It only takes a few minutes with Southern Miss new strength and conditioning Coach SaJason Finley to catch his passion, heart, and purpose to each and every day. For Finley, his job is about so much more than just making bigger, stronger, and faster athletes for competition. It is, in reality, his opportunity to give back.
He took over the reigns when Woodfin was promoted to interim athletic director for Southern Miss after the departure of Bill McGillis. With the culture change that Woodfin and his staff helped to bring to Southern Miss, it was certainly a no brainer to hire Finley because of his already in place relationships with the players as well as the continuity for the program. The timing was right, the opportunity was right, and the fit was right for both he and Southern Miss.
The man picked to take Zac Woodfin's place actually grew up playing against him when Woodfin was at Prattville (AL) and Finley played for Opelika High School (AL). Their paths would cross later from a mutual mentor, but for their playing days Woodfin ended up at UAB while Finley landed with Tuskegee College where the roots of his love for strength and conditioning would begin to be planted.
The small college environment turned out to be just the right place for Finley to learn what it would take to really be successful at the highest level of football.
"What really started to get me interested in the field of strength and conditioning was my playing days at Tuskegee," Finley told GoldenEaglePride.com.
"Being there and not having the resources, and yet starting to set my heart toward making a run at the NFL really showed me that it was really all about hard work and determination. When I got my opportunity with the Rattlers out of Phoenix, Arizona, I got up to 225lbs and dropped my 40 time from a 4.6 to a 4.5.
"It was during this pursuit of my dream that I realized how important work ethic was in all areas of life, and not just on the football field. It was there that the light really clicked for me and I knew this was what I wanted to give my life to."
In 2012, he started by returning home to coach RB's and strength and conditioning at Opelika HS, before moving on as a GA at Arkansas State. After a stint at Auburn working with the Tigers 2013 National Championship team strength and conditioning staff, he found himself out west at a Pac 12 school for their winter work-outs where it looked like he might be staying for a while. That's when he received a call from an old foe during their high school days.
"People ask me all the time why I didn't stay longer at Washington State," he explained. "I mean, I had a Pac 12 school and a good football program where I thought I could climb the ladder. But when Zac Woodfin called and told me he wanted me on staff at UAB, it was an easy decision for me. When he called me at UAB, it was like we were the same guy. We had the same philosophy and the same desire. We came to UAB together with the idea of turning around the culture, and in a few short months that's exactly what we did."
Just like Woodfin, Finley's theme is not just to make a football player stronger and faster on the football field, but he is about changing them from the inside-out.
"Both of us are men of faith who have turned our life into having an impact on these men," he said.
"I don't just want to prepare them for Saturday's. My goal is to impact them for life. I want them to be successful in the classroom and I'm checking up on them constantly. I want to prepare them for life after college and the days when they will be fathers and husbands. I'm after the inner man.
"This job is about relationships. It is my job to create an environment and a culture of positivity, energy, and learning to compete. I spend more time with these guys than anyone, certainly more than any coach. I have them over to the house to eat BBQ and want to know them as people and not just players on the field."
Of Woodfin's many successes at Southern Miss, perhaps the greatest that he and his staff were able to achieve was to change the culture in the locker room. Upon his arrival, Woodfin noted the negativity that existed behind the scenes, exactly what he and Finley together sought out to change. When he left UAB, where they turned a 2-10 team into a 6-6 team, and when he came to USM he wanted Finley by his side.
"Again, this was another no-brainer for me," Coach Finley said.
"To go with Zac to a place where he had the chance to change the culture, that was exciting. Southern Miss has such great tradition, and when we got here, we found a bunch of guys who were just hungry for success. They bought in, very quickly, and we have implemented how we want to do things and how the culture is going to be here."
The basis of their strength and conditioning program is Four Pillars of success which include mindset, movement, nutrition and recovery, in that order. Finley has no reason to change up what has completely revolutionized the strength and conditioning program at Southern Miss. His goal, he says, is to do it better every day.
"I believe in the pillars, and I want to do it better than anyone in the country, and that includes Zac," he added. "There are no days off for us, we have a lot of work to do and I'm going to see that it gets done. As I tell my players, every day is game day.
"I've talked to a lot of strength and conditioning coaches who have not had the type of smooth transition that I have had. I'm blessed to be here. I'm blessed for this opportunity. Zac Woodfin has laid the foundation and we are going to continue to build it up."
Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Coach Finley, where we will talk about specific players who have taken over a leadership role in the program, as well as updates on the nutrition bar and weight room facilities.