Paul Finebaum: Can talk, will travel

bgillespie@thestate.comOctober 5, 2013 

  • WHEN USC JOINED THE SEC

    Finebaum unpopular with Gamecocks fans after column in 1992 suggesting that USC didn’t belong.

    WHEN SPURRIER TALKED TO ’BAMA

    Finebaum was ‘middle man’ in Alabama talks with Steve Spurrier in 2006. But the coach didn’t want to leave USC.

— For perhaps the first (and only) time in his adult life, Paul Finebaum says, he found himself struck speechless.

It was the evening of the 2009 BCS National Championship game, immediately after Alabama had defeated Texas in the Rose Bowl for the first of what would be three national titles in four seasons for the Crimson Tide. It was also about to become “one of the great experiences I’ve had covering sports,” Finebaum said.

For most of his three decades as a sports columnist and talk show host in Birmingham, Ala., Finebaum had been the outsider, the antagonist, the bomb-thrower when it came to the Crimson Tide – and for Auburn and most of the other teams and coaches in the Southeastern Conference, too. Now, suddenly, it seemed almost as if he were part of Alabama coach Nick Saban’s staff.

“Fans in the parking lot were hugging me, thanking me,” he said, sitting in an empty radio studio at the Charlotte headquarters of ESPNU, which will be the future home base for the SEC Network, and where Finebaum will be a central figure when the network launches in August 2014. “At the hotel, bell captains were screaming ‘Roll Tide!’ at me. And when I got home … suddenly I was being embraced, and I’d never had that before.”

His favorite story comes from the day after the game. At a Wal-Mart, Finebaum was approached by a man pushing a cart piled high with Alabama National Championship gear. “He said, ‘Mr. Finebaum, I am from Bangladesh, but today I am an Alabama fan.’ ”

As if telling Paul Finebaum somehow affirmed that – which, in a way, it did.

After years consisting mostly of post-Bear Bryant mediocrity, the Crimson Tide was back atop the college football world – and, almost ironically, Finebaum was along for the ride. That spring, Saban invited him to be an honorary captain for Alabama’s spring game; Finebaum, in the spirit of things, wore a Crimson Tide cap on the sidelines, a moment that immediately went viral on YouTube.

“For the first time in 20 years, I was on speaking terms with an Alabama coach,” he said. “I went from villain to, in some eyes, now part of the program.” He chuckled. “It wasn’t accurate, but I was pretty happy about it.”

Could his life get any better? Three years later, it has done just that – in spades.

On Jan. 21, Finebaum’s contract with WJOX in Birmingham, home to his daily radio show with 30-odd affiliates across the Southeast (and carried nationally by Sirius XM), expired. Hardcore Finebaum fans – and few are anything but hardcore – bemoaned his absence, wondering when he would return. Then in May, the Wall Street Journal reported that on Aug. 1, he would go back on the air on ESPN Radio – a precursor to his SEC Network gig – and relocate to Charlotte.

Justin Connolly, senior vice president for ESPN’s college networks, sees Finebaum’s oft-contentious past as a plus. “We think Paul has a knack for being able to represent the voice of the fan – the informed fan,” he said. “He’s able to use his knowledge across a broad range to tie back into the callers.”

Too, hiring Finebaum all but assures that the SEC Network will not be viewed as a conference cheerleader. Connolly said ESPN “consulted with (SEC commissioner) Mike Slive” on Finebaum’s hiring, but insists it was the sports giant’s call. “We’re going to try to create an experience that engages the audience,” Connolly said, “and having Paul brings a level of credibility to the network.”

Slive, a frequent guest on Finebaum’s Birmingham show and a friend as a result – “we got to talking over lunch one day, mostly about other things than sports, and discovered we both love books,” Slive said – sees the hiring as a signal that the SEC Network will be unique among conference-based networks.

“I think it says that we’re going to have a broad spectrum of programming,” the commissioner said. “I think Paul is one of the finest interviewers in the industry, no matter if it’s a sports personality, a politician or an author. He has a knack for creating a fascinating interview; it’s one of his great strengths.”

Ask what he most eagerly anticipates, and a smile crosses Finebaum’s face. What, he asked back, is not to like?

