The 17 April 2013 was the day that a dream became reality. It was the moment when Donna Finnie was appointed Head Coach of the Houston Baptist University (HBU) women’s basketball team and in the process became the first British coach to head an NCAA Division 1 basketball programme.
Finnie, who is an Applied Sports Science graduate from Heriot Watt University, has climbed the ladder from a voluntary coach while studying, to becoming one of the most respected youth coaches in Scotland, as she will take to the floor on Friday night as Head Coach in HBU’s season opener against UT Arlington.
“So far at HBU I have had many special moments, I truly believe I am blessed for being given the opportunity to lead this program going forward,” Finnie said when talking to Hoopsfix earlier this week.
“HBU is a special place and what makes it are the people. I believe the best moments are yet to come though as the group we have this year is a special group! Beginning playing in our new conference is exciting, Southland play will be a huge challenge, but one we are all excited about.
“I love coaching because basketball is my passion and teaching the game is my passion,” she continued. “Seeing the results of the work you put into developing players, and people, is the most rewarding thing for me.”
After graduation, the 36 year old Finnie worked for Basketball Scotland for nine years, the first six of which she took she took Scottish U18 teams to Texas in America for three weeks of basketball, to play games against high school teams.
Eventually her time and hard work in the trenches paid off, as she won the European Championship Division C titles in 2005 and 2006 with the U18 and U16 teams, respectively.
Rose Anderson, Becca Allison, Mairi Buchan, Siobhan Moore and Annie Rowan, all of whom had been members of her teams, went on to play for the Great Britain U20 team. Anderson was the only Scottish player to represent Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics, while Allison and Buchan (twice) represented Great Britain at the World Student games.
Despite all this success, Finnie’s toughest challenge was getting Scotland to be more competitive at the U18 Division B level. She started the reconstruction in 2007, and things were looking up in 2008 with Scotland picking up their first victories.
The 2009 squad, which may have been her strongest team in terms of experience ,was denied the chance of playing in the 2009 Championship because the event was held in Israel.
While 2009 marked the end of a three-year development cycle, she took the U18 programme one more time in 2010, before bowing out of Scottish Basketball.
Although the 2010 season did not end they way she had hoped, her one satisfaction that summer was the GB U20 European Championship victory, because two girls from her youth programmes were part of the winning team: Becca Allison and Mairi Buchan.
Looking back at the rise of British women’s basketball at youth level, Finnie’s contribution is often forgotten at GB U20 level. After winning promotion in 2010, GB finished 8th in 2011 which is the best placing of any British team at a Division A championship.
Deanne Hayward, Erin McGarrachan (GB U20 captain 2012) and Kathryn Taylor were three more players from Finnie’s programme that were on the GB U20 roster the second year.
Finnie left the Scottish basketball scene in September 2010 to become assistant coach at HBC, a long time dream of hers.
“In terms of coaching in an educational environment, it is key to me, as I believe players should have a plan, and set goals; both on the court as a basketball player, but post college in “real life”,” she said.
“They need to have a life plan to go alongside their basketball career, and the US system enables them to balance both whilst preparing them for the next steps in their life.”
When Mary Gleason resigned as Head Coach of the Houston Baptist University women’s basketball team in March 2013, the door opened for Donna Finnie to become the first British coach be at the helm of an NCAA Division 1 basketball programme.
“I do believe though, that I have had doors opened that I never expected, like being given this head coach opportunity so quickly and out of the blue, and so sometimes it’s just a timing and being in that right place at the right time.”
She is the second British woman heading an NCAA team; Jennifer Leedham (sister of GB star, Jo Leedham) is the other one, at Franklin Pierce University, a Division 2 school.
“I feel like since being here in the US I have developed so much as a coach and have had some unique challenges to face which I had never encountered in Europe,” she concluded.
“I know there are many European coaches who dream about making the transition to the US college game and all I can say is that its not easy, the adjustment is tough, but it is so worth it in many ways.”