Yes, Southern’s strength coach is female — but she’s no softy
When Southern football players got a first look at their new strength and conditioning coach this spring, most opinions ranged from doubtful to incredulous.
They’d heard Corliss Fingers might be joining the team, but now it was real.
The person in charge of getting them physically ready for another season and helping them chase the dream of a pro career would be … a she?
It is the 500-pound barbell in the room, and Fingers likes to address it early.
“Yes, I’m a female. We’ll get over that in about 10 minutes, and we’ll move on,” she said.
That’s about how long it took Fingers to make it clear that there would be no sugar and spice in her weight room. She hadn’t officially begun her new job at Southern; the day was supposed to be spent shadowing coach Stump Mitchell, to watch his players work out.
Just a nice, easy visit.
That all changed around 6:09 a.m., when players were still strolling in to the gym late — flip-flops flopping, keys jingling and still a locker-room trip away from lifting anything.
“My blood started boiling,” Fingers said. “They didn’t even know who I was, and I just blew my whistle and got on them. I couldn’t sit back and just let this happen. Coach Mitchell was in the corner just smiling like, ‘Yeah, this is what I needed.’ ”
Fingers is what the entire Southern athletics department needed, a godsend for 13 Jaguars teams that had, for a short time, relied on volunteers and coaches for perhaps the most critical building block of any sport: strength and conditioning.
By virtue of her role as head strength and conditioning coach, she’s a rare breed, one of a small group of women to ever reach her position and possibly the only one currently overseeing a Division I football team.
But her value to SU athletes goes far beyond anatomy.
In just a few months, Fingers has begun whipping Southern strength and conditioning into shape, relying on a wealth of experience, high-energy approach and no-nonsense attitude that’s turning skeptical minds soft, and turning soft bodies to steel.
“I want to be known as one of the best who is also a female, not the best female strength coach,” Fingers said.
Ask anyone on The Bluff, and they’ll gladly hand her that title.
Emailing Baton Rouge
The path that led Fingers to Southern is equal parts chance and fate.
In college at North Carolina, she ran track and originally planned to become a physical education teacher, but the thought of taming a roomful of children sent her running for a new career.
Instead, she wound up dealing with pupils twice her size.
She landed in exercise science, and after working as a personal trainer — and making a few clients cry — she received an offer to teach an aerobics class to the Tar Heels football team.
That led to a three-year stint at UNC, which she followed with a 15-year run at Maryland, where she worked with nearly every one of the Terrapins’ teams, mainly focusing on football.
Placing Fingers with the football team was a no-brainer for then-UM Strength and Conditioning Director Dwight Galt.
“She’s tough, she feels very comfortable in that environment and she demands respect, not necessarily verbally, but the way she carries herself,” said Galt, who now holds the same position at Vanderbilt. “Obviously, a women’s strength coach in football is a very rare thing now, and most people won’t give them a chance. I knew once she was given a chance, she would crush it.”
She did, helping to develop a slew of NFL-bound players, being promoted to assistant director, and becoming just the second woman to earn the profession’s highest honor, the title of Master Strength and Conditioning Coach.
But when her husband, Dr. Earnest Fingers, landed a job as a learning specialist for LSU athletics, she was ready to hang up her whistle, focus on her 3-year-old son, Earnest, and become a housewife.
Spend five minutes around Fingers, and that’s a laughable idea.
She’s an endless source of energy who never sits still, using enough hand motions and changes in voice pitch to turn an everyday conversation into a one-woman Broadway show.
The housewife deal lasted a few weeks, but it wasn’t to be.
“I’m bored, and I have this itch to yell at someone, and I need to hear the sound of weights dropping,” Fingers said.
So she emailed area athletics directors, checking around on the off chance one of them may need help or advice. The email found its way to SU women’s basketball coach Sandy Pugh, then the school’s interim A.D.
After one look at Fingers’ resume, Pugh picked up the phone, expecting a man on the other end.
“A lady answered, and I was like, ‘Hello, is Corliss Fingers there?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘May I speak with him please?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Is Corliss there?’ She said, ‘Yes,’ ” Pugh said.
