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Oregon’s Finley loses his cancer battle

EUGENE — Ron Finley approached cancer with the toughness and heart of a strong-willed wrestler: He refused to submit.

The former Olympian and longtime Oregon wrestling coach was unable to pull off a final escape.

Finley, who guided the Ducks’ now-defunct program from 1970-1998, died Tuesday morning at his Coburg area home with his family by his side. He was 75.

“I guess the best way to put it, when Ron Finely was a wrestler he won because he was tough,” said Chuck Kearney, who wrestled for Finley at Oregon before serving as his assistant and then replacing him as coach following his mentor’s retirement. “He refused as an athlete to give in. As an athlete that defines who he was, and he coached the same way. When he was fighting cancer, it was the same way.

“He just refused to give in.”

Finley grew up in Newberg and won state championships in 1957 and 1958 before wrestling for Dale Thomas at Oregon State. He placed second at the NCAA Tournament in 1961 at 137 pounds.

After making the U.S. national team in 1962 and 1963, Finley placed fourth at the World Championships both years. He made the Olympic team in 1964 and placed fourth in the Greco-Roman division at 138.75 pounds. He was sixth at the World Championships in 1966.

Finley coached the 1984 Greco-Roman team, at the time joining Bill Hayward and Bill Bowerman as the only Oregon coaches to lead Olympic teams. The Americans won two gold medals and a silver at the Los Angeles Games. The previous highest finish by U.S. individuals was fourth, including Finley 20 years earlier in Tokyo.

“I’ve had a lot of great things happen in my life,” Finley said at the press conference announcing his retirement from Oregon in February 1998. “I’ve coached at every level there is to coach at, from little kids all the way up to the best in the world at the Olympic Games. I’ve really done it all and there’s a lot of other people who would like to get some of those experiences. I don’t want to hog them all.”

Finley recalled overcoming his Beaver background during the job interview at Oregon.

“I remember when I walked in wearing my green and yellow suit and they interviewed me for the job,” said Finley, who was then the coach at Reedsport High School. “They said they’d never hire a Beaver here, but I convinced them differently and things worked out pretty well for me.”

Finley compiled a 309-186-8 record in dual meets at Oregon. Three of Finley’s teams won conference titles, and he coached 42 individual conference champions. The highest NCAA finish for the Ducks under Finley was 11th in 1980.

“He had a great balance of being a coach, being tough on you when he had to be tough, and at the same time being one of the finest human beings and caring about everyone,” said Kevin Roberts, a two-time all-American under Finley at Oregon who is now the associate head coach at Oregon State. “As a coach, the thing I always remember from Fin is that all these guys are trying their best and they want to be the best they can be.

“That’s the biggest thing I take from him is the way he treated his athletes. Whether you’re an all-American or fourth-string, just treat them well.”

Oregon won Pac-10 championships in 1975, 1981 and 1982 under Finley and was the runner-up in 1974, 1976, 1977 and 1980.

Finley was even more memorable to his wrestlers off the mat.

Roberts recalled one misadventure on a road trip when the coach was driving the team to a meet at Cal Poly in the “Duck Bus” the program used as part of its shoestring budget.

“We kept missing this turn on campus, which was full of one-ways and closed off stuff. So the guys started getting a little mouthy, ‘Come on Fin, we’ve got to get down there,’ ” Roberts said. “I don’t think he planned to, but he had enough for a second, looked back at us and he forgot to step on the brake and put it in park going 20 miles per hour. I don’t know how we didn’t drop the transmission.”

Finley was credited with saving wrestling at Oregon several times when it was designated to be eliminated for financial reasons. He met with a university vice president and athletic director Rick Bay in 1981 to keep the program off the chopping block.

“He told me a story about sliding an envelope across the table because he saw it once in a movie,” Kearney said. “In the envelope, he wrote down the number of what it would cost to run the program. They were impressed with how low the number was and said, ‘Plus your salary?’ He said, ‘No, my salary is included.’

“We dodged that bullet.”

Finley gave up his own coaching salary in some years and worked as a teacher in physical education. The money that would have gone to him went to the salaries of assistants and other needs of the program.

“When I first transferred (to Oregon), the stipend meal you were allowed was five dollars,” Kearney said. “I remember once my meal came to five dollars and 17 cents. Fin said, ‘You owe 17 cents.’

“That’s my favorite memory of him enforcing a rule and a standard.”

When the sport was being fully funded, Oregon placed first or second in the Pac-10 seven times in a nine-year span with 25 individual conference titles (out of 90 possible). After budget cuts in 1983, the Ducks were competing with the financial equivalent of 6.0 scholarships (NCAA limit was 11).

Eventually, Oregon cut wrestling after the 2007-08 season.

“That’s really sad,” said Dean Dixon, who wrestled for Finley from 1971-75 and served as his assistant from 1979-98. “He saved the program twice when it was basically told it was dropped. That was when Oregon had no money. To get through all the tough financial years, and then to have them drop it when they had money was really devastating for all of us.

“It wasn’t easy coaching those years when we had no money. He kept fighting for it all the way.”

Finley was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1982 and earned a lifetime award for service to the sport from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He is not in the UO Hall of Fame, perhaps because he has been a vocal critic of the athletic department’s decision to drop the sport and worked to get it reinstated as the head of the Save Oregon Wrestling Foundation.

“I was head coach for 10 years. Ron Finley was the University of Oregon wrestling program,” Kearney said. “He needs to be in the hall of fame. I’m sure that’s something that will get rectified.”

Many of Finley’s former wrestlers were able to visit him during his lengthy battle with cancer. Roberts spent time with him four days before his death.

“He was in great spirits,” Roberts said. “Like he was all that time, he was more interested in what I was doing and what the other people in the room were doing. Here he was on a lot of medication and he was asking if we had enough people for our fundraising golf tournament and how our kids were. I’m very grateful and thankful I was able to spend that time with him.”

Finley is survived by his wife, Linda, a son, Michael, and a daughter, Kelly Sopp. Memorial services were still being organized Tuesday night.

“He set an example of being a really good human being. I can only hope to live up to that,” Sopp said. “He was patient, persistent, he never gave up on anyone. Even when people gave up on themselves, he was always in their corner. I just admired him. He was my hero. …

“I never realized how big my family truly was until I experienced the outpouring of love from the wrestling community.”

Finley