Before I really begin this column, I want to make it clear that I am not out to indict first-year VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin or anyone else in the VCU athletic department.
As a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite.
Over the last two-and-a-half years in my time as a staff member at the Commonwealth Times, I have covered almost every varsity sport here at VCU, and have enjoyed every minute of it mainly because of the people involved in the programs.
This is why I was shocked and saddened to hear that James Finley, eight-year coach of the VCU volleyball team, was recently fired coming off an inspiring 25-6 record in its first year as a member of the always-competitive Atlantic 10 conference.
Coach Finley was informed by McLaughlin on Nov. 19 that his contract would not be renewed for next season, a move that Finley and other members of the team were shocked by, and believe was based on discrimination because of the fact that he is openly gay.
In a CT story by multimedia editor Tommy Lopez published online on Nov. 28, Kristen Boyd, a senior captain on the volleyball team went on record saying she believes that Finley being gay played a “big part” in him being fired.
She also said that one of the first things she said to Finley after he had been fired, was asking him, “Coach, you’re getting fired because you’re gay, didn’t you?”
The truth is, no one in the public view other than McLaughlin himself really knows why he made the executive decision to can Finley in the immediate aftermath of a season in which he led his squad to a winning percentage of about .800. And although Finley and others, including many of the school’s alumni donors are waiting for an explanation, there has been nothing but vague statements issued from the university.
Every single one of my interactions with any member of any coaching staff at VCU has been nothing but uplifting and comfortable to this point, including Coach Finley, who I always believed was a good role model and X’s and O’s volleyball coach regardless of his sexual orientation.
When I heard a couple weeks ago that Coach Finley had been fired, I went through a wide range of emotions. At first I was angry, then sad, then for a while simply just confused. In all my years of following and covering sports, I have never seen a coach let go with so little public explanation after he built a program from the ground up over a span of many years.
And that is exactly what Coach Finley has done here.
When I was a freshman in 2010, I covered some volleyball games for The CT, and the team quite frankly was not close to as good as they are now. They had a 13-20 overall record, but ended up battling through some turmoil and ended up with a solid 9-5 conference mark: a sign of a team that has some character and resolve.
In other words, it was clear they were a well-coached bunch.
And now, look at what two more years under Coach Finley has done – they boasted a 25-6 record on par with the men’s basketball team’s 29-7 clip from a season ago, and in the most recent numbers published on the NCAA’s official website, had a team Academic Progress Rate of 932, which is considered satisfactory and not subject to any kind of sanctions by the NCAA. They also have a perfect graduation rate.
Under the same 1-1000 NCAA Academic Progress Rate scale, in which a minimum mark of 925 is required to be satisfactory and free of sanctions, the VCU men’s basketball team posted a 956 mark in the most recently published numbers, which came out following the 2010-2011 season. The men’s soccer team scored a 969, while the field hockey team earned a school-best 992. The school’s lowest APR mark was the men’s indoor track team, which earned a mark of 928 in the latest published rankings.
In defense of McLaughlin, Finley’s teams over the years have been consistently among the lowest at VCU in terms of APR, although not always the lowest. Also, no Finley-coached team has ever faced NCAA sanctions for academic issues.
But if the decision to fire him was based on academics, there shouldn’t be anything stopping him from explaining that to the former coach or members of the team such as Boyd up-front.
Instead, the move to fire Coach Finley has been confusing and overall quite vague when it comes to the language used in his only public statements on the matter since the firing. When McLaughlin met with the volleyball team after he had made the decision to fire Finley, he told the team that they were looking for a coach that “better represented the university.” This was according to Lopez’ interview with Finley.
What that really meant seemed to be for them to decide, which may be a big reason why this controversy has had legs to arise. If only there was a clear or logical explanation in plain sight, this would be easier for all parties involved.
McLaughlin’s only public comments since the original press release on Finley’s termination simply stated that, “It is unfortunate that Mr. Finley feels the decision not to renew his contract was based on anything other than previously stated concerns about the volleyball program.”
In the same CT story published last week, Finley told Lopez that he was only in McLaughlin’s office for three or four minutes when he was informed his contract would not be renewed for next season, and never received any sort of satisfying explanation for why it was done.
The question that Finley, and others close to this very sensitive situation all along has been a very simple ‘Why?’And to this point, it seems there is still is no clear answer in sight.
Athletic directors are supposed to be transparent and about open communication, so if no straight answer has been offered to Finley or the team, it seems he may have a valid case in his questioning of a potential wrongful termination.