It seems like just yesterday that Shawn Finney was named the head basketball coach at Tulane University, accepting his first head coaching job in a career which has spanned nearly 20 years. The young head coach has grown a lot since that July day in 2000 when he first envisioned building the Green Wave men's basketball program back to the levels of success enjoyed in the early 1990s.
"We've seen a little bit of everything in my first four years here," Finney said. "Those experiences make me feel very good about this team. I have seen what it takes to be successful in Conference USA, and we have more of the necessary pieces than at any other time since I've been here."
Finney's 15 years as an assistant coach included stops at every level of college basketball, beginning as a low-paid assistant coach at a junior college and culminating in a Division I National Championship at Kentucky. He did everything from sweeping floors, to preparing game plans for opponents, to selling t-shirts as a fundraiser, to recruiting the best high school stars in the nation. While he knew he was ready for the move to head coach, he quickly learned that years of watching and assisting were not the same as actually making the final decisions.
"The biggest difference between me now and me four years ago is that I have gained so much experience," Finney said. "It is much different being the head coach than being an assistant. Every decision rests on your shoulders. It is a tremendous challenge, but also a great opportunity."
Finney's first four years at the helm of the Tulane program have offered many lessons. He has seen full careers of players; he has seen bumps and bruises and serious injuries; he has seen academic struggles, and he has seen school success stories, in fact, 10 of the 11 seniors who have played for Finney have earned their degrees. The 11th is scheduled to graduate in May. The West Virginia native has seen lopsided victories and crushing defeats; student-athletes going on to careers in the business world and others going on to professional basketball careers, including Linton Johnson, who signed with the San Antonio Spurs this summer after a year with the Chicago Bulls.
"[Becoming a head coach] is similar to what a player experiences," he said. "You can practice as much as you want, but nothing beats game experience. I have learned so much in my first four years; I feel like I am prepared for anything. But as soon as I say that, something new will pop up."
Finney and his staff have built a well-rounded team for the 2004-05 campaign. The Green Wave returns four starters from last year, while seven-foot senior Ivan Pjevcevic, a projected starter in 2003-04, also returns after redshirting due to a knee injury. Last year's strong rookie class gained invaluable experience and now will push the returning starters for more playing time, while a well-regarded recruiting class adds five more pieces to the puzzle.
"I am very excited about this year's team," Finney said. "We have experience and depth at every position; and this freshman class brings a lot to the table. We will still be young though, with nine freshmen and sophomores."
Just a few months after his introduction at Tulane, Finney faced what, at the time, would be his toughest challenge. The Mullens, W.Va., product guided a team of seven scholarship players against the powerhouses of Conference USA. Somehow he coaxed nine wins out of that squad, but he has since found that challenges come in different forms. With the smallest roster in Division I, he earned victories over solid programs such as Southern Miss, South Florida, Lamar and Virginia Commonwealth.
"That was not a tough year," Finney said, half-jokingly. "The decisions were not very difficult. We played everyone until they were exhausted and couldn't go anymore. Now I have the luxury of looking down the bench and having a full roster of guys who can help me win on any given night. The challenge is that now I have to make the pieces fit."
In his second year, Finney had a full roster, but it was still thin on experience. Picked last in the preseason C-USA coaches' poll, Tulane opened the year with an 8-1 record and finished with 14 victories overall. Highlights of the year included victories over Vanderbilt, DePaul, UAB and Georgia Tech - Tulane's first road win over an ACC foe. In the C-USA Tournament, Finney orchestrated the Wave's upset of fifth-seeded Saint Louis in the opening round and then gave a scare to No. 4 Charlotte before falling in the quarterfinals.
The next year (2002-03) saw still more success as the Wave earned the sixth seed in the C-USA Tourney after finishing in second place in the National Division of the league. After cruising to an opening round victory over Houston, Finney and his charges had the unfortunate reward of playing tournament host Louisville on its home floor.
Last year, despite the graduation of four starters, Tulane again showed its mettle, winning 11 games and posting victories over a pair of postseason teams, Rice and UAB, which went on to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
"My main goal is always to show continued improvement," the fifth-year head coach said. "If we can get consistency throughout the season, we have shown that we can compete with any team in the league."
Finney honed his recruiting skills while working alongside Tubby Smith, who he recognizes as one of his mentors. His nine years at the veteran coach's side were highlighted by the 1998 National Championship at Kentucky, as well as six other NCAA Tournament trips with the Wildcats, at Georgia and at Tulsa.
However, despite those successes, Finney's beginnings were far less auspicious than the luxury confines of Rupp Arena.
His coaching career began as a $500-a-month assistant at Garrett Community College, before a short hop to Division III and then a move to the Division II level at Randolph-Macon College, which advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 1990.
His Division I break came in 1990 when he was hired by J.D. Barnett to be an assistant coach at Tulsa. With Barnett departing the Golden Hurricane after Finney's first year, the Tulsa athletics director asked relatively anonymous incoming coach Tubby Smith to take a chance on the hard-working young man from West Virginia. Smith complied, and Finney began his run as a key member of Smith's staffs at three schools.
The Golden Hurricane posted winning seasons in both 1991-92 and 1992-93 before breaking through in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, upsetting No. 4 seed UCLA and in-state rival, and No. 5 seed, Oklahoma State in advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16. In 1994-95, the Golden Hurricane repeated the feat, only this time Tulsa earned a No. 6 seed itself and claimed victories over Illinois and Old Dominion en route to the Sweet 16.
The success the staff achieved at Tulsa caught the eye of the nation's biggest programs. When Smith took the job as head coach at the University of Georgia in 1995, Finney followed. Again, the players responded to Smith, Finney and the rest of the staff. In their first season in Athens, the basketball team advanced to its first NCAA Tournament in five years. In the tournament, the Bulldogs beat Clemson and then knocked off No. 1 seed Purdue before narrowly falling to eventual NCAA runner-up Syracuse in the Round of 16.
Georgia posted its second straight 20-win season in 1997 to record the first back-to-back 20-win seasons in school history. A second straight NCAA berth followed as well, after the team concluded its season with a school-record 24 victories.
Finney's next move with Smith was to Lexington, Ky., and one of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball. There, he was involved with every aspect of the basketball team while leading recruiting efforts. He was innovative, using the latest computer-assisted scouting and video equipment, and he earned the trust of the players.
He was alongside Smith when Kentucky claimed the 1998 national championship with a victory over Utah in San Antonio. The Wildcats finished the year with a spectacular 35-4 record, and that ring. Two more seasons of success followed, including a berth in the NCAA Regional Final in 1999.
The successful tenure under the now-famous Smith vindicated that Tulsa A.D.'s faith in the enthusiastic and tireless coach who hated to lose. That A.D. was Rick Dickson, currently the head man at Tulane University, who entrusted Finney with the reins of the basketball program at Tulane on July 19, 2000.
"I liked the fact that Shawn was a guy who swept the floors at a Division III (school) just to get that coaching opportunity," Dickson said. "From that to the top assistant at Kentucky, that's a heck of a jump."
While it seems like the move to Tulane happened just yesterday, amazingly, Finney is now the fourth-longest tenured coach in Conference USA. The lessons he learned during his assistant coaching career are now meshing well with the head coaching experience he has gained in New Orleans, a combination that Tulane hopes will pay off with increased success on the hardwood for the Green Wave.