After a season that started under clouds of controversy and yet featured surprising highs, Florida has finally given its fans an answer to one of the questions about its women’s basketball program: Yes, Kelly Rae Finley is going to be sticking around.
Florida announced that Finley has been installed as the Gators’ full-time head coach, losing an interim tag she had carried through the entirety of the Gators’ regular-season schedule, on Monday, doing so first via a tweet featuring Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin making the announcement to the team in its locker room. In the video, Finley is mobbed first by her coaching staff, then by her players.
Florida’s release includes quotes from both Stricklin and Finley.
”Kelly Rae is such a talented young coach whose natural poise, intelligence and relational abilities have all been on display during this remarkable Gators Women’s Basketball season. I’m excited that she’ll have the opportunity to build off of this year’s success and that future Gators will be able to benefit from her leadership the way this team has.”
”I’m humbled to be given the opportunity to lead our women’s basketball program and I believe that together we will be able to achieve great things. I’m forever grateful for our staff and student-athletes for their dedication to growing this program and I look forward to continuing on this journey.”
“Within this program, we strive to create a sustainable and competitive environment that encourages collaboration, fosters creativity and empowers our young women to achieve growth and success during their time at Florida and beyond.”
Associated Press reporter Mark Long followed with the detail that Finley’s deal is for five years, which would bring her tenure as a coach at Florida to 10 years if she remains in Gainesville for the entirety of it.
And how Finley’s Gators competed on the floor in 2021-22 has long since merited her elevation from the limbo of being an interim coach. Florida recovered from a slow start in non-conference play to streak through the meat of its SEC schedule, ripping off several wins over ranked teams — notably blowing out Tennessee in historic fashion — before stumbling a bit in recent weeks and closing the regular season on a three-game skid.
But this is the Gators’ first 20-win season since 2015-16, and it will assuredly feature their first NCAA Tournament appearance since then no matter what they do as the No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament. And Finley did this after four years of scuffling under her former boss, Cameron Newbauer, in which Florida failed to post a better record than a 15-15 mark in 2019-20.
On those merits, she’s aced the test of her acumen that was this season, and fully deserves to lead Florida’s program.
But, of course, Newbauer did not leave Florida because of his team losing: He was set to be the Gators’ coach in 2021-22 — and with a new contract extension, even — prior to an internal conflict that led to his departure last summer. And the allegations of wide-ranging abuse by Newbauer that would follow and put the lie to the idea that he and Florida had parted ways for personal reasons left the Gators in the precarious position of having installed Finley as an interim head coach despite former player Cydnee Kinslow having called her complicit in the abuse.
Florida has largely remained mum about Newbauer’s abuse — and its view of Finley’s role in it — since then, with Stricklin holding one closed-door, invitation-only session with select reporters shortly after initial reporting was published in September. That did not prevent further reporting on specifically what Stricklin knew and when from being published, nor did it fully satisfy many who have dealt with the cognitive dissonance of watching the Gators rally around and flourish under Finley.
Obviously, Florida players largely seeming like they very much enjoy playing for Finley would seem like a good sign, and there have seemingly not been any moments of friction within the program significant enough to reach the public this season, aside from the somewhat unexpected — and surprisingly swift — departure of sophomore Lavender Briggs for Maryland after an announcement of her sustaining a second consecutive season-ending injury.
But Florida also seemed to be a program with no systemic issues of abuse to the casual observer as of last spring — and reporting has revealed that to be false while also revealing that Stricklin and others within Florida’s University Athletic Association knew far more than that. While winning has helped make everything about Finley’s tenure look like a sea change from Newbauer’s, recent history tells us that we cannot trust that surface appearances reflect a whole truth.
There is no credible argument against the idea that Finley deserves this promotion for her team’s on-court performance this year. But if she deserves that much, I think she also deserves to lead Florida’s program without the cloud of abuse allegedly committed while she was the program’s lead assistant coach lingering over her. She alone cannot banish that cloud, and the best way to do so likely still involves Stricklin providing a fuller and more honest accounting of the entire saga in a public fashion, at minimum.
If Florida chooses not to do that, it is choosing to hope that Finley can win often enough and with no further conflicts such that bygones can be bygones, and the sins of the past forgotten as they fade with time.
Personally, I’d rather be able to forgive, too. And I can’t say I’m there yet.