GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — No. 23 Florida removed the interim tag from Kelly Rae Finley’s title Monday and gave her a five-year contract to be the team’s head coach.
Athletic director Scott Stricklin announced the decision in front of the team, a move that was received with applause and group hugs.
The 36-year-old Finley took over in July when Cam Newbauer resigned amid allegations that he physically and verbally abused players.
The Gators (20-9, 10-6 Southeastern Conference) regrouped under Finley’s guidance and caught fire in early January, moving into the AP Top 25 for the first time in more than five years while winning 10 of 11 games. The hot streak included wins against five ranked teams: at Texas A&M, at Kentucky, against LSU, against Tennessee and at Georgia.
Florida has since cooled, losing three straight to end the regular season after reaching No. 15 in the poll. The Gators, who once looked like they might get the No. 2 seed in the this week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville, fell to the fifth seed and will open play Thursday against either Vanderbilt or the Aggies.
“What a cool year,” Finley said Monday before the school announced her promotion. “We’ve had ups and downs just like any team, but I’m really, really proud of where we’re at.
“It was a tough week. We didn’t get the results that we wanted, but I know that we’ve grown. So it’s better to have those games before the tournament, and there’s lots to learn from as a whole on the season. I just couldn’t be more proud of our team of their efforts, their commitment to each other and their commitment to getting better.”
Finley, a Minneapolis native, spent the previous four seasons as an assistant under Newbauer in Gainesville. She also spent time at Harvard (2008-12), Colorado (2012-16) and Arizona (2016-17).
Players have embraced Finley’s approach, which is centered around the phrase “you are enough.” They insist they don’t need validation from anyone and usually play with the utmost confidence. Their resilience has been tested of late, with Finley witnessing her team play tightly last week. She urged them to address it, move on and play with more confidence and freedom moving forward.
“We don’t do excuses,” she said. “When we talk about, acknowledge it and move forward, one thing that we do a lot is, ‘What were your thoughts? What were your feelings in this moment?’ And then, ‘What do you want them to be if this were to happen again?’
“So now we’re in tournament play. You lose, you’re done. Let’s talk about it. What does that create? Does that create pressure? Yeah, of course. Every team is in the same situation, right? But you’ve got to talk about those things so you know how to move through them.”
The Gators have moved past Newbauer, who was forced out last summer following another incident that showed he “was still having an issue on the treatment part of people,” Stricklin said.
The Independent Florida Alligator, a student-run paper that’s not affiliated with the university, spoke to several former players and some of their parents before detailing the alleged abuse by Newbauer. Those players said Newbauer made racist remarks, threw basketballs at them and belittled everyone around him.
Stricklin acknowledged getting reports about “some behavior that was a little concerning from a cultural standpoint” during Newbauer’s first season in 2017. Instead of asking the university to investigate, Stricklin appointed a senior staff member — associate AD Jay Jacobs — to monitor the program.
Stricklin said the complaints slowed and eventually stopped, and he gave Newbauer one final chance to show on-the-court improvement after he went 46-71 in four seasons. Newbauer signed a three-year contract extension last March.
But four months later, Newbauer was involved in another situation that led to his departure. Newbauer received a $283,250 buyout that is being split into installments.
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25