For Luke Finley, Independence High School’s boys cross country coach, 2019 is gearing up to be another great season for the Eagles.
Independence’s cross country team hasn’t missed a state championship meet since the team’s founding in 2007. The 12-year run represents the TSSAA’s Class AAA state record for the longest streak of appearances at the state event.
During the same period, the Eagles have taken home quite a bit of hardware, in the form of eight regional runner-up trophies.
Finley, the mastermind, attributed his team’s success to careful planning and a lot of commitment from his runners.
“I do think that with running, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it seriously,” he said. “I get the recreational runner, and I understand running for health, but if you’re going to attempt to do competitive running, you have just crossed a threshold where you’re going to pay a significantly higher price than just the recreational runner.”
Finley, the AP physics teacher at the Thompson’s Station school, said the hardest part about coaching was getting runners to understand that the level of commitment is higher than most expect.
Since his start at Independence, Finley has made some major changes to turn the Eagles into state contenders. He implemented numbered varsity shirts that each runner earns depending on his place on the team. The shirts are numbered one through seven and are switched from week to week depending on finishing order.
Finley also has his runners wear a chain link on their shoes to emphasize the team aspect of cross country running during training. The chain link symbolizes the team as one entire chain.
“I really like the team-as-a-chain metaphor,” he said. “When a runner isn’t there, there’s a dude in front of him that is missing his push and there’s a dude behind him that’s missing his pull.”
However, running fashion isn’t the only thing Finley created. The entire culture for Independence runners was established. When he first began coaching, the team competed in four meets per season, all at Vaughn’s Creek. Since then, Finley has sought out different meets across several states to find new and tougher competition and help his team get into state meet shape.
“The very first out-of-town meet I actually took the team on when I took over was the Jesse Owens meet in Danville, Alabama,” Finley said. “We branched out from there to Huntsville, Louisville, Memphis and Atlanta.
“These meets act as benchmarks for us. … Sometimes the results aren’t always what we want to see, sometimes these meets can be a kick in the back of the pants to motivate us.”
During the season Finley isn’t just focused on getting to the postseason, rather he wants his runners to do their best at each meet. The Jesse Owens meet in early October has turned into a gauge for how the team is doing each year.
“October is our midseason, and we’ve historically competed at a meet every weekend in early October on a very fast course against very tough competition,” Finley said. “That is the Jesse Owens meet in Alabama. This meet has traditionally served as a benchmark for us.”
Finley said it has been progressively harder for the Eagles to reach the state meet, but every year the team finds a way.
When Finley first began coaching, Williamson County was still coming into its own in regard to cross country. Finley said it used to be dominated by Brentwood High School, however the bar rose quickly.
Ravenwood, Centennial and Page have also burst onto the scene, making the regional meet an entertaining one to attend.
“Everyone has raised the bar, we just try to go with them,” Finley said. “It’s really important that as a coach, you have a couple of people who accept the work without complaining, always show up for work, that want to work. They do and they succeed.”
These workhorses act as catalysts for the team, driving each runner forward. According to Finley, it’s all about adapting the culture of a few people who really understand that this is the way it’s supposed to be.
“Finley is a great coach,” said Harold Lacroix, a former Independence cross country runner. “He really knows what he’s doing and cares about his athletes.”
Many of the team’s workouts start at 3 p.m., and the runners won’t make it to the weight room until 5:30 p.m.
“The first couple of practices they are looking around thinking, ‘Are you serious?’ But when they see no one else looking around, they eventually stop looking around,” Finley said. “It’s the idea that this is what it takes to win. We’ve been upper-tier in our state for a longtime. We’ve got a lot of guys that convey the concept nonverbally that this is what you’re supposed to do.”
Finley’s love affair with running began more than 25 years ago, when he noticed some plaques hanging up in his high school cafeteria. His coach, Chuck Babcock, took him into his office and showed him the team’s trophies and accolades and got Finley’s contact information.
“At this point, I hadn’t run a step,” Finley said. “The dude calls me up in July to let me know that practices were starting, and I came out to the first workout. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I got destroyed. I ran about 2 miles and was lying in a ditch thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into.’”
After a couple months, Finley adapted and overcame. The rest is history.
He continued his running career by walking on to the cross country team at Austin Peay University. Under the guidance of his coach and former Olympic sprinter Elvis Ford, Finley developed a knack for seeing the rhythm in running and started forming his own coaching philosophies.
During his fifth year, Finley was a graduate assistant for the team and developed his passion for coaching.
“After driving the van around and helping with workouts and stuff like that, I started getting the itch to coach and transitioned straight out of college, then just never stopped,” said Finley, who guided Kenwood High School to six consecutive state championship runs before leaving for Independence. “What drew me to coaching besides impacting the runners I work with is that there’s no right answer.”
“Everyone has their own answer, and there are completely different schools of thought. The fact that there’s no right answers, but there’s definitely a lot of wrong answers keeps it fresh for me. I’m a science guy, and it’s like a scientific measurement.”
Over his 20-year career, Finley has impacted the lives of hundreds of students and athletes. During this time, he has coined some golden advice for each new runner with whom he works.
“The most important thing I can tell a brand-new runner is that this is going to be terrible for a month, but come back tomorrow,” Finley said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a kid terrified by the workouts. But if you can handle today, then come back tomorrow and we’ll figure something out.”