In Mar. 15 issue, Russell County News
By Derek Aaron
Russell County News EditorLEFT: Ron Finley at his home last week, with superimposed image of trophy football.
This week’s “Russell County Hero” made a difference in the lives of many students and student-athletes at Russell County High School during his 11 years here in the 1970s and 80s.
Former Russell County Head Football Coach Ron Finley, who had 195 wins as both a high school and college coach, was brought to our attention by an anonymous e-mailer who presumably played football under Finley while he was at Russell County.
“I would like to begin by stating that the hero I am about to bring up has, in his past molded some of the best friends, gentlemen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, coaches, police officers, soldiers, marines, seaman, airmen and other great people in their own nature in my life and the citizens of Russell County,” the e-mail stated.
Finley, now retired and living in Jamestown with his wife, Phyllis, whom he met in Russell County, first came to the area in 1976 and coached the Mighty Lakers through the 1986 season, then he took the head coaching job as Campbellsville University (formerly Campbellsville College).
But Finley’s road to Russell County made many stops before finally landing here more than three decades ago.
Finley, an Eastern Kentucky University alum, began coaching in 1954 to start a 45-year run as an athletic coach of some sort.
Beginning at Kingston High School in Madison County, Finley went on to coach sports such as basketball, baseball, wrestling, track and football in Manchester, Ohio; Paris, Ky.; Nashville, Mich.; Irvine, Ky. and in Louisville at his alma mater, Male High School.
After leaving Male in 1966, Finley quit coaching for four years, moved to Saginaw, Mich. and started a dry-cleaning business, but his love for the game brought him back to Kentucky.
“In 1970 I came to Henderson County, Kentucky,” he said. He was the head football coach there before being fired in 1975 for not “playing some of the right people to suit members of the board.”
Finley, now searching for a job, heard about the Russell County opening, applied and came in for a visit.
Upon being hired, Finley went on to coach 11 seasons for the Lakers, winning district titles in 1979, 1983 and 1984.
“He ran us till we puked, he worked us on the football field and off and he prepared us for the battles of life,” the e-mail said.
Finley, who also taught several social studies, history and government classes, got his 100th win at Russell County, a victory over longtime rival Adair County.
In 1987, Finley accepted the head coach position at Campbellsville College where football hadn’t been played since the 1920s.
He coached until the 2002 season and garnered a record of 80-79-1 at the college. During his time there, he had eight winning seasons; including a season-high 10 wins in 2001.
Under his guidance, the Tigers won Mid-South Conference titles in both 1992 and 1997 and participated in post-season play three times while he was coach. Finley had a tendency to recruit back to this area for talent.
“He was not just a football coach but a father figure in some of our lives of some that didn’t have that figure,” the e-mailer said.
Finley said the father figure role was something he chose to portray, hoping that its discipline would help his players and students as they developed into young adults.
“Yes, he was hard on us, but we needed it and the teenagers today need it also,” the e-mail stated. “He prepared us for not just to go out and win on the football field, but to win in life.”
Finley continued his role as a father figure and mentor at Campbellsville, instituting the Lord’s Supper on Thursday nights and having “family” gatherings with his players around holidays to make the team more close-knit and to provide a safe haven to avoid potential problems.
The veteran coach said the religious affiliation of Campbellsville with the Southern Baptist Church allowed him to become more spiritual with his players. He said he even saw some of his players baptized in the college’s swimming pool.
“When I was at Russell County, I never took my Ten Commandments down off the wall,” he said. “I told them if they wanted them taken down they’d have to come do it themselves and nobody ever did.”
As Finley remembers back, he says if he had chance for a do-over, he wouldn’t change a thing about his coaching career.
“I have had a great life in coaching,” he said. “Rarely in life does someone get the chance, or does the Lord allow them a chance to do what he wants to do for 45 years.”
Finley said “a world of kids from both high school and college,” continually call, write or come back and see him on a regular basis.
Finley meant so much to the college that they named their stadium after him in 2006, a move that he still considers a very “humbling experience.”
Many of his former Russell County and Campbellsville players made the trek to Campbellsville for the ceremony, when the Tiger Stadium was renamed Finley Stadium.
“We always tried to put our players first,” he said. “We tried to act and react like a family.” His wife, whom he’s been married to for 31 years, always attended the same events that he did and she became a well-known, friendly face to all of his players in both Russell County and Campbellsville.
Finley borrowed a motto from legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, and used it on his players here and at Campbellsville.
“The commitment to excellence, was not just a saying but away of life,” the e-mailer said. By committing to excellence, Finley said, a player would always find a way to give their all on the field and in the classroom and that’s what it took to succeed.
Between the two of them, Finley — who is once-divorced — and his wife have six children, five girls and one boy. The two do not have any children together but consider all their children as their own.
Their children — Ruth Crone, Becky Thomas, Seronia Hudson, Ronda Harmon-Harp, Samantha Brock and David Gleisner — all have very successful careers in a variety of different fields, another dividend paid off for the coach.
“I look back on my life and career with no regrets,” Finley said, and because of the hard practices, the Friday and Saturday wins and the memories made, neither does his players.