Longtime Panthers track coach ready to step aside, again

Over the last three decades Don Finneran has been the face of the Spring Lake Park track program.

The window from his guidance counseling office overlooks the track lining Panthers Stadium and he’s developed quite the reputation for what assistant coach Greg Kugler calls the “Finny Whistle.”

Don Finneran retired from coaching the Spring Lake Park boys’ and girls’ track team earlier in November after joining the program as an assistant coach in 1980-81.
Don Finneran retired from coaching the Spring Lake Park boys’ and girls’ track team earlier in November after joining the program as an assistant coach in 1980-81. Photo by Jason Olson

“All you have to do is listen for that famous whistle and know exactly where he is on the track at any time,” Kugler said.

But for the first time in 39 years next year, he will not head outside on an early spring afternoon to guide eager students ready to start a new track and field season.

“I love being around the kids, I’m going to miss that. Just being around the sport on a day-to-day basis” Finneran, 67, said after growing up in Indiana and coaching for six seasons in Illinois before heading to Spring Lake Park in 1980 under head coach Dave Anney, who most recently was a principal at Minnetonka High School.

Finneran is also a guidance counselor at the school, retired from coaching and was prepared to leave counseling after walking with the class of 2011. At Spring Lake Park, counselors guide entire classes.

Activities Director Matt St. Martin asked Finneran to reconsider coaching again after his successor left for another position before the 2011. He gladly returned.

Although his second letter of resignation was significantly shorter, it wasn’t any easier. “It came with mixed feelings,” Finneran said, correcting himself from referring to the Panthers track team as ‘we’ instead of ‘they.’

He’s spent lots of time coaching students in his office and counseling others on the track over the years.

Finneran pointed to his high school track coach, “Coach Barkus,” for igniting the passion in him. “He was my role model and he connected with his kids and that’s what I hoped I would be able to do,” Finneran said,

Finneran likes to deflect the spotlight, reserving it for the students or coaches he’s helped.

“For me it’s not always about the wins and losses,” he said. “Are you a better person for having done this and have you gained something that helps you be successful [in life].”

It’s that special connection Finneran felt with track that kept him going. Track is the one sport that gives everyone an opportunity to be successful at a certain level.

“You’re a winner because you ran faster than the last race,” Finneran said. “Maybe you didn’t beat anybody but you ran farther, threw farther or jumped higher than before. There is a chance for every kid, win or lose, to be a winner in this sport and that’s pretty special.

“There isn’t a lot of strategy. It’s all about getting ready and setting them loose to see what they can do. You just sit back and watch.”

Of course, Finneran fondly recalls all of the past champions he’s had over the years like Lynn Schlitching, Pam Summers, Julie Murphy, Dave Norberg, Brian Leonhardt, Jordan Waiwaiole and CJ Janu.

“We’ve been blessed and a had a lot of success,” he said.

A portion of the wall in his office is dedicated to the team championship plaques, many coming since 1998. He helped the boys’ team win North Suburban Conference titles in 1998, 2006-2008 and 2010-2013 while the girls’ captured titles in 2002, 2005-2007 and 2011.

Finneran also earned section boys’ track coach of the year in 2007 (Section 4AA) and 2012 (Section 5AA).

The three students that made the biggest impression on him included a distance runner, born without arms, in Illinois who broke the six-minute mile mark to the cheers from teammates during practice more than 35 years ago.

More recently, Finneran coached a visually impaired student who could follow the white lines around the track. Helping that runner experience success and to see how teammates supported him was another special moment for Finneran, he said.

The addition of wheelchair athletes for that 2012 season provided another unique situation for the track program as Joleen Super was one of five students in the state to compete.

“This is one of the few regular sports that allows those kids to not be in an adaptive environment,” Finneran said. “And it does as much for the able-bodied kids as it does for the adapted kids.”

Next chapter

Former assistant coach Jason Liston, who worked with the sprints for 10 seasons, is ready to take over the program while acknowledging Finneran’s massive contributions.

Liston said he felt lucky to be in a position to take over the program. “Don’s leadership, experience, passion and dedication to the sport made the decision easier for me,” said Liston, who grew up in Wisconsin before competing at Jamestown College in North Dakota said.

“It’s my responsibility to keep it moving in the right direction and see what I can do to bring it to the next level.”

According to Liston, Finneran has taught him many things, including patience and keeping a level head in adversity.

“He always remained calm, no matter what the circumstances surrounding the program,” Liston said. “That patience has taught me to trust the work that you put in, trust your staff that everything will work out as it should.”

“I’ll be here to help him out and let him go,” Finneran said. “We’re going to a new conference after this season and it gives him a chance to get his ducks in a row.”

Finneran admitted he doesn’t know how he’s going to fill his time without the regular duties that come along with head coaching in the spring.

“As my wife said, This has been a big part of who I’ve been for 39 years,” he said. “I know I need to find something to replace it. That’s the big question.”

He’s tossed around the idea of becoming a starter or official working bigger meets with other retirees, specifically with former Minneapolis South track coach Craig Cannon.

Another idea is to become more active with veterans affairs, but he’s saving that until retiring from counseling after the class of 2015 graduates.

“That’s what I’ve told this class but I don’t know if I’m ready to walk away even then,” Finneran said, referencing a saying he heard, “When you retire from something you need to retire to something, instead. Until I find who what that to is, I still enjoy it and I like to think I do a good job.”

Finneran flew helicopters for the U.S. Army in Vietnam and would like to become more active in veteran affairs.

He also has a passion for athletics whether it is coaching, watching from the stands or helping out in another capacity. He’s a member of the chain gang during Panthers’ home football games and serves as the announcer during basketball games in the winter.

Finneran hopes to continue to do both as long as he can run up and down the sidelines and can call basketball games, he will do it.

Growing up in Indiana, he’s a basketball fan and not just any basketball but an Indiana State Sycamores fan, noted by the giant flag handing from the wall in his office, along with other memorabilia like a painting of a runner dreaming about running at the front of the pack in the Olympics.

He picked that up on a training/camping trip that included a stop at the Olympic Training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., while coaching the Panthers cross country teams.

Jason Olson is at
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