Fincham hears Wittenberg fight song one last time after announcing his retirement

Players shocked by decision, which ends coach’s 25-year run at Division III power

For many years, the Wittenberg University football team has sung the school’s fight song after victories. The players learn the lyrics early in their freshman seasons. That made it easy for them to respond a request coach Joe Fincham made Thursday moments after telling his returning players in a meeting at the Health, Wellness & Athletics Complex he was retiring after 25 seasons.

“He said when I leave here and walk to my car with my wife Rita, I want to hear that fight song one more time,” said all-conference first team defensive lineman Mike Knock, a Springboro High School graduate. “We sang it several times.”

This is what Fincham heard as he left the building:

“Fight, Tigers, fight for that game (and vict’ry),

Sing! praises unto her name (and vict’ry),

Smash ahead across the field,

And we’ll win again for Wittenberg!”

Fincham’s request was the last move of a career that spanned four decades and saw him climb the record book to become one of the winningest coaches in college football history. His announcement stunned the players. In the meeting, he didn’t elaborate on why he decided to retire now. He also did not respond to a request for comment from the News-Sun on Thursday.

Fincham did tell the players he was happy they ended the season on a positive note — they won their last five games to finish 7-3 — and wished them luck in the future.

“It was pretty sudden,” Knock said. “We were expecting to get our workout plan for the upcoming winter. We’re all appreciative of how much he’s contributed to Wittenberg football. We’re a small fraction of everything he’s done and all the kids he’s helped out. We were honored to be a part of the last ride for coach Fincham.”

The players who celebrated Senior Day last weekend and will not be returning heard the news from their teammates who attended the meeting. They were shocked, too.

“He is Wittenberg football,” said senior safety Jordan Burkey.

Even when the Tigers started 2-3 this season, putting one of the winningest programs in NCAA Division III history in a rare position, Fincham did not give up on the season. He kept pushing the captains — Burkey, Sam Kayser, Logan Jewsikow and Hunter Shelley — to keep the same energy at practice. He did the same two years earlier with a different set of captains after Wittenberg lost back-to-back NCAC games.

“There wasn’t a season where he ever gave up on us or anything,” said Kayser, a wide receiver. “He was always positive and looking to get the best out of each team he had.”

Wittenberg won its last three games in 2019 and shared the North Coast Athletic Conference championship with Wabash and Denison. It won its last five games in 2021 to finish tied for second. When the players walked off the field last Saturday after a 44-29 victory against Wooster in the regular-season finale at Edwards-Maurer Field, they had no idea Fincham had just coached his last game.

“He didn’t mention it,” Kayser said, “so that’s why I think (the decision) wasn’t a long time coming and definitely happened recently. I’m sure he didn’t want to do it so soon. But the moment came, so you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Fincham didn’t waste any time changing the short biography on his Twitter profile. Within hours the announcement, he had changed the text to read: “Former Coach Fincham. Current dad and husband looking for next chapter in life.”

While the timing of Fincham’s retirement may have been a surprise because just two weeks ago he was talking about his hopes for next season for a team that won its last five games, during his career Fincham had talked about not wanting to be the next Joe Paterno, coaching into his 80s. He turned 57 in October.

“When I think about staying someplace for that long, it just kills me,” Fincham said before the 2005 season, his 10th. “When you’re in your season, you’re just trying to get through the day. You think, ‘God, I’m 40 years old, and I can’t do this to the day I retire, or I’ll die in that gray chair.’“

Fincham pointed to the chair behind his desk.

”And I don’t want to die in this office,” he said. “I just don’t. That’s not a bad thing. Sometime a new challenge will come up, and that’ll be it. I’m not looking to leave Wittenberg, but I’m not going to be the head coach at Wittenberg when I retire. They’ll need somebody else in here with more energy.”

Fincham also talked in that same interview 16 years ago about his career goals and why he stayed at Wittenberg.

“I think when Doug Neibuhr hired me (as offensive line coach in 1991), I was 24 years old and I thought I would be here a couple years and want to go to a bigger school,” Fincham said. “I’m not delusional — not Ohio State or anything. But I really felt that’s what I wanted to do. What I found was a place I liked. I found a school that brings in good kids. Wittenberg attracts achievers, people for the most part who set goals, and things are important to them. That makes life easier.”

While Fincham has not commented on why he chose to retire now, he did thank everyone who reached out to him after the retirement announcement.

“The Finchams will be forever grateful,” he wrote Friday on Twitter. “Humbled beyond words.”

First-year Wittenberg Athletic Director Brian Agler said the news surprised him when Fincham delivered it earlier in the week.

“He’s had quite a tremendous run,” Agler said. “His tenure’s at an elite level. He’s a really good person, an excellent coach. His family means the world to him, which I totally respect.”

Wittenberg has begun the process of finding a new head coach, Agler said.

“We’re trying to be thorough but move quickly,” Agler said. “We don’t want a lot of instability. We want to move forward for recruiting purposes. We achieved a lot of great momentum late in the season. We’ve got a good group of players who have really improved with the help of Joe and the staff. We’ve got a good team.”

Fincham, a native of Williamstown, W.Va., who played college football for the Ohio Bobcats, took over the program in 1996 after working for six years as an assistant coach at Wittenberg. He guided Wittenberg to 14 North Coast Athletic Conference championships and 14 NCAA Division III playoff appearances. His career record stands at 224-51. His North Coast Athletic Conference record was 165-24.

Through 2020, the last time the official NCAA football record book was updated, Fincham ranked 23rd in college football history in all divisions in winning percentage (.819) and ninth among active coaches. He ranked eighth among active head coaches at the Division III level (minimum of five years experience) in winning percentage and fifth in victories. Entering the 2021 season, only 50 coaches in college football history had won 224 games.

Fincham was named the American Football Coaches Association Regional Coach of the Year in 1998 and 2009. His teams finished the regular season undefeated at 10-0 in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2009, 2010 and 2017.

Fincham became Wittenberg’s winningest coach in 2010, passing Hall of Fame coach Dave Maurer with his 130th victory. He reached the 200-win mark in 2017. At that time, he was the 44th coach in college football history to win 200 games with one school, joining the likes of Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Alabama’s Bear Bryant.

Fincham’s former players used Twitter to pay their respects.

“One hell of a run!” wrote former running back Will Block. “I’m going to miss seeing you on the sidelines, @CoachFincham. Thank you for pouring into so many young men, including me, over the years. We are, because you are.”

“An incredible father, husband, mentor and coach,” former defensive lineman Adam Kattoua wrote. “Was a pleasure playing for you, @CoachFincham. The place won’t be the same without you.”

“There’s no higher compliment than this,” wrote Heath Eby, a former defensive back. “I still hear Coach’s words and lessons in my head every day when facing problems. He left that mark on all Tigers. A well earned Congrats to you, @CoachFincham. Somebody turn on ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ to celebrate.”

“Couldn’t honor the man enough,” wrote Andrew Tate, a former Wittenberg linebacker . “Couldn’t think of one single person more important to the university. Congrats on a heck of a career!”

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