The breeze was picking up, the sky was turning darker and Karl Finley buttoned up his jacket and smiled Monday as he looked across the field at his practicing team.
It was football weather at Washington High School and the scene was undeniably sweet for the first-year Eagles coach who nearly had to watch this season from the stands rather than the sideline.
Finley, an accomplished high school and community college coach who works as a registered nurse in a Marin County jail, was almost replaced midsummer when a teacher in the San Francisco Union High School District expressed interest in the position. He continued organizing workouts despite the tenuous nature of the situation, and now Finley is one of two Academic Athletic Association coaches still conducting practices as Washington (7-3) prepares to face Lincoln (7-3) in the Turkey Bowl Thursday at 11 a.m. at Kezar Stadium.
Turkey Bowl At Kezar Stadium
» Lincoln (7-3) vs. Washington (7-3), 11 a.m.
“As coaches, we didn’t know what was going on and started wondering if we should stay,” Finley said of the summer’s uncertainty. “But we saw how hard the kids were working and we knew we had to keep going and do it for them.”
It was during these early practice sessions that Finley and the rest of the staff laid down the groundwork for what would become a dramatic turnaround season. Washington has always had talent, but a lack of focus led to a disjointed team that went
3-7 and missed the playoffs in each of the past two years.
When Finley arrived, the helmet-throwing and finger-pointing that had sometimes characterized last season’s group disappeared, replaced with an accountability forged through pushup after pushup.
“We probably did about 1,000 of them,” Eagles fullback-linebacker Grandville Taylor said with a laugh. “It was tough, but this is what we wanted and had been waiting for. We knew once we had that focus, we could have a great season.”
The physical demands were easier to take for the players once they saw their coach was willing to do the work as well. The 45-year-old Finley, a former defensive back at St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kan., drops down for 25 pushups after cursing just like his players. And the team-wide maturation showed in last week’s 34-16 win over Lowell in the San Francisco Section semifinals, a signature victory in which the players reminded an excited Finley to keep his cool as the seconds ticked down.
“I was getting a little hot and they kept saying ‘Keep your composure coach, keep your composure,’” Finley said. “I’m so impressed with how far they’ve come. They’ve really matured into a great group of young men.”