Your humble blogger has followed the ongoing Hoover High School football saga with great interest. There are several reasons for this, one being that I have very fond personal and professional memories of football and Hoover.
My first real job, when I was 21 and right out of college, was as a sportswriter at the late, and sometimes great, Birmingham Post-Herald. I wound up working there for 11 years (1978-89), and my primary assignment in the early years was coverage of high-school sports.
I had grown up in Missouri, where high-school football was not a particularly big deal. I saw many a game under the "Friday night lights," but basketball and baseball seemed to capture the Midwest's imagination more than the gridiron.
But I quickly learned that football was king in the Deep South. I was shocked when I saw how good the high-school teams were in Alabama. It was not so much that the athletes were better than those in Missouri (although they probably were). But the coaching was light years ahead of what I was used to. Buddy Anderson at Vestavia Hills, Robert Higginbotham at Shades Valley, Bill Sparks at Midfield, Danny Ridgeway at Banks, Ray Williams at West End, Ed Bruce at Gardendale, Bobby Johns at Erwin, Billy Livings at Jeff Davis in Montgomery . . . they were just a few of the many superb coaches I enjoyed covering.
But the coach who made the deepest impression on me was Bob Finley at W.A. Berry High School in Hoover. Berry was the forerunner to Hoover High, which would go on to fame on MTV's Two A Days and win numerous state championships under Coach Rush Propst, now the center of much controversy.
Bob Finley's Bucs also played championship football, and they did it in old-school style. Hand the ball to the tailback 25-30 times a game, commit very few penalties, win field position with a solid kicking game. It wasn't dazzling, but it worked.
I'm sure I'm forgetting some folks, but I recall only a handful of Berry players who went on to play major-college football. Linebacker Ricky Gilliland, tight end Bart Krout, and kicker Terry Sanders played at Alabama. I think former Auburn great Mike Kolen went to Berry.
But most of the guys I saw play were average high-school types who didn't particularly stand out in the hallways. I remember a tough tailback named Brian Blankenship. A slippery quarterback named Jimmy Dozier. A little noseguard named Jay Zito. Not sure any of them played a down of college football.
The most interesting guy, though, was the head coach. Finley seemed more like a minister than a football coach. If he had been a minister, I wouldn't have seen him as a fire-breathing evangelical sort. He would have been more of a "quiet" minister, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, an Episcopalian.
A recent letter writer to The Birmingham News, commenting on the current woes at Hoover High, recalled Finley's days as coach and remembered him "as one of the most decent Christian men I've ever known." I would second that statement, but Finley did not seem to be "out there" about his Christianity. He lived his faith, best I could tell, by example.
I once did a long feature story on Coach Finley. One of his former assistants said the thing he remembered most about Coach Finley was his willingness to do the little things--stopping to pick up a piece of paper in the parking lot, sweeping the gymnasium floor. He remembered that Finley coached girls' basketball at a time when girls' sports received very little attention.
When I interviewed Finley for the story, I told him that he almost seemed too nice to be a football coach. "It's hard to imagine you yelling at anybody," I said. The coach smiled and said he had tried the emotional locker room bit with his guys a few times, but it had fallen flat. "Being basically a dull person," he said, it was best for him to stick to the quieter approach. I still laugh thinking about that.
The key, Finley said, was knowing your players. He often learned a lot from listening to parents. He recalled learning that one player would go into a shell if you criticized him. But if you could find something to praise him about, the young man would give a wholehearted effort.
A few years ago, I interviewed a former Berry player who had gone on to become an ophthalmologist. The point of my story was eye surgery, and we probably talked about that for about half an hour. But we must have spent twice that long talking about Coach Finley and Berry football.
I also laugh when I think about how Finley used to call me "sir" during interviews. And I was 22 or 23 years old. But the funny thing was, it didn't seem phony coming from him. In fact, if there was anything phony about Bob Finley, I never saw it.
I've thought a lot about Bob Finley in the past seven or eight years, since my legal woes began--the legal woes that are at the heart of this blog. You see, the core problem with our justice system--whether you are talking about circuit court in Shelby County, Alabama appellate courts, or the cowboys in the Bush Justice Department--is dishonesty.
Bob Finley was a superb coach, and I think he would have been an excellent minister. I also think he would have been a very good judge, the kind we desperately need. He always impressed me as a fundamentally honest and fair person. And he had a keen intellect. Unlike the sleazebag judges I've encountered, Finley would have valued the law and applied it correctly.
My encounters with Alabama courts have been the most disheartening experience of my life. It has shown me an ugly side of human nature that I never knew existed. In an effort to maintain my mental health through the ordeal, I've tried regularly to think of the genuinely good people I've been privileged to know over the years. One of those was Bob Finley.
Unfortunately, Coach Finley is no longer with us. He died of a heart attack in 1994, while doing one of those simple things--mowing a field at the school.
A Web site, Hooverbuc.com, has information about the tradition of football in Hoover. It includes records under Finley and other coaches, including Rush Propst.
When Finley died, two of his former assistants tried to carry on his legacy. Mike Thorsen coached the Bucs for one year and went 4-5. Gerald Gann took over and went 11-2, 3-7, 3-7, 4-6. Gann is now head coach at John Carroll High School in Birmingham, and from everything I've heard, he's an outstanding person, very much in the Finley mold. But Gann's record evidently was not good enough, and he was fired after the 1998 season.
Hoover's search for a new coach started in late 1998. My legal problems also started in late 1998. I've often wondered if there was a connection between the two.
More on that in a bit.