Even when he was back in the NFL, again, chasing his dream, Joe Jon Finley knew the reality of his career path.
He was going to coach football.
Finely, Oklahoma’s old tight end and new tight ends coach, was formally introduced during a video press conference held by head coach Lincoln Riley on Friday.
Finley played for the Sooners from 2004-07. But, as the son of Mickey Finley, a successful high school coach in Arlington, TX, he always knew he’d be coaching, not playing.
“I knew from the time that I was 3-4 years old,” Finley said, “that when I was done playing, I wanted to be a football coach.”
Finley went from being a star at OU to being a rookie in the NFL. His pro longevity was moderate — 2008-10 with San Francisco, 2010-11 with Detroit, 2012 with Carolina — but even as a player, coaching opportunities were presented. After the 2011 season with the Lions, Finley returned to Oklahoma as a graduate assistant under Bob Stoops. But then the Panthers called, and off he went.
When that “didn’t work out,” Finley said, Stoops “brought me back. … He actually brought me back here twice.”
With football in his DNA, what choice did he have?
“I started at the very bottom of the totem pole, man,” Finley said. “I was a water boy, I got to go get the tee whenever we kicked off. That was my role on the team and I loved every second of it. And from there I started being the ball boy, and then I was the clipboard guy until I finally got to start playing.
“But the big thing is, you know, when school was over, I took the bus from the junior high to the high school and I got off at the high school. And so I'm just sitting there all evening, you know, watching practice. And then I come in, I'm watching tape with the coaches. And so being in there, you can't help but learn everything about it. Because you're talking offensive line ball, you're talking, you know, receivers, talking pass game, you're talking defense. And so I'm in there every single day for three or four hours after school, you can't help but learn X's and O’s.”
Finley, a high school quarterback, thought he was football smart when he got to OU. He learned a lot more during his playing days, of course.
“I knew from the time that I was 3-4 years old that when I was done playing, I wanted to be a football coach.”
— Joe Jon Finley
But when he hung up the cleats for good and returned to OU as a GA — that’s when he began drinking in football knowledge from a fire hose.
“Just learning behind the scenes,” Finley said. “I saw it as a player, but when you get around the coaches, it’s a whole different deal. You get to see how one of the best coaches of all time runs his program and how he handles day-to-day business, how he handles his staff meetings and all those things. It was a big-time learning experience for me.”
That’s why it seems the 33-year-old Finley’s career has been fast-tracked. He spent two years as Stoops’ offensive GA, then was offensive line coach at Los Fresnos High School in Texas. Baylor hired him as an offensive quality control analyst in 2015, he coached tight ends at Missouri from 2016-18, at Texas A&M in 2019, and at Ole Miss in 2020, when he also was named passing game coordinator under Lane Kiffin.
Now Finley is learning from another of the game’s finest offensive minds in Riley.
“I’ve already learned so much from the whole coaching staff. It starts with coach Riley,” Finley said. “Every single day, he brings it. Every single day, he’s the same guy. He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low. The players absolutely love coming in to play for him, to work for him and so do the coaches.
“We have a great culture here which is really what Oklahoma is all about. That’s why you see championships from 2000 all the way to here … that’s just the way it is. He’s done a great job of keeping that culture exactly where it needs to be. He keeps the standard high. I’m so excited to learn from him because, like I said, I’ve learned so much in two months. I can’t imagine how much I’ll learn in the next 3-4 years.”
"I don’t like doing the token interviews and all that. I put myself on the other side. I don’t want someone to interview me just for the hell of it."
— Lincoln Riley
Riley said Finley fits the profile for coaching OU H-backs, but he brings so much more to the post. Riley explained some of his hiring philosophies and why Finley was the ideal candidate.
“The first thing I look for is, what do I need out of the position?” Riley said. “ … And that changes. Just because one coach leaves with a certain skill set, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily looking to find the carbon copy of that out there. You have different skill sets on the staff. I think your job as the head coach is to have a feel of what is needed on the staff at that time. So, try to identify that and then get a pool of guys.
“Then at that point, typically, start doing homework on them and look for any of those potential red flags. Yeah, in this day and age, there are a million potential red flags that would cause us to say no — and have caused us to say no on guys. Whether it’s off the field, compliance, NCAA violation, that has certainly happened here (in vetting candidates), without a doubt.
“Then once we’ve kinda cleared that end, then we’ll have conversations with a couple of guys and, in a normal world, get in front of them face-to-face. I normally have a pretty good idea. I’m not one of these guys who has to interview 10 people. That’s not ever really been my style. I don’t like doing the token interviews and all that. I put myself on the other side. I don’t want someone to interview me just for the hell of it when I was a young coach if I had no chance of getting the job. That’s a waste of everybody’s time.
“Typically, talk to a couple of guys. Normally, it’s one of those deals of when you know, you know. Been lucky to have been able to land on some people that have made a really big difference here.”
Finley can appreciate that. In fact, that’s probably one element of Riley’s coaching style that Finley hopes to emulate someday.
“Once you’re a Sooner, you’re always a Sooner.”
— Joe Jon Finley
“He’s where I want to be,” Finley said. “I want to be a head coach as well. He takes all the time in the world to help us. Every single time I walk into his office, he has an open door at all times. He’s ready to talk about anything and everything. He wants to grow as well. I’ve been a part of some pretty explosive offenses myself; he’s picking my brain about what we did there. He doesn’t want to get complacent with where he’s at. He wants to get better. But at the same time, you better have good ideas. He knows what good ball is.”
Finley repeatedly offered up how “thankful” he is to be back. His wife is from Oklahoma City. His history is in Norman. And his passion is at OU.
“It’s great to get back home and be around Sooner football again,” he said. “The excitement around Oklahoma football is different than anywhere else in the country. This is what I love. This is why I got in this business to coach on the highest level and coach the best players and that’s what I’m getting to do right now.
“This is kind of the dream I’m living right here. I get to coach for the Oklahoma Sooners, the place I played and get a chance to chase championships every single year. It’s a blast.
“Once you’re a Sooner, you’re always a Sooner.”