Eventually, the two solved the mystery, and Pugh invited Fingers out for a visit. Her first day — the one with the tardy football players — wound up lasting 12 hours, and it was the first sign that she wasn’t what the team expected.
Making her mark
Charles Hawkins knew what to expect, but he had the benefit of a testimonial.
Prior to Fingers’ arrival, Hawkins’ coaches handed him a phone number and told him to dial it. Assuming he was about to fall victim to a prank, Hawkins called and was shocked to learn the voice on the other end.
It was Baltimore Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, who trained under Fingers at Maryland and reached out to Mitchell in hopes of singing her praises to the Jaguars.
“He started talking to me about coach Fingers and how great a strength and conditioning coach she is, and how she would prepare me for the NFL,” Hawkins said. “He basically just told me she is going to get on me and expect the best out of me.”
Others took a bit longer to see the light.
There were complaints — with at least one gripe reaching the university’s chancellor — and lots of doubts.
“When we first got the news that we might have a female strength coach, everybody was asking coach Mitchell, ‘A female?’ ” cornerback Virgil Williams said. “She came in and pretty much told us how it was going to go, but you know, coming from a female, we were just like, ‘She can’t do too much to hurt us.’ ”
A vast miscalculation.
Fingers began putting the players through workouts they’d never done before, like punishing abdominal and core exercises, revamped lifting sessions, and a litany of fieldwork.
That brought them to a moment of clarity that reversed their opinion of Fingers. Mitchell describes that moment thusly: “It’s probably leaning over a trash can and doing something they hadn’t done in two years under two other coaches, or under us administering the program when we didn’t have strength and conditioning,” he said.
During the football team’s voluntary summer workouts, which began June 4, activities have ranged from lifts, sprints, core work and plyometrics to more creative endeavors.
“We’ve never had a summer session like this before,” Williams said.
And it’s making an impact. Word of mouth brought a bigger turnout for the second week, and players are already seeing results.
“I’ve got big guys taking their shirts off now,” Fingers said. “They are so sexy to themselves. They’re just like, ‘Coach, I see a two-pack up here. I’m on my way.’ ”
A top-notch program
Fingers laid out different programs for each SU sport — a luxury not seen in years past — and even tailored drills to specific positions. She also sent players who aren’t in Baton Rouge for the summer home with manuals detailing every exercise.
But there’s no substitute for the real thing. The Jaguars are running in a sand pit, dragging sleds and bashing a giant tire with a sledgehammer, something offensive lineman Chris Browne calls “(Tim) Tebow-type workouts.”
Then there’s the linemen’s trips up the steps at A.W. Mumford Stadium, drills called “piggybacks” and “fireman carries.”
Yes, that means 300-pounders carrying each other up the stairs.
“You gain camaraderie with your teammates, so we’re learning to respect each other more,” Browne said. “Watching each other, looking in each other’s eyes, realizing we have to do this in order to win the SWAC.”
Building confidence and teamwork is an important part of Fingers’ workouts. When she arrived, she said she saw a group of players in need of discipline and belief in themselves, which was low following a 4-7 season.
One day, the skill position players were working out in the stadium when they heard a repeated “Boom!” from beneath the grandstand and asked what it was.
It was the linemen, flipping that enormous tire over and over.
“I said, ‘That’s your line getting after it. They’re making sure they hold the line so you can hit the hole,’ ” Fingers said. “They’re pumped about that, and now they’re running faster, like, ‘We need to do our part.’ ”
She also structures workouts to toughen up the Jaguars for the end of games, when they often faltered in 2011. Southern dropped four games by a combined 13 points, and Fingers is combating that by placing some of the toughest drills at the end of her already grueling workouts.
“Those last two minutes of the game, when you’re dying, you’re going to remember these moments,” Fingers said. “If they can get through these workouts and how intense they are, they can handle any opponent on the field or any classroom setting.”
There’s still a ways to go — as volunteer assistant Michael Chapman says, “They’re not where they need to be, but they’re a whole lot better” — but based on early results, Mitchell is expecting a big difference come the Sept. 1 season opener at New Mexico.
“Her value, I just can’t even tell you,” Mitchell said. “But the fans will see when we take the field how valuable she has been to this program.”