Doug Finch, as he has done for most of his life when it comes to basketball, delivered on his promise.
Back in the spring of 2004, fresh off a state championship season with the Topeka Hayden girls basketball program, Finch submitted his application to take over the boys team at Salina Central. His desire at the time was to get closer to home, but he also told former Central principal Stan Vaughn that he planned to build something the school could be proud of for a long time.
Now, nearly 15 years later, Finch is preparing to step away from a Central program that has been putting highly competitive and successful teams on the floor — as the veteran coach promised — for a long time.
Finch announced before the start of the 2018-19 season that this would be his last with the Mustangs and tonight will be recognized during a ceremony between the girls and boys varsity basketball games at the Central High gym. The most successful coach in terms of total wins in Central history — boys or girls — will then go back to work tonight and for the next several weeks at least, doing what he loves.
Central has 10 win (as of Thursday) this season with more than a month to play. That figure surpasses the Mustangs’ total number of wins in Finch’s first two seasons combined with the team. Central hasn’t finished below .500 since.
“It’s been 15 remarkable years,” said Finch, whose team is coming off an overtime loss Tuesday at Newton. “Right now we’re 10-3 and we’re mad. Fifteen years ago it was a different story. Times have changed. The pride factor to play basketball at Central right now is at an all-time high.
“Salina Central has been amazing to me, so (tonight) will be fun.”
Finch has had several stops during a career that has produced 460 wins since his first coaching assignment in 1982. It began with five years at Quinter and another at Phillipsburg High School before coaching his daughters at Smith Center.
He took a break from teaching and coaching in the mid- to late-’90s, though he did put in one season as a Rule 10 coach at Beloit High School in that stretch.
He returned in 2001 and spent four years at Hayden, where the Wildcat girls teams went 81-21 and qualified for the state tournament all four years. That included back-to-back runner-up finishes before winning the state title in 2004 at the then Bicentennial Center.
With family spread across north central Kansas, Finch was ready for a new challenge. Even if it meant a switch from girls to boys basketball.
“I think I drove Stan Vaughn nuts because I probably called him every week, wanting this job that bad,” Finch said. “I remember one time I called him and he said, ‘Doug, hang with me.’
“I went back to some of my coaching buddies at Hayden and asked them what that means. One of them said ‘Aw, you got it. Just be patient,’ and another one said, ‘Uh, they’re waiting on another guy to commit.’ It probably meant quit bugging me every week.”
Finch also saw something in the Salina Central program others may have missed. The Mustangs had gone through four head coaches in the previous 10 seasons, with none staying longer than three years. Jim Campion did take Central to a state runner-up finish in 2001, but left the following year to become the school’s athletic director.
“I saw it as a real opportunity,” Finch said. “I knew we had to change the culture around here a little bit to make basketball cool, but I knew there were some kids at this school that wanted to play.
“I think that was the selling point for Mr. Vaughn at the time. His first question was why do you want to come to Central. It was because of family but I also told him I wanted to stay and build a program. I think that helped me a lot. There’s been some great coaches come through here but the tenure was so short.
“I felt like it was a sleeping giant. All we had to do was wake that giant up and go to work.”
It was work. An actual grind and it didn’t produce success immediately. The Mustangs won only four games in his first season in charge and the following year, with a young lineup, Finch’s team finished 5-16.
Central went 12-9 in the 2006-07 season and has never finished below .500 since. If the Mustangs win one more game this season, they are guaranteed to finish with a winning record for a 13th consecutive year, the longest such streak in the program’s history.
Finch, 62, reached 200 wins with the Mustangs earlier this season and is now 205-120, which is more than double the total number of wins of any boys basketball coach in Central history.
Establishing some consistency at the top was a key, but hardly the only factor in turning Central into a successful program. Finch knows he and his teams have benefited from the help of talented and committed assistant coaches and raves about the support of the Mustang parents.
“Ryan Modin has been my assistant for 10 years now,” Finch said. “I’ve got him at the freshman level and kept him there to teach these young kids the expectations when they get to me. And you’ve got guys like coach (Mark) Ramsey that just absolutely bleeds maroon. What a great guy.
“(Former assistant) Carl Hines coaches eighth graders right now and he gets that going. Damon Boyer runs WCS youth basketball and he’s the seventh grade coach. All of these guys I’m talking about have invested in the summers and team camps and the philosophy we use.
“You can’t do all this without those guys and their support for the program and believing in what we do. And you can’t do it without tremendous support from our parents. It is amazing what our parents do for Salina Central basketball and what they invest in this thing.”
Mom biggest fan
Finch grew up in Natoma and played for legendary Hall of Fame coach John Locke. In his final two seasons, Natoma went 49-1, including an unbeaten state championship season as a senior in 1975.
He played two full seasons at Fort Hays State before a knee injury limited him to nine games as a junior. The knee problems persisted and he only played three games his senior year, “and now I’m walking around on two knee replacements.”
Only nine years after graduating high school, Finch was leading Quinter to a surprise 2A state tournament berth. That team lost to unbeaten and eventual champion Troy in overtime.
“We got on a roll and we made it to state in 2A and nobody thought we had a chance to get there,” Finch said. “My dad and mom got to see that and my brother was there and my sister flew in from Colorado. And I’ll never forget on my parents’ car, you know how you paint cars, they painted ‘We coached the coach.’”
Family has always been important to Finch. His mother Helen lives in Lincoln and remains his biggest fan to this day. It was family that initially brought him to Central and family is part of the reason he’s leaving the school now.
Finch will also retire from his teaching position, but giving up coaching and basketball is not part of his retirement plan.
“When I told my mom I was retiring, she said, ‘You’ve had a basketball in your hand since you were five years old, what are you going to do,’” Finch said. “I’m not going to drop basketball completely. I can’t.”
“I’ve got eight grandchildren and they’re growing up right in front of my eyes. I’m 62. I’m just going to sit back and I guess call it semi-retired grandpa, but I’m not going to say no to the right coaching gig.”
Finch has already committed to coaching a team of middle school girls from north central Kansas this spring, including one of his granddaughters in Smith Center. There are other opportunities he’s considering, but has not yet finalized his future plans.
He also has somewhere between eight and 12 games remaining as Central coach. When the Mustangs finished as state runner-up a year ago, it was the team’s third consecutive state tournament appearance — something that hasn’t been done at Central since 1974-76.
“There’s been some great, great kids come through here,” Finch said. “Somebody the other day asked me to name my top five and I can’t do it because there are so many.
“Just look at the point guards we’ve had and the shooters we’ve had and the resilience of so many players. It’s been a blast. It’s been fun.”
Fun is a word the veteran coach uses often when reminiscing about his 15 years at Central, his coaching career and his own playing days. Although he can be demanding and has high expectations for everyone in the program, Finch also attempts to emphasize to his players they need to enjoy this opportunity and learn from it.
“It is the best time of your life,” Finch said. “High school sports may have changed with the media attention and the social stuff, but it’s still the best time of your life. You want these kids to enjoy it because once you graduate and are in college, the real world is going to smack you right in the face.
“Everything that happens in basketball is going to happen in life. You are going to have setbacks, you are going to get beat and it’s all about how you pick yourself up and dust yourself off.”