When John Phillips was a sophomore linebacker at Berry High School, he’d been without a father for about three years.
And he was without a letterman jacket, too.
Those things were different, to be sure, but he felt the absence of both when coach Bob Finley stopped him in the hall one day and asked him where his letterman jacket was.
“I was too embarrassed to tell him that my mom could not afford it, so I told him that I didn’t want one,” Phillips said.
About two weeks later, Finley sent him on an errand to pick up something at a local sporting goods store.
“When I arrived and told the man behind the counter my name, he immediately pulled out a brand-new letterman jacket with my football number — No. 44 — on it,” Phillips said. “Coach Finley had recognized that I really did want that jacket and had done something about it, just as a father would do for a son.”
And Phillips, who graduated in 1987, still has that jacket hanging in his closet.
Finley has left his mark on countless people, said Wayne Wood, a teacher at Berry during Finley’s last five years at the school.
“That’s not just my perspective — that’s the perspective of hundreds of people,” Wood said, who compiled dozens of stories, including Phillips’, in a book called “Bob Finley: A Class Act.”
“He was a great man, a great Christian influence, and he was admired by thousands,” Wood said — that’s why Berry High School’s stadium is named after him.
That’s also why the new 155,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor event center next to the Hoover Met Stadium will be named after him, Wood said.
And that’s why, every year, a committee bestows Finley Awards for outstanding character on one Hoover school district employee, one senior from Hoover High School and one senior from Spain Park High School.
Finley was in the process of moving over from Berry — Hoover’s first high school — to the new Hoover High School when he died.
“Hoover High School opened in the fall of 1994, and coach Finley was to be the head coach but sadly died working on the Berry football field a week before practice was to start,” Wood wrote in an article on the Hoover Bucs Athletics website.
Finley had been assistant football coach and head boys’ basketball coach when he came to Berry in 1964, but by 1968, he was named head football coach and athletic director. And not only did he lead boys’ sports to succeed, he quietly and behind the scenes paved the way for girls’ sports to expand, building one of the best girls’ basketball programs in the state and helping fast-pitch softball take hold in Alabama, Wood said.
“Humility was a term often applied to him, and at times he even appeared shy and embarrassed,” Wood wrote in his book. “He would give credit to others ahead of himself even if they didn’t really deserve it.”
Finley was inducted into the Alabama High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 1992.
“Coach Finley was loved, respected and admired by all athletes, male and female alike,” Wood wrote, adding that he is a “hero and respected man in Hoover history” and that anything named after him is “worthwhile and honorable.”
This year’s Finley Award nominations are due Feb. 1. Winners will be announced Feb. 24 and recognized at a banquet March 23.