by Andrew Garda
Whoever said: “You can’t go home again” hasn’t met Immaculate Conception head football coach John Finnegan.
As the Lions prepare for the 2019 football season, Finnegan is preparing to launch his second stint as the ICHS football coach. In previous years, he ran the program from 1986 to 2002, a period which produced two NJSIAA Group 1 Championships. The first was in 1994, with a squad that went 11-0 and was a Star-Ledger top 20 team, while the second was a 10-1 team in 1998.
Finnegan finished his time at ICHS with a 109-59-1 record before heading to Seton Hall Prep, where he ran that football program from 2003 through 2014 before taking time off to spend with family.
With former head coach and current Athletic Director Ryan Horan looking to head back to school for a master’s degree, Immaculate needed someone to take over the reins.
“One of my teammates and classmates, Mike Malkinski, became the president of the school and I still stay in constant communication with him,” Finnegan recalled during a recent practice. “And at one point he told me that Ryan needed to go back to school and take care of some stuff from an educational standpoint and the job he’s doing.”
“[Malkinski’s] been on the football staff for the last 40 years,” Horan said. “He coached with Finn back in the 90s, they’re good friends, they went to high school together. So, a conversation was had between them and it kind of sparked some interest.”
Finnegan decided to give it a go.
“I guess he felt as though he might have had some unfinished business here,” Horan said, smiling. “So, he wanted to come back and give back to the school that he started at.”
That’s a pretty common refrain when it comes to the ICHS football program. After falling on hard times and having to shut football down in 2014, Horan and other members of the community fought to bring it back, and it succeeds in part because of the help from the Immaculate Community. People like Finnegan, willing to come back, who then draw in other alumni out of the woodwork.
It’s not just former coaches and alums who see the value in ICHS either. Coaches like Jimmy Salmon, and Joe Walsh believe enough in it to come in and coach, and when you add them to people like Pat Dyer and his successful track program, there’s a lot to like about the small, but fierce, Lions athletics department.
“That’s important for us, because athletics play a huge role in our high school and our student-athlete’s lives,” Horan explains. “So, to give them the best coaches possible is important. And then for [Finnegan] what’s really been nice is he can tap into our alumni base. There are people who are coming back and giving now to the program and trying to help out, just because of the connection they have with coach. So that’s been really awesome to see as well.”
Finnegan said while the itch to coach was still there, he first and foremost wanted to help out a school he cares about.
“I think they need some help here. Ryan does an excellent job as an athletic director and a football coach, but he just needed to get some certifications done, so he needed a little respite there.”
While he has had a tremendous amount of success over his 29 years of coaching, putting together a record of 193-99-1, he’s not expecting miracles from the program and its players — just hard work.
“I think there’s a real possibility for success but I don’t care how much success you had last year, if you don’t work hard and you don’t do things the right way, there’s no guarantee that that success will continue.”
Finnegan said that’s not a decision he or his coaching staff makes. That’s only something the team can decide.
“What kind of season do they want? My coaching staff is doing an excellent job. They’re here every day, they’re ready to work. So, it’s just getting a few more players on board.”
If the team gets on board, Finnegan thinks the Lions could have a good season.
“My goals are always the same. Aim to win the first game, then the next target is a winning season, then the next target is to win a conference, then the next target is to get into the state playoffs. It’s more of a progression, I don’t put it out like “Let’s win the state championship right away.” Let’s do one thing at a time. The progression of success. And then the others become more attainable as you go.”