TJ Finley was always ready for this. Will the super suit fit Auburn football's backup QB?
In a gravel RV parking lot in the shadow of LSU’s Tiger Stadium, a dozen of those Finleys struggled to cram into one camera frame. They eventually gave up on the selfie and opted for a video. That way they could dance, flex and show off the Auburn swag in a pregame text to Finley, who was preparing to face his former team.
An aunt received a text from a family friend: “I hope TJ has a good game. Just not a win.”
“We’ve been getting those texts all day,” Shannon Finley, his mom, said. “They don’t want my baby to win.”
They didn’t bother replying with what they already knew: Finley would not be starting that night. Auburn coach Bryan Harsin had decided to stick with Bo Nix the week after Finley entered off the bench and led Auburn to a comeback win.
The family didn’t mind. They stayed overnight in the parking lot and celebrated Finley’s homecoming all the same.
Making the familiar 45-minute drive from Finley’s hometown of Hammond, Louisiana, his mom could take pride in her contribution to Finley’s game-day outfit, even if he wasn’t starting. She tapered his navy blue slacks that he wore to the stadium.
It’s a mother-son tradition that will take on greater importance now, almost two months later. Finley has a look-good, feel-good mentality on Saturdays. His mom’s craftsmanship is the key. And confidence will be key for Finley in Auburn’s last two games of the season, including the Iron Bowl, as he is suddenly thrown into the starting quarterback role after a season-ending injury to Nix.
His journey to this point has featured frustration, patience, vigilance and a collection of new suits.
His legs were too long. Too skinny at the bottom. He didn’t like the way flared pants looked.
But with Finley’s bulkier upper-body, he had no choice but to buy larger suits. The fit was always rough.
Mom came to the rescue.
While he was in high school, Shannon Finley taught herself to sew and taper pants. From the knee down, she slimmed every pair of slacks to her son’s liking. It continued into college. Auburn’s weekly pregame tradition is Tiger Walk, in which the players dress to impress on the stroll through Auburn’s campus into Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Shannon always buys Finley’s suits — three new ones this season. His favorite was blue and gray with pinstripes.
“That’s his absolute ‘I look excellent’ suit,” she said. “He loves a pinstripe suit.”
She knows her son’s taste, and T.J. trusts hers. They’ve shared a bond since he was a baby, when she brought him to pharmacy school exams while getting her doctorate. (She and David Finley own DCS Family Health Clinic in Hammond.)
Finley’s appreciation of fashion also started as a toddler, when his parents entered him in a local baby modeling contest. He won.
So he moved on to the state competition. He won that, too.
Finley was suddenly on the national stage for the first time, judged against other babies for his personality, communication skills and runway costumes. His mom helped assemble those. His Louisiana-themed crawfish outfit was a hit.
Finley won the national baby championship.
“I think he won because he’s so smart because he went to pharmacy school,” Shannon said.
The reward included a photo shoot. Finley's portfolio was sent out for products in need of a baby model. He keeps the photos in his bedroom in Hammond. When his mom sees him in Tiger Walk, she’s reminded of it.
“He’s always had that charisma and that model gene,” she said.
When Finley isn’t wearing fashionable clothes, he’s coated in mud. A Louisianan at heart, he and his family share a hobby of mud-riding in four-wheelers. During Auburn’s off week in October, he returned home and went for a day.
“He got extra muddy,” his mom said. “His escape from football is the mud.”
Finley needed an escape that week. After his heroic moment against Georgia State, his routine had changed. The first few weeks of the season, Finley never worked with the first-team receivers in practice. But even after Nix won back the starting job at LSU, Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo decided to put Finley in the first-team rotation during practices, just in case.
It made Finley realize that being a backup quarterback is more challenging than being a starter. He started studying the playbook more intensely. He was more alert to the possibility that he could enter a game at any moment. It was just as exhausting as starting but less rewarding. It was its own slog through the mud.
“It really taught him a lot about endurance and patience,” his mom said. “There are a lot of emotions that go with it. He’d get so amped up because you’re practicing like you’re the starter, then the game comes and you don’t touch the field at all.”
The final suit
Just when Finley had embraced that role, Nix went down with an injury last week during Auburn’s loss to Mississippi State. X-rays showed a broken ankle. He had season-ending surgery Monday.
When Auburn kicks off at South Carolina at 6 p.m. CT Saturday, Finley will face the same opponent from his college debut, when he led LSU on 17-of-21 passing. Then comes the Iron Bowl. Finley was 14-for-28 in LSU’s loss to Alabama last year.
When Finley was in the transfer portal, he was vacationing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Auburn running back Tank Bigsby reached out. Bigsby was working out in town and invited Finley to his Airbnb. They called Bobo, who invited Finley to compete with Nix. Alabama coach Nick Saban had recruited Finley but warned him in advance that he would be behind quarterback Bryce Young. Bobo promised a fair shot.
Now Finley is set to start by necessity against Saban’s Crimson Tide next week. It’s a historic rivalry and will be Finley’s first home start at Auburn.
It calls for a new suit.
“Last week in Auburn I did some shopping and got him a turtleneck to wear underneath,” Shannon Finley said. “I haven’t put my hands on the suit just yet, but I’m sure it’ll have some stripes.”