From Dynasty to Legacy

After 45 seasons on the court, Columbia Falls basketball coach Cary Finberg is ready to take a step back

By Micah Drew
Head coach Cary Finberg of the Columbia Falls Wildkats as seen during a game against the Bigfork Valkyries in Columbia Falls on Jan. 2, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For nearly 30 years Columbia Falls basketball has been synonymous with Cary Finberg. Since he began coaching at his alma mater in 1996, Finberg wanted to create a dynastic program, a goal which he fulfilled in short order.

Starting as the head boys coach, Finberg shepherded the team into a new era of glory days, bringing home the program’s first state championship in 2003. The Wildcats followed that up with back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006, and yet another in 2011.

It was then that Finberg stepped up his coaching game, taking the reins of the girls hoops team as his eldest daughter, Ciera, prepared to enter high school. For four years he simultaneously coached the two teams, the first Class A coach in Montana to pull double duty, often spending upwards of six hours in the gym every day.

He relinquished coaching duties of the boys program after that but has continued working with the Wildkats. During a six-year stretch beginning with the 2013-14 season the team earned a top-three finish each year, including a state title in 2017.  

There’s nothing left for Finberg to prove as a coach — there hasn’t been for years — and after more than four decades of dedicating his life to basketball, he finally made the decision to step off the court. The 2023-24 season, which ends in six weeks, will be his last as a head coach.

“For the last couple years, I’ve kind of been taking it year by year,” Finberg said of his decision to retire. “Once I realized that the summer programs, the off-season training, was feeling more like a chore than a daily passion, it became apparent that I needed to make it my final year and give the program a chance to take the next step forward.”

The Finberg’s have always been basketball oriented. Older brother Craig played at Montana State University and had a distinguished coaching career at Dillon and the University of Montana Western. Sister Cathy was a star player herself and coached junior varsity teams at Columbia Falls high school. Cary’s nephew Chris started off as a JV coach and has been the head boys coach at Columbia Falls since 2016.

“It’s really been a lifelong thing for me, and for my family,” Finberg said. “It’s been a huge part of my life from high school, through college and then years of coaching. My wife has been such a huge supporter all these years, but I think we’re going to enjoy moving on to the next chapter.”

Head coach Cary Finberg draws up a play during a timeout in this Beacon file photo.

Finberg slotted into the coaching role after finishing up his own playing career at the University of Montana Western. He started as an assistant coach at Dillon High School before moving back to his hometown.

“Competing in any sport, not just basketball, is a huge thing in high school and college, and I was lucky enough to carry that over into the coaching aspect,” Finberg said. “That’s something that’ll definitely be missed. The long bus rides and dealing with things off the court?  Those won’t be missed as much.”

Finberg’s six state championships represent coaching milestones in his storied career, to be sure, but they pale in comparison to what he characterizes as his greatest successes. Instead, he points to the hundreds of players he’s worked with, as well as assistant coaches and families in the community that have been key to the program’s success, as the most poignant memory-makers.

“I’ve always had great relationships with my players, not just in high school while they’re starting to transition into adulthood, but later on in life,” Finberg said, adding that, in the case of many former players with enduring ties to the Flathead Valley, he’s coached multiple generation within the same family. “The players and their families, really everyone in this community, they are the reason this program was so successful. For years this community has followed us to games and tournaments with numbers and passion — I can’t thank them enough for that support.”

Haylie Peacock, left, and Savannah Ellis celebrate with head coach Cary Finberg after Columbia Falls defeated Hardin 73-50 to win the Class A state championship in Butte on March 4, 2017. Beacon file photo

Currently, the Wildkats have two games remaining in conference play, including a Feb. 9 showdown against Browning that will determine seeding for the divisional tournament at the end of this month, and the Class A state tournament in Butte, March 7-9.

The team is 7-7 overall, 6-3 in conference play this season and sits third in the Northwest A standings behind Bigfork (15-1, 10-0) and Browning (8-5, 8-2).

In his final season in charge, Finberg’s plans for the Wildkats are the same as they’ve been each year he’s stood on the sidelines: improve throughout the season and make the season last as long as possible.

“My focus is getting this team playing as good of basketball as they’re capable of and going to the state tournament,” he said. “I’ve had those goals every year I’ve coached, and both of them are still in reach right now.”

[email protected]

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.