It took Scott Stricklin a little longer than many would have liked, but the important thing is that he did it: Kelly Rae Finley, known for months as the interim head coach for Gator women’s basketball, is the interim head coach no more. That interim tag has been ripped off her back and now here she stands, as the official head coach of this Gator women’s basketball program.
You can watch the moment Stricklin made the announcement to the players right here. Spoiler alert: it’s a special moment.
The question now is, what next?
This Gator women’s basketball program, as we all know by now, has been in the headlines recently for all kinds of the wrong reasons. To make an extremely long story short, players were mistreated and abused on almost a daily basis by prior coach Cam Newbauer, and Stricklin and his administration did next to nothing about it. At long last- ironically enough, just after Stricklin extended Newbauer’s contract- a red line was finally crossed, Newbauer “stepped down” and Finley took over.
The journey since then for this program has been remarkable. There was some initial turbulence early in the year, as expected (Florida should never, ever lose to Towson by 15+ points) and the team’s most talented player, Lavender Briggs, got hurt and quit the team one game into the SEC season, but then Finley’s Gators took off. Florida won 10 out of its next 11 games- six of which came against ranked opponents- to enter the national rankings themselves.
Florida did fall back down to earth at the end of the SEC slate, though. The Gators lost their final three games, two of which came against teams with losing records in the conference.
Maybe the announcement of Finley as the permanent Gator women’s basketball coach had something to do with that late-season swoon. Maybe it was a situation of, “hey, things are going great, let’s not touch it, it’s working with her as the interim coach!” until it wasn’t, and that’s when Stricklin made the move. Or maybe there were logistics involved that had to be worked out, and this just happened to be the moment in time they were completed and the move was ready to be announced from a legal standpoint.
Either way, the announcement has a chance to re-revitalize what was a broken team, became one of the best stories in college sports and now has remembered that it is indeed not invincible. But it’s also more than that. Newbauer “stepping away” provided some closure to the players in the sense that the man responsible for their torment was gone.
That, though, was far from the end of the story. True closure for a story like this could only include the protagonist in the situation being rewarded somehow.
In preseason media sessions, the players on this 2021-22 Gator women’s basketball team were asked about Finley’s role in the Newbauer abuse scandal. Every single one of them stood up for her in a way that could not be mistaken. They loved her. They believed in her. And they wanted to play for her.
Now, whereas until today they knew they had the duration of the season to do so but the picture was somewhat murky beyond that, Stricklin has now given their ability to do so an indefinite extension. And in doing so, Stricklin not only provides the lone acceptable type of closure possible for such a horrifying chapter in their lives, he’s also opened a portal to a new world the rest of this season- and beyond.
Is this announcement what was needed to jolt this swooning team back to the level it was at before last Sunday’s loss against LSU? Will the motivation to cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s every trip up and down the floor on both sides of the ball be back to what it was when Florida was in the midst of winning ten out of eleven games? Will these Gators have a new purpose, a new mission, and a new “why?” fueling them?
Most vitally of all, is this the moment in time that will be looked back upon decades into the future as the true birth of a Gator women’s basketball program that looks markedly more powerful than it ever has before? Is this the Gator women’s basketball version of the moment that Steve Spurrier returned to Gainesville as the head football coach, or Jeremy Foley hired Billy Donovan as the men’s basketball coach or Tim Walton as the softball coach?
Time will tell. Kelly Rae Finley is an extremely young woman (36) and thus one cannot reasonably heap those expectations on her. In fact, it’s not even fair to expect her to have Florida match the 10-6 SEC record she coached her team to every year moving forward.
But she’s also working with the gift of no expectations whatsoever to follow. She’s clearly an exceptionally bright basketball mind and knows how to relate to players, so it’s reasonable to think she will be able to recruit and build for the future now that the interim tag has been ripped off her back.
And if Finley can do all that on even a semi-consistent basis, Scott Stricklin may have just made the most important hire that he’ll ever make. Because if Finley can keep this program going at its current trajectory, at long last, Florida will have the final piece to its #EverythingSchool puzzle.