Whitley: Kelly Finley leading Florida Gators women's basketball from scandal to success
Kiki Smith made a laughable prediction three months ago. At least it sounded laughable to anyone with a casual knowledge of Florida’s women’s basketball program.
“I said it at Media Day,” UF’s point guard said. “Where we are right now is where I thought we’d be.”
Where the Gators are right now is 15-5. They have won five straight SEC games, their longest streak in 13 years.
The last two were a 25-point blowout victory at Kentucky, and a one-point win over No. 11 LSU — LSU that signed legendary coach Kim Mulkey to an eight-year, $22.5 million contract to revive its program.
She was going for her 650th career win Sunday at Exactech Arena. Mulkey lost to an interim coach with no assurance she’ll be around in eight months, much less eight years.
Though if she keeps this up, she certainly should be.
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Meet Kelly Finley, or “Kelly Rae,” as her mother likes to call her. She has 15 career wins now, which is about a half-dozen more than I thought she’d have when Scott Stricklin said, “We’re lucky to have her.”
That was in October, when the headlines for UF women’s basketball were all doom, gloom and scandal. Cam Newbauer had been forced out in July when it became apparent the program had totally derailed.
Former players told the Independent Florida Alligator allegations of verbal abuse, practice meltdowns, dissension and racial insensitivity. The hits kept on coming, and Stricklin admitted UF had not kept a sharp enough eye on Newbauer.
There wasn’t time for a thorough coaching search, so Finley was handed the job on a rental basis. Having been Newbauer's top assistant, she was caught in the controversy.
Some former players said Finley should have done more to stop the madness. The power dynamics remain a mystery, but one truism comes into play.
You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.
The results are speaking for themselves, and so are the players.
“She cares on a level that I don’t think you could get at any other program,” Smith said of her interim coach.
Changing culture of Florida women's basketball
The biggest component to coaching success is talented players. Newbauer actually assembled a pretty good roster. Not No. 1 South Carolina good, but better than most probably realized.
The key to Florida’s success has been Finley pulling off a culture transplant on the fly. Though she’d never been a head coach, the 36-year-old had a well-developed job philosophy.
“I love coaching because of the opportunity it gives to guide and mentor young women to be everything they are,” Finley said.
That may sound a little idealistic, but people work harder for bosses who care about them as more than just employees. Finley had to fight back tears in the pandemonium following the win over LSU.
She got choked up two days later in the quiet of a campus office, just talking about the players and how they’ve been buying what she’s been selling.
The big things are effort and teamwork and humility. After beating LSU, guard Zippy Broughton posted a picture of players celebrating with the caption “Ego-less team.”
That wasn’t always the case with the program. The emotional makeover has helped Florida overcome the loss of Lavender Briggs.
Arguably the team’s best player, she was sidelined three weeks ago with a stress fracture in her leg. Briggs then announced she was transferring to Maryland.
That hasn’t fazed the turmoil-tested Gators. One of Finley’s favorite songs is about waves and the importance of staying steady through such storms.
“Though the waves may come and go, you don’t have to ride them with the highs and lows,” Finley said.
She likes to text such motivational messages to players. After the LSU game, one player texted her back.
“I knew you text me with this humble stuff,” she wrote, “but can we please celebrate you?”
That made someone’s eyes swell. “It made me emotional because not every coach will ever get to feel that,” Finley said.
It’s probably safe to say Newbauer didn’t get a lot of those texts. That era is over, but the question of a permanent replacement remains.
Stricklin says Finley is a candidate, but he plans a wide-ranging search after the season. Finley has the only attitude she could have.
“I believe in doing the best you can for as long as you’re asked,” she said, “and then take what comes as it will.”
What’s coming up immediately are home games against top-ranked South Carolina and No. 5 Tennessee. Whatever happens from here, one truth has been revealed about Florida’s program.
Finley wasn’t the problem. If anything, she might be the ultimate solution.
David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley