Fincham creates ‘culture of toughness’ at Wittenberg

Former players, assistants talk about what makes Fincham successful after his 200th win

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Joe Fincham has coached 22 seasons for the Wittenberg Tigers. He doesn’t plan to coach another 11. That’s about how many seasons it would take — winning nine games per year, which is his average — to get to 300 career victories.

Fincham might approach that milestone in the late 2020s if he continues to coach but said, “I’ve got three kids to put through school. I'll be selling hot dogs on the beach somewhere.”

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For two-plus decades in Springfield, Fincham has been as good with a quote as he is with a playbook. He earned his 200th career victory Saturday by as his Tigers beat Ohio Wesleyan 42-23 at Edwards-Maurer Field.

Fincham is the eighth-winningest coach by percentage (200-43, .823) in NCAA Division III history. He’s the fourth winningest active coach by that measure.

“What makes Joe so special to work with,” Wittenberg Athletic Director Gary Williams said, “is his genuine humility and the desire he has to be a good father and husband before anything. I’ve seen a lot of coaches in my time, and he is one of the few I’ve seen and been around that has accomplished as much as he has with an amazing sense of who he is and who he needs to be on and off the field.”

RELATED: Players want to get 200th for Fincham

Here’s how consistent Fincham has been.

• His career record stood at 100-22 on Nov. 11, 2006, after the Tigers won 35-0 at Hiram to clinch a share of the North Coast Athletic Conference title. That was his 11th season.

• In the last 11 seasons, his record is 100-21. With his 200th victory, the Tigers again clinched a share of the NCAC title.

Entering the season, 43 coaches in all divisions had won 200 or more games with one school. Fincham is now on that list, along with the likes of Dayton’s Mike Kelly, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Alabama’s Bear Bryant.

You could go on and on with facts like that, but don’t expect Fincham to make a run at 300 wins, a mark only 11 coaches have reached. One of his former assistants, Mark Ewald, thinks Fincham will coach long enough to get there. But Fincham is already slightly dreading what getting to 200 wins means.

“If you get to 200, they give you a rocking chair,” Fincham joked.

That’s about what the players Fincham has coached and the coaches he has worked with would expect him to say. Here what they say about Fincham:

Ewald (former assistant coach; current assistant at Dayton): I coached high school for 15 years, and he mentored me coming into the college game. He's been so great with all his assistants. He just understands their strengths and weaknesses, and he doesn't belittle them when they've got weaknesses, which I had. There's not too many guys who have ever coached for him that didn't say that was one of their better experiences.

He cares about his kids deeply. We had a kid who was a running back from Newark Catholic, I think. He was on the kickoff team. This kid goes down, and there was a huge collision. We thought he broke his neck. It was a vertebrae. Luckily, he was OK, but that was it. He was done playing. I’ll never forget Joe. He’s a pretty stoic guy. We all know that. But he’s got such a big heart. I’ll never forget him going into his coach’s office. He was really concerned about the kid. This was probably the most serious injury (during Fincham’s coaching years) at that point. He had just come back from the hospital. You could hear him in his office. Many times I would hear in his office how he could turn that switch on and talk to the kids the way they needed to be talked to. He could give a stern talking to or one like he was a father. At this point, here he was with this kid who had a pretty serious injury, and you could hear him in there sobbing. I went to the door and knocked. Of course, he didn’t want to show that side of himself. It still gets me choked up. I went in and put my arm around him. He goes, ‘Man, it’s a tough break for the kid. I really feel for his family.’ Because at that point, we thought it was much worse. I knew that in his core he could be a hard ass, but he cares about those kids deeply. He wants them to succeed.

Credit: Staff photo by Barbara J. Perenic

Credit: Staff photo by Barbara J. Perenic

Rob Linkhart (former player and assistant coach): Joe sees the big picture when it comes to long-term goals and plans for the program, but he can focus and stress the details in practice and game situations. It's the attention to details, smart situational football and good players that have yielded a lot of wins. Joe has the ability to see and explain in simple, honest terms what is going well or wrong and does it in a way young men can acknowledge and more importantly make them feel compelled to change. This ability is limited to not just football. He talks about real-life adversity, being accountable in all aspects and provides guidance on how to better oneself. A lot of successful college coaches got their start at Witt — guys who have coached at the highest level. All of them say Joe has been the best to work for.

Andy Waddle (former player and defensive coordinator; current Marietta College Head coach): To me, what makes coach Fincham great is his consistency. Not in the year-to-year accomplishments or record, but in his day-to-day preparation and dealings with his team, recruits, administration and alumni. Every practice is important. Every part of practice is important. Every team and opponent is treated the same with the same passion to win and compete. He is a competitor but also doesn't let his own ego get in the way of his team's success or the success of the people around him. He is a very good communicator — tough and demanding but always fair. Most importantly he loves Wittenberg and the people who play for him.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Michael Aljancic (former wide receiver): What makes Coach Fincham a good coach? I'll give two reasons. Reason 1: He's a likable guy. The main reason I stepped on campus — coming from Canton, I did not know Wittenberg existed — was because he came into my high school with a big smile, charming the secretaries, and had a great personality. I'd been on several other recruiting trips, and the coaches were typically somber and very football focused. Coach Fincham was like, 'Just come on down for a visit and see how you like campus life, and by the way, we win a lot of football games.' Well, I went down, and I believe coach put me in a house with some guys that liked to have fun. I had a blast on my weekend visit, and the rest is history.

Reason 2: He always had us ready to play. Even though we would have great practices on occasion, he demanded more out of us. Being on a team with competitive teammates, I believe this drove us to compete to get the best out of each other. Most weeks he had us convinced we were playing the Patriots that Saturday, so we had a sense that if we didn’t prepare then we were going to get beat.

The best example/story I can give for Coach having us prepared would be my senior year (2001). We were 9-1, ranked high in the nation, made the playoffs, and the selection committee hosed us by sending to Texas to play consensus No. 1/2 (depending on the poll) Hardin Simmons. I know Coach was not thrilled with this selection as we could tell in his voice as he addressed it on Sunday. … To be more frank, he was angry and dropped a few profanities about the committee basically saying we are overrated. He said it’s up to us to prove them wrong. Coach put the fear of God in us that week about how talented and polished Hardin was and gave us the confidence that we could play a great game.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Adam Hewitt (former defensive back): To me, one of the things that makes a good coach is setting high expectations for players and getting the best of out them. Coach Fincham is a master of getting the best out of his athletes, and not all players respond the same way. He knows what buttons to push and when to push them. He is tough, but fair. He is always there for his players, but does not coddle.

Jake Bowman (former offensive lineman: Coach Fincham has been one of the most influential people in my life. He has the unique ability to motivate you, drive you and scare the crap out of you. In all seriousness, he is a rare leader that can extract effort and intensity from all walks of life. Whether you're a kid from the inner city, private school or the hills of West Virginia, coach Fincham has a way of relating with folks and pushing you to be the best you can be.

Since my time of first playing for Coach, about 15 years, he has changed and adapted to the style of play, dress code, and how to improve in all areas. What is unique about Coach is that he is a creature of habit in how he goes about his business, and preparation has been a staple of the program. I am sure he still uses the same yellow legal pads for practice plans and tips and reminders for his offensive linemen.

He has been a great leader, mentor and friend to me over the years of knowing him. Wish I could be back north to celebrate. Hope they give him a Gatorade bath!

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Lance Phillips (former defensive lineman): Coach Fincham is a good football coach because he understands that making good men will result in good football teams. He was a father figure to me when I was at Wittenberg, and when I did right by Coach, I did right by my family. He always held me responsible for everything I did, good and bad. I felt like I was being coached by someone who knew me all my life. I don't know if he knows how grateful I am for that or how much I love him for it. I'd STILL go to war for that man.

My favorite Fincham memory was when he asked me to come speak with him after tearing my second ACL inside a 365-day period at the end of my last camp my fifth year. That was my third/fourth torn ACL by that time (I forget which), and I was devastated. I told him I failed because I had been brought in to bring us back to the standard we belonged at. He told me the season wasn't over yet, and the jury was still out. He didn't feel sorry for me, and he didn't let me commiserate. I came back and ended up starting and being a key member of the D-line again — even made all-conference for the second straight year on a bum knee. He reminded me that I'm a warrior and I belong in the fray. That man always knew me. Somehow he could just look at me and know.

