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Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Questions about VCU coach's firing

By LZ Granderson

If someone you know has recently been hired as a head coach then you should expect one thing to happen: that person will eventually be fired.

Nothing against his or her skills or knowledge of whatever game, but let's face it -- we hear more about dismissals than retirements. From high school to the pros, that's kinda what you expect.

What you don't expect is for a coach to be fired for winning, especially a few days after leading a team to the best winning percentage in school history.

But such is the case with former VCU volleyball coach James Finley.

After a 25-6 season, Finley said he was called in for a meeting with the new athletic director, Ed McLaughlin.

He was expecting to hear congratulations.

What he heard was "we're going in a new direction."

After eight seasons and 16 wins shy of being the school's all-time winningest coach, he was let go.

Why?

He says because he is gay.

"Trust me, it took a really long time for me to come to this conclusion but I don't know what else it could be," Finley said. "We have a winning program, my kids graduate. … We just had the best winning percentage in school history, it doesn't make sense."

I've spent several days trying to get a hold of McLaughlin but he hasn't called me back. But through a statement the AD, who was hired in July, said Finley's allegations are not true. Nevertheless, there's enough evidence there for school officials to launch a full-on investigation. And they should. Finley produced the highest winning percentage of any sport at the school this fall, if McLaughlin wants the volleyball program to go in a different direction, I can only assume he wants them to lose -- or he thinks he can hire a coach like Stanford's John Dunning.

Once again, we're reminded that as far as the world of sports has come on the topic of diversity -- and in some cases taken the lead -- we're still not there yet.

Former Colorado coaching legend Bill McCartney believes race was the dominant reason the school fired its black head coach, Jon Embree (who played for and coached under McCartney), after two seasons. That may or may not be true. But what is true is that since 1982, 41 of the 546 coaches hired in the FBS (as of late November) have been black. And only one, Tyrone Willingham, was rehired after being fired.

We know that women make up 57 percent of college students but fill only 20 percent of the college coaching jobs across all sports of both genders.

And we know homophobia in athletics remains a stifling issue which typically forces coaches like Finley to chose between living in secret or having a career.

Finley bravely chose the latter and until the new guy showed up, he said it was never a problem.

"Everyone knew and it wasn't a big deal," he said. "Not with my players, the former AD, no one … but that changed after [McLaughlin] was hired.

"He never met with me, not once since he's been hired. My team and I would see him interacting with players in other sports, high-fiving with them at games but he never came to our games. I would be at events and try to speak with him and he would just ignore me. He wanted absolutely nothing to do with me from day one. The big thing is, he's only made two personnel decisions that has negatively impacted his employees. He fired me, and demoted the only other out person in his department. She introduced her partner to him at the end of September and on Oct. 5 she was demoted to a less visible position after 30 years."

I'm as tired of writing about prejudice as I'm sure you're tired of reading about it.

But problems are not solved by ignoring them.

For change -- to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but by us working at it. If we want sports to be about what happens on the court, or on the field, we have to get rid of the junk that happens behind closed doors.

It's McLaughlin's prerogative to reshape his department the way he sees fit, but in four of Finley's first seven years, he led the team to the Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament, winning once and advancing to the NCAA tournament. This year, their first in the Atlantic 10, he went undefeated in October and took the squad to the semifinals.

"He's a great coach and a great person," said Ivana Rich, who played on Finley's CAA regular-season conference championship team and is currently the head coach at Virginia State University. "And he's been a mentor for me in my current position."

I've spoken with several other of his former players, some who have become coaches, as well as former assistants who have moved on elsewhere, and I've heard nothing but great things about the man. "[McLaughlin] said 'We want someone to better represent the school,' and Coach had never done anything to misrepresent the school," Kristin Boyd, a fifth-year player, told GayRVA, a local publication.

And then there seems to be some inconsistencies with McLaughlin, who was the AD at Niagara, a small Catholic school, before coming to VCU.

There he didn't feel the need to fire his volleyball coach, Susan Clements, who started with two losing seasons before parlaying three consecutive 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances into a new job rebuilding Wright State (2-30 this season, her first there). Coincidentally, both Clements and Finley led their schools to their first conference championships (MAAC and CAA, respectively) and first tourney appearances in 2009.

If McLaughlin didn't have a quick trigger finger at Niagara, why now? Especially on the heels of such recent success?

And if McLaughlin wanted better representatives for the school, why did he hire Glenn Hofmann, a former Niagara colleague of his, who was forced to resign from his job as AD of Merrimack College for "personnel-based issues"?

Again, we don't know if Finley was let go because he was gay, but we know the history of homophobia in sports. And because of this, it's hard to look at all of the factors surrounding his dismissal and chalk it up to another ride on the coaching carousel.

Just as the numbers don't allow us to ignore the words of McCartney regarding Embree, or to pretend Title IX has eliminated sexism. We've come a long way in collegiate sports regarding diversity … but obviously we still have a long way to go.