Jay Finley Sees Baylor Turnaround Come to Fruition in Texas Bowl
The challenge that resonated most came from Baylor and it was both simple and daunting at the same time: "The one thing you can do is you can help turn this program around."
Most questioned Finley's sanity then, but five seasons and some nagging injuries later the senior running back has been a catalyst in one of the most remarkable transformations in college football. The Bears are set to embark on their first bowl appearance since 1994 when they take on Illinois in the Texas Bowl on Wednesday evening at Reliant Stadium.
The recruiters' challenge is weighing heavily on Finley as he prepares to don a Baylor jersey one last time.
"That was one of the catches they had that brought me here," Finley said to FanHouse. "That's what I wanted to do. Me being a senior and helping lead this team to a bowl game, this is something I am always going to remember."
It's been probably one of the wildest rides imaginable as the perennial cellar dwellers of the Big 12 South finally turned the tables in Art Briles' third year on the job. The Bears accomplished firsts like sitting atop the Big 12 South for a week, while also realizing some rare highs like breaking into the Top 25 and going into Austin and beating the Texas Longhorns.
But the greatest accomplishment was breaking the damning bowl drought that had hovered over the program for more than a decade. While star quarterback Robert Griffin and Briles will receive much of the credit, Finley and his leadership and ability to pick up major yards on the ground has been every bit as important to this breakthrough season.
His accomplishments, which include 1,155 rushing yards this season and needing just 33 yards Wednesday to break Walter Abercrombie's single-season record at Baylor, have been made greater by what he has had to overcome. Finley was limited to just three starts last season while playing in a total of just nine games due to a nagging ankle injury that required offseason surgery.
The third-year starter was still bothered by the injury early this season but fought through to record a career-high 143 yards in a win against Colorado -- only to break that mark with 250 yards rushing the following week in the win over Kansas State that gained Baylor its coveted bowl eligibility.
"I have seen him through rehab because he was in there with me so I know how hard he has worked to get back and the team knows that, too," said Griffin, who missed most of last season with an ACL injury. "So when he goes out there every day and the beginning of the season when he wasn't 100-percent healthy and he played and he played his heart out, that means a lot to this team."
Briles has become a believer as well, as he has watched the team take on Finley's drive and work ethic this season.
"What Jay brings to the program is just a blue-collar mentality which is something I really can associate with because that's the way I want us to be," Briles said. "I want us to be guys that really fight hard to get to what we can get. Jay has been through injuries. He's had some low times in his career and he's just continued to fight and now it's paid off for him. That part of it, that's why you play. That's what you do and that's what you always preach. Keep working, keep working and keep working and someday it'll happen. It happened for him."
While it seemed bleak to most as the Bears lost game after game, Finley said he never gave up hope the Bears could turn things around.
"I felt it was going to come together but I was frustrated," said Finley, who graduated this past May with a general studies degree. "I also had a lot of confidence in myself so it all worked out."
What has made it even sweeter for Finley is that it is all coming together his senior season and he has a chance to leave a legacy helping turn Baylor around.
"This is what I came here for," Finley said. "The hardest part was getting here. Now I look forward to seeing us be able to build on this in the years to come."