As the Head Coach of the Scottish national team, Donna Finnie became the first Head Coach at any level to win two consecutive FIBA Tournaments (2005 and 2006), while also leading the team into three FIBA European B Division Championships. This success on an international-level has translated over to the United States with her Houston Baptist University team. She took over Houston Baptist in 2013 and become the all-time winningest coach in the program’s Division I history with 41 overall wins, after taking over a program that had only 16 total wins during the four previous seasons combined prior to her taking over. She has also led Houston Baptist to the most single-season (15) and Southland Conference wins (9) in program Division I history.
How did your successful experience leading the Scottish National Team prepare you to lead your own Division I program?
Coaching with a program preparing for the European Championships presented challenges that you don’t experience at the Division I level in the United States. We had an extremely small budget, limited staffing and little support staff. This experience provided me a grounding in understanding how to manage a small budget, delegate to staff, and prepare meticulously for games.
We also didn’t have much to choose from in terms of talent, which meant player development was key in coaching the national team. We competed against some of the best teams in Europe and focusing on developing individuals was key. Of course, the European Championship games were where I honed my play-calling skills. I’m so grateful I received the opportunity to represent our country in that position and learn in such a competitive environment.
What benefits and challenges were there in transitioning from Assistant Coach to Head Coach at Houston Baptist?
Having recruited all the players that were on the team when I took over, it was an easier transition in terms of already having their trust. Having gained this trust as an Assistant Coach, the challenge was that they were used to coming to me about everything and they did that when I was first named Head Coach. I didn’t want them to think I was pushing them away, but I also couldn’t keep up with everything and have them in my office 24/7 either. I was getting burnt out quickly so we had a staff meeting and then met with the players. We talked about certain “questions” they may have and that they should ask them to the seniors first, then the Assistant Coaches, and then me. It helped immensely. The players still come in my office all the time, which I definitely want so we can continuously develop a relationship, but the basic questions that anyone on staff can handle are now not on my plate.
Another benefit were the already-established recruiting relationships locally. We have so many great AAU and high school programs here in Houston, it was great having those existing relationships.
Of course, knowing who to go to on campus to get things done was also huge. For anyone making the transition from Assistant Coach to Head Coach at the same school, that should be the biggest immediate advantage.
What have been some key points of emphasis in rebuilding Houston Baptist and leading the program to its most success at the Division I level?
The first thing is people. Putting together an energetic staff was my first goal. Although young, our two assistant coaches are both a huge part of the successes we have had. Ben (Chase) left us for another Division I Assistant Coach position closer to his home this past off-season, but he was a tremendous help. Being able to move Becca (Allison) seamlessly into that role from being a GA really helped our kids. Lauren (Tippet) has so much passion for the game and player development, it’s contagious. She will do whatever it takes for our players and program and that’s an enormous part of us making positive strides.
Of course, recruiting players who are also great people has helped. We are recruiting young ladies with goals on and off the floor. Having future doctors, nurses, and engineers, in our program is clearly reflective in our team GPA being consistently strong, but more so, allows us to challenge young women who thrive in a goal-oriented environment.
One of our other goals was to narrow our recruiting areas. Before I took over, we had recruited nationally. With a limited budget, I wanted us to be able to really get out and see our recruits play as much as we are allowed to and really develop great relationships with them. Focusing on recruiting only Texas and international players has really helped us cultivate strong relationships and focus on the type of young women we know will be a fit for our program.
What are some goals for your program as you enter Southland Conference play?
We are the youngest team in the nation this year so our goal is to get better every day. Our focus going into Southland Conference play is to improve specifically in three areas; communication, finishing and taking care of the basketball. We have a very good freshmen class, who will all gain good experience, so we must ensure we get better in these areas this year so we can take the big steps we expect next year.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make the transition overseas to become a Division I coach?
It is very difficult to make the transition, as many fear giving coaches from overseas the opportunity, but I feel that the coach-education system in Europe is so strong. Going through the FECC and governing body coaching certificates helps prepare coaches so well. There are so many great coaches overseas just needing a door to open for them.
Networking is the best way to find a way over here. I was lucky enough that I had great guidance from Larry Tidwell (current Head Coach at University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley) while he was at TCU and Lamar. I was fortunate to spend time with him and watch him work. His incessant networking over the years has led him to great successes wherever he has been and it was the way I was given the opportunity to be an Assistant Coach at the Division I level.
I was extremely blessed to meet and get to know Skip Prosser when he would do coaching clinics in Scotland. After one particular conversation, he said, “you know if you ever come over to North Carolina I can help you”. I booked a flight to North Carolina and he was kind enough to set up visits for me to meet coaches at Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest. Staying in touch with these coaches I met after was so important and Skip helped me more than he would have ever known. His kindness and willingness to help me has pushed me to do the same for young coaches. Most coaches will help young aspiring coaches, but young coaches also must put in the time and ongoing communication to take advantage of this help.
Working summer camps, watching workouts, asking to do white-board sessions and putting time into learning your craft is so vital. As we tell our players every day, nothing is given, it’s earned. Securing a position in the United States from overseas will only come through working hard over time.
Written originally for CollegeInsider.com.