Mark Woods talks to the Scot making waves on the US college scene as a basketball coach
On the back of the door to the modest locker room at Houston Baptist University hangs a freshly inscribed motif, designed to remind its occupants of the challenges which await them once they emerge from their private world into the glare of the gymnasium above.
‘#earnednotgiven,’ it reads, in a nod to the Twitter generation. It is the motto for the players on the women’s basketball team as they pursue victories in the competitive world of American collegiate sport. It could, however, serve as a capsule for their head coach, a rare breed in her profession who has taken the road less travelled to claim her seat on this bench.
When the Huskies began their campaign in the Southland Conference this weekend, Donna Finnie cut a small slice of history – the first Briton ever to take the helm in the NCAA’s Division 1. Three years ago, she was organising events and pushing paper for City of Edinburgh Council to pay the bills while spending her spare time honing her craft. Even in the summers, while in charge of Scotland’s junior international team, she was used to near-obscurity.
Finally, incessant networking secured the shot out of the blue. HBU needed an assistant. Finnie had been recommended. Would she gamble on quitting a safe career in her hometown for the most unglamorous of openings across the Atlantic? “I always said this is what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “But no-one had done it before. I talked about it and thought of it.” It was, as they say, a no-brainer.
Now, a promotion later, she is in sole charge, an anomaly in a foreign land. “It’s tough to make the transition over here because there is a fear of taking a chance on someone from another country. But, once you’re over here, if you can get that opportunity, you have to grab it with two hands and jump in with both feet.”
HBU, an expanding institution some 20 miles from Houston’s towering centre, is a picturesque spot to land, a red-brick landscaped campus where academia is prized and sport seen as both a revenue earner and a means to promote their brand across America via ESPN and its growing band of rivals.
The financial numbers took Finnie by surprise. “Even for recruiting, our budget outweighs all the national team budgets in Scotland combined,” she reveals. “In that respect, we get so much. But it’s necessary because to be part of a Division 1 programme, you need that backup. It’s incredible to think of the money that goes into the women’s game and collegiate athletics. Back in Scotland we have to fight and claw for every single penny. The girls did baking and stuff like that just to be able to go to European tournaments. Here, that’s provided.”
Much of the credit goes to Title IX, a ground-breaking legislative act of 1972 that effectively compelled universities to spend as much on women as on their male counterparts. Parity of esteem, still, has yet to arrive. Millions will tune in tonight when Auburn faces Florida State for American football’s national championship game. That, in truth, is where the money lies.
With expenditure, the Scot acknowledges, comes pressure to deliver on the court. And to ensure that the so-called student-athletes fulfil strict academic requirements. Her squad includes Erin McGarrachan, a forward from Cumbernauld who has already appeared in the Great Britain squad. Her proscribed daily regime can include a 90-minute practice, lifting weights and video analysis. All before a book has been opened. Even on road trips, 1,000 miles from campus, slacking is not tolerated.
“Time management’s huge,” Finnie confirms. “But that’s something kids learn. It’s tough coming in. You have to be somewhere at the expected time. There’s no ‘sorry I’m late’. If you don’t practice, you don’t play. If you miss class, and the professor reports you, you’re in big trouble. Getting that balance is vital.”
The role of coach is in equal parts manager, tactician, mother and salesperson. The latter, the Husky-in-chief concedes, is an evil necessity. This is an amateur world. Payment is in kind, in scholarships, housing and the promise of a grounding for a future inside or outwith sport. Once the Next Big Thing is identified, it becomes a beauty pageant between their suitors.
Competition is fierce. I accompanied Finnie on a scouting trip to San Antonio, some three hours drive away, to attend the high school game of a possible recruit. When we arrived, there was already a seven-strong contingent of representatives from other universities, each identifiable by their colours and the motif on their jackets.
This week alone, Finnie will fly to New Mexico for 14 hours, in the hope of convincing two fickle teens that HBU should be their choice. “One’s a kid we’ve wanted for about eight months but, back then, not many people had seen her. Now lots of universities have jumped on her. So I need to be out seeing her game, speaking to her coach, and then flying back for our game the next day.” Miss them, miss out. “If you’re not there, and they see the scouts or coaches from Boise State or Houston, we fall back in their minds. We have to be visible.”
It is relentless. Exhausting. Challenging. The Heriot Watt graduate, you sense, wouldn’t have it any other way. There is, however, no time to bask and enjoy. Wins, as she extols, are earned and not given. “We get paid to do this. It’s our livelihood. You feel that weight on you every day, building up. But I wouldn’t swap it. It’s what I’ve always dreamt of doing. I still can’t believe sometimes I’ve been given that chance.”