“I’m 57, and at this point in life, it’s not like (another deal such as) this will come around again,” he said. “I was content to ride out (his career) where I was, but this is like opening a curtain: ‘Hey, would you like to work for the best sports network, covering the best (college) sports league?’ And I said, ‘Yes, when do I start?’ ”

In fact, Finebaum said, the only downside of the move is for his wife of 22 years, Linda, a doctor of internal medicine, who encouraged him to take the SEC Network offering. “Some of her patients called the show and said, ‘We’re never going to forgive you for taking our doctor to North Carolina,’ ” he said, laughing.

His deal – which includes his five-times-a-week (2 p.m.-6 p.m. EST) radio call-in show, plus 100 annual TV appearances on ESPN (he has already appeared on the popular GameDay program at Clemson and at Georgia), and a TV simulcast of the radio show once the SEC Network begins – will pay him handsomely. Finebaum politely declined to reveal numbers, but longtime friend and ESPN analyst/handicapper Danny Sheridan suggests something in the high six-figure to low seven-figure range.

Finebaum wasn’t exactly hurting before; his reported annual income from radio and other deals in Birmingham was around $450,000. He also has a book in the works (co-written with Gene Wojciechowski, who also works for ESPN), to be released in conjunction with the SEC Network launch, for which he received a reported $650,000 advance from publisher HarperCollins.

“Put it this way,” Sheridan said, laughing. “Nobody’s going to be holding a benefit for Paul anytime soon.”

Finebaum’s appearance belies his lofty position: he’s slender, bald and bespectacled, with a quiet, almost meek in-person demeanor. The rapper Drake, recently debating Finebaum on ESPN about Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, said Finebaum “looks like my high school history teacher – too stern.” Or as one friend says, “Paul has a face for radio.”

It’ll have to do, though. The SEC Network will air 45 SEC football games per season and about 1,000 total sports events per year. The football debut will be Aug. 28, 2014, when Texas A&M visits South Carolina. Finebaum will be there – though once upon a time, a trip to Columbia might’ve caused him to pause.

Longtime Gamecocks fans remember his 1992 column in the Birmingham Post-Herald when Finebaum, after seeing Alabama rout USC, 48-7, appealed tongue-in-cheek to then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer to boot USC out of the league. A year later, when the Crimson Tide visited Williams-Brice Stadium, signs of “Fire Finebaum” and buttons reading “Kill Finebaum” were everywhere.

“That was a tough fan base for me, one of the times I was most concerned” about his safety, he said. “It was a bit nerve-wracking.” Friend Gene Hallman, an Irmo native and head of the Birmingham-based Bruno Events Team, which stages The Tradition Champions Tour golf tournament, recalled a different vibe.

“I think (Finebaum’s reaction) was more about, ‘They pay attention to what I write,’ ” Hallman said. “I joked I was there as his bodyguard.”

“Let’s just say I probably won’t be invited to deliver the commencement speech there,” Finebaum said, grinning mischeviously. Things figure to go more smoothly in 2014.

Twenty years later, Finebaum isn’t quite the same inflammatory figure, though in many ways he hasn’t mellowed much. Less than 24 hours after Finebaum appeared on ESPN’s GameDay, calling Southern Cal coach Lane Kiffin “the Miley Cyrus of college football,” predicting he would be fired and calling on SC to “hire an adult to be its football coach,” Kiffin was dismissed.

A Twitter site, FinebaumFan, suggested cause-and-effect, though Southern Cal’s 62-41 loss at Arizona State probably was a bigger factor. Still, to borrow an Alabama phrase, Kiffin got “F-baumed.”

Bottom line: Paul Finebaum got where he is today by being who he is and always has been. Why would he change now?

OAK TREES MADE HIM FAMOUS

Danny Sheridan’s first introduction to Finebaum came in 1980 when he attended a kids’ football camp in Alabama run by ex-Bama and NFL quarterback Kenny Stabler. “There were a bunch of guys hanging around, and I see this guy who looks like a Cal-Berkeley liberal: shoulder-length hair, notebook in the back pocket of his jeans, kind of a hippie,” Sheridan said.

“Well, you can’t judge a book by its cover. We talked, and my impression was, this guy’s a no-nonsense reporter … and these guys (Stabler and cronies) are nuts to have him here.”

