeply respected by so many not only in Hoover but across the state. His death left an emptiness and somewhat of a vacuum for that new school year, The coaching staff adjusted and worked through the season but it was tough, The girls basketball team dedicated their season to him and made it to the state finals.
About two years later, a committee was formed within the Hoover School System to promote good character education for students. It was decided to name this program for Bob Finley and to this day it has become stronger in honoring students in all school within the system at a recognition service each spring. After several years in two locations in a banquet format, it is now held at the Finley Center next to Hoover Met which are surrounded by multiple various athletic fields which were recently completed. It’s a very impressive complex in Hoover.
In 2003, I completed the composing of a book called “Bob Finley-A Class Act” which dealt with his life and influences on people. It has many stories from those who knew him best as well as quotes from the coach.
As one reflects on the life of Bob Finley, they can see numerous positive things especially the fact that he wanted his Christian faith to be kept as the utmost. It might impossible to gauge just how many people Coach Finley influenced yet his influence keeps producing even to those who were born long after he died.
The term some people use in referring to the death of another as “they passed away or passed on” can actually be re-phrased in a way. Bob Finley passed on to another life in heaven yet he passed on to others lessons in life which we should apply everyday in our quest for knowledge and wisdom. Hoover should be grateful that we were blessed to be a recipient of Coach Finley’s lessons-then and now.