Wittenberg’s Joe Fincham on possibility spring football: ’I want to play’

Wittenberg’s Joe Fincham takes the field with the players before a game against Denison on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, at Deeds Field in Granville. David Jablonski/Staff
Wittenberg’s Joe Fincham takes the field with the players before a game against Denison on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, at Deeds Field in Granville. David Jablonski/Staff

This will be veteran coach's first fall in Springfield without football

It’s hard to imagine a fall without football on campus at Wittenberg University. Except for two seasons (1943 and 1944) during World War II, the program has played every season since 1892.

Joe Fincham has walked the sidelines as the Wittenberg Tigers head coach every fall since 1996, and he spent six years prior to that as an assistant coach with the program. For many years now, he has left a message for his family — the coffee pot letter — in the kitchen before leaving for work on the first day of preseason practices.

That tradition won’t continue this year. Wittenberg athletes start arriving on campus Monday, but they won’t practice — at least right away. Plans for what they will do in the fall are up in the air after the North Coast Athletic Conference announced it has suspended all competition through Dec. 31.

Hope remains that the fall seasons, including football, will be played sometime in 2021.

“Being a football coach, I want to play football,” Fincham said Wednesday. “I’d like to think in Division III, in particular, these athletes are are not here because they’re on scholarship, and they want to play, too.”

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The challenge would be playing a season in the spring and then turning around and starting a new season in August.

“If you like the game of football, you want to go play,” Fincham said. “The downside of it would be what the downside of having spring ball 40 years ago was when I was a player. If you had a late spring ball and somebody got hurt, their surgery situation might not play itself out fast enough to get them back on the field in August. That’s why you have schools playing spring ball as soon as signing day’s over.”

Playing a full season in the spring might be more doable at the Division III level, where teams play 10 games in the regular season and don’t have to worry about the top players turning their attention to the NFL Draft.

“You look at somebody like Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama playing 15 games in a season,” Fincham said, “and then turning right back around and playing. I don’t think they can play a spring season of 15 games because of the wear and tear.”

For now, the power conferences are hanging on to hopes of playing this fall, albeit with conference-only schedules. A reduced schedule might help those colleges, too, if they end up playing in the spring instead.

Fincham had optimism the season would start on time in June but saw his hopes dwindle as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. The NCAC first announced it would delay the start of fall sports until Sept. 19, though two schools, Oberlin and Kenyon, had announced they wouldn’t play at all.

It was no surprise then for the veteran coach when the season was suspended.

“It’s obviously really disappointing that we’re not going to play,” Fincham said. “It’s particularly disappointing for our seniors, but as we all know, the whole thing is about the health and wellness of your organization. That’s not just the players and coaches, but all the other people attached to your program, right down to the downs-marker guys.”

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When the fall sports season was suspended, Wittenberg Athletic Director Gary Williams talked about the importance of keeping athletes engaged even if they won’t be competing against other schools. Fincham and other coaches are still trying to figure out how they will do that.

“They’re students first, and they’re going to be going to class and doing things outside football,” Fincham said. “I would like to think most of these guys made the decision to come to Wittenberg: one because of the education and two because of the football.”

The Tigers finished 7-3 last season. They announced a 65-player recruiting class in June, and those players will arrive on campus in early August along with the returning players.

Fincham said Wittenberg will have to get creative to give the athletes some sort of athletic experience in the fall. Keeping them in shape will be one goal. The coaches also will have extra time to spend on recruiting.

“You’ve got to come up with a plan to go forward,” Fincham said. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity for us to do some things as a staff and as an organization that you just never seem to have enough time to do, like leadership classes for your players. There’s a lot of team-building things you can do. None of it truly replaces the team building you get by playing.”

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