Start with the good stuff. Chris Finwood is home. He works for a man he respects. He runs a program he admired as a kid and as a young coach. He sees mountains of potential.
Now the flipside. Finwood is in his first year as steward of an Old Dominion baseball team that's last in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Monarchs are at or near the bottom of the league in most meaningful statistical categories. Losing gnaws at him in ways he can barely describe. He inherited a program that hasn't been relevant regionally or nationally in more than a decade.
These days, Finwood, a New Yorker by birth who grew up in Hampton, reflects back on advice from his late father, Kenneth, a career Air Force intelligence officer.
"He told me, you learn a lot more from your failures than your successes," Finwood said. "I like to take the stance that you're always trying to learn. I've learned some things this year that I think will help us down the road."
Finwood's track record indicates that it may be a relatively short road to success. He took a downtrodden, largely ignored program at Western Kentucky to the NCAA tournament within three years.
He spearheaded recruiting efforts as an assistant at Auburn, which went to three NCAA regionals and averaged 36 wins in his five years. As an assistant at VCU, he was part of teams that averaged 36 wins per year during his tenure and went to a pair of NCAA tournaments.
Finwood led his alma mater, VMI, to then-school record wins in his first head coaching gig in the early 1990s. The Keydets won 21 games in back-to-back seasons after winning just two the year before he arrived.
"I want to see ODU baseball return to the glory days of being nationally ranked and participating in postseason play," Monarchs' athletic director Wood Selig said. "I think he can accomplish that."
Selig has hired Finwood twice, the first time at Western Kentucky in 2005. The Hilltoppers quickly became contenders in the Sun Belt Conference, an underrated baseball league that operates inside the powerful Southeastern Conference's footprint.
Finwood, 46, sees similarities between the early days at Western Kentucky and ODU. More losses than wins. Changing the culture and bringing in players that fit his preferred style. In Bowling Green, Ky., however, he was pushing baseball in a basketball state. Here, he said, baseball matters more. And it's home.
"That part of it has been great," said Finwood, whose wife, Annette, is from Newport News. "To reconnect with a lot of old friends. I did the majority of my growing up here. I've seen a lot of people I haven't seen in 20 years and made some new friends, too."
Appealing as the opportunity to come home to work, Finwood might have balked were it not for his relationship with Selig.
"Professionally, it's all about who you work for," he said. "I love working for Wood. He's never told me one thing that he was going to do that he hasn't followed through on. I've been doing this a while, and it ain't as much about coaching as it is about support and the people who let you do your job."
Two of Selig's early priorities were facilities and budgetary improvements to soccer and baseball. He's addressed both programs, with more to come. ODU has sunk more than $500,000 into Bud Metheny Field for improvements both functional and aesthetic. Selig thinks that another $1.4 million is necessary for an indoor batting facility, locker rooms, coaches' offices and more chairback seats in the park. He's working hard at fundraising.
"We don't need the best facility," Finwood said. "We were probably middle-of-the-pack at Western Kentucky (compared to the rest of the Sun Belt). But we want to have a place where it's fun to watch a game and facilities that will help us recruit and help kids get better."
Finwood grew up off of King Street, near Langley Air Force Base. He attended Hampton High, where he played baseball and basketball. He was a scrappy, blue-collar shortstop who went to VMI in the mid-1980s. He became an All-Southern Conference player and was inducted into the Keydets' Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
Finwood's preferred brand of baseball relies heavily on pitching, defense and speed. There's an even greater emphasis on those components with recent NCAA rules that changed the composition of bats, drastically reducing home runs and batting averages.
"Which is all fine with me," he said. "The premium goes back to pitching and defense, and having kids that can do something besides hit."
He preaches being strong up the middle — catcher, shortstop and second base, and center field — and wants athletes as much as pure baseball players.
"Kids can run every day," he said. "You're not going to hit every day and you're not going to have your best breaking ball every day, but you can run every day."
The Monarchs will have a slew of new faces next season. Finwood and his staff signed a dozen players and scoured the nation for recruits. Their signees include players from Hawaii, Arizona, Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Though they've cast a far-flung net, Finwood aims to recruit more locally. He sees Hampton Roads players on the rosters of nationally-ranked teams such as Virginia, South Carolina and East Carolina.
"I'm not naïve enough to think we'll get all those kids," he said, "but we're going to go after them. We've already made some strides, in terms of getting kids to come to campus."
Upgrades are needed for an ODU team that was 16-27 overall and 6-15 in the CAA, heading into this weekend's series against William and Mary. The Monarchs were last in the conference in batting (.250), 10th in runs scored, ninth in team ERA (5.61) and eighth in fielding (.961).
"I like my players," said Finwood, who is cheerfully blunt about his team. "They're good kids, they go to class, they stay out of trouble. On the field, I don't know that we do a whole lot of anything very well."
That figures to change, though Finwood said that luck sometimes plays as large a role as work. Coaches, he said, are forever re-recruiting their players. They have to recruit not only against other schools for high school players, but the Major League draft. If schools recruit junior college players, they might have them for only a year or two, since college players are eligible to be drafted after their junior year. Scholarship allocations are a juggling act all their own.
"There are multiple levels of sleepless nights in college baseball," Finwood joked.
But Finwood's boss has no reservations.
"He exceeded my expectations at Western Kentucky in every conceivable area," Selig said. "NCAA success, conference success, recruiting, attendance. We took a huge step forward in a lot of areas. If he can get it done there, I'm confident that he can accomplish great things here."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times