Credit: Barbara J. Perenic

Credit: Barbara J. Perenic

Zack Harris (former kicker): Being a specialist for five years, my relationship with Coach was probably different than most. My best story with Coach no doubt comes from the 2009 Wabash game. Most people probably don't remember the kick I missed in the first quarter that sure looked like it went through the uprights. I vividly remember after hearing Coach give the officials some friendly advice. Coach came to me on the sideline and said he would need me later in the game. And before the last-second field goal, he reminded me why I came to Witt and he was able to give me the confidence I needed.

There is no doubt we were all very fortunate to play for coach Fincham. His records and win percentage puts him up there with the best in college football. There are two things I believe separates coach. The Wittenberg tradition that coach Fincham uses from Day 1 to recruit, motivate and develop teams. When you're young in the program, it is hard to understand, but as a player develops through the program, you start to meet alumni and past players and you start to understand how important it is to the “old guys." Now almost 10 years removed, you can bet every Saturday I have a conversation or text with players I still keep in touch with. The winning tradition is a vital part to Wittenberg, and coach Fincham executes it.

Before playing for coach Fincham, I did not really understand accountability. Coach has a way of developing personal accountability and teaching the importance of every player being accountable for their own actions. It was clear from Day 1 for me. Someone did not touch a line in a sprint, and everyone had to re-run. Coach’s ability to develop players that are accountable for their own actions sets him apart.

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Aaron Coeling (former offensive lineman; current grad assistant at Notre Dame): What makes Coach Fincham a great coach is his consistency that he brings day in and day out. Every day you know exactly what you are going to get from Coach. He tells you exactly how he sees it as he pushes you to be the best man you can be on and off the field by doing things the right way through hard work.

Kevin Hoyng (former Wittenberg offensive coordinator; current Dayton assistant coach): When thinking about what makes Joe a great coach, it's hard to say just one thing. I was fortunate enough to coach under coach Fincham for three seasons, and I learned so much during that time from him. One of the things that really stood out to me about Coach is how he always knew the pulse of the team and how to get the players to play at their highest level. He did a great job of motivating the guys in many different ways to get them prepared to play their best football possible. He also creates a culture of toughness in his teams that I believe has gotten Wittenberg wins throughout the years in some of those close games that could go either way.

Heath Eby (former defensive back): My favorite Coach Fincham memory is seeing him celebrate with us while we sang the fight song at Heidelberg in the 2012 playoffs. I've never seen him that excited before, and it was great for all of us. What makes coach Fincham a good coach is that he's a leader. He's out there every day with the right attitude. In the morning, he'd be in the weight room getting his lift in. He was focused, and he was consistent — and always honest. They say that players emulate or act like their coach, and that's why we were winners.

Karlos Marshall (former defensive back): The thing I remember most about coach Fincham was his honesty, clarity and directness. He would tell you his genuine perspectives, regarding life, on and off the field. You have to not only respect that but appreciate it, as well.

Luke Landis (former wide receiver): Coach Fincham is a great coach and leader because he exemplifies what it means to be a great man, and he will fight with everything he has for his players — past and present. Coach leads by example in the way he handles himself in all situations (except in some conversations with referees on the sidelines). He is a humble and hard-working guy who is loyal to those around him, speaks up for what he believes in and demands excellence from everyone around him. He is what every Tiger should try to exemplify and is a big reason why when guys leave Wittenberg they go on to do great things. He is also a guy that will fight for his players with everything he has, whether it be for a player on the field in the heat of a game or several years down the line when a former player is trying to get a job. This a well-deserved honor by Coach, and while he will probably just take it as a sign of old age, I know our alumni and supporters who will be able to attend the game will make sure he gets honored as he very much deserves.

Will Gingery (former kicker/punter, current assistant coach): The thing that makes coach Fincham a great coach is the fact that he builds strong relationships with all of his players and pushes them to become not only great football players, but even better human beings. He demands your respect as a player, and in turn you give him your full attention and maximum effort in whatever task lies in front of you. Coach Fincham pushes every single one of his players to perform at a higher level than they thought they could reach on their own. My freshman season I wasn't a great punter and didn't think I was ready to play at the varsity level. The fact that I knew Fincham was confident enough in me to put me out there, it instilled an amount of confidence in myself that I wouldn't have had before.

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