Finebaum – a Memphis native and University of Tennessee graduate – would later write an uncomplimentary story about Stabler’s buddies buying beer and running red lights. An agent-lawyer involved in the camp told Sheridan, “I ought to sue that (bleep)”; Sheridan said he replied, “You’re a public figure and so is Kenny; No. 2, everything he wrote is true – how are you going to sue him?”

As Hallman could’ve told them, Finebaum backed off from no one. While a student journalist at Tennessee, he was banned from the team bus by the Volunteers’ newly-named women’s basketball coach after an inflammatory story. The school backed the student paper, and Pat Head (later Summitt) had to relent.

“I think a light bulb went on for him: ‘(power of the press) works in sports, too,’” Hallman said.

Finebaum said he got into sports journalism by happenstance. “When I went to work for the school paper, I didn’t know enough to understand how it worked, so I just wrote my opinion,” he said. A product of the post-Watergate mentality, he was originally hired at the Post-Herald as an investigative sports reporter.

“Of all I did in my career, it was the thing I was best at – but it didn’t last long,” Finebaum said. A lawsuit, which the newspaper won, took two years to resolve, and the paper’s owners suggested he be made a columnist “so everyone would forget who I was,” he said, laughing.

Soon, everyone knew. Though his paper was No. 2 in Birmingham, Finebaum’s columns became must reading for Alabama and Auburn followers. Bear Bryant had retired and died not long after Finebaum landed in Birmingham, and Bryant’s immediate successors failed to match the legend. The new columnist had plenty of grist for his mill.

“Alabama had its first losing season in 25 years (under Ray Perkins) and fans were beside themselves,” Finebaum said. “Auburn under Pat Dye ended a nine-year losing streak (to the Tide). I played the two sides against each other, and it was very effective.”

It also made Finebaum an object of dislike for Perkins, Bill Curry and a line of less-than-successful Alabama coaches. Even Gene Stallings, who won a national title (after which Alabama was put on NCAA probation), felt the wrath of Finebaum’s blunt-instrument opinions.

“Fourth and Dumb – The Sequel,” he wrote of a loss to Auburn in 1993, saying that “Stallings’ bone-headed decision” to go for a late first down cost the Tide a win. Finebaum cut Auburn no slack, either. In 1983, he wrote that Dye was fortunate that alumni paid off the mortgage on his home before a loss to Texas; otherwise, “the only gift the alumni might’ve given him was a roadmap back to Wyoming.”

When hate mail poured in, Finebaum – single, with “really no friends, a lonely guy walking in the wilderness,” he said – reveled in it. “I like this, this is good,” he recalled thinking. He also soon discovered an even better outlet for his opinions.

In January 1984, he began hosting a one-hour radio show, which preceded the Ray Perkins Show. After a season of Finebaum’s sniping, Perkins, he says, told the station to “‘get rid of (Finebaum) or we’re going to another station.’ So they fired me.”

Other stations wanted him and his rabid following and top ratings. In 1993 he moved to WERC, and in 2001 the show was syndicated across the Southeast. He formed The Paul Finebaum Radio Network with director Pat Smith (still his producer with ESPN), and in 2004 the show was named one of the nation’s top 12 sports talk shows nationally by Sports Illustrated. From 2007 until his recent ESPN move, he worked at WJOX.

“Our idea was to take what Paul did in print (before leaving the now-defunct Post-Herald) and translate that to radio,” Smith said from Birmingham, where he’s produced Finebaum’s show since 1993 and still does the Charlotte-based broadcast remotely from his home studio. “We did parodies, made fun of coaches, programs when they were down. Paul, having a bold, acerbic opinion, was quick to roll with ideas.”

For all their success, though, it was two shows in 2011 that both defined Finebaum as a national talent and set him on course for ESPN and SEC Network. On Jan. 27, Alabama fan “Al from Dadeville,” later identified as ex-state trooper Harvey Updyke, called to rant against Auburn and its supposed disrespect toward Bear Bryant.

Finebaum refuted “Al’s” argument, at which point the caller said, “Let me tell you what I did,” proceeding to tell how he had poisoned the beloved oak trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn. Finebaum, momentarily stunned, asked, “Is that legal?” Updyke uttered the story’s catch phrase: “You think I care? Roll damn Tide!”

Thanks to a recording of the call, the story became national. Finebaum, though, says it was not his finest hour. “I’m embarrassed to say that, with all my training, I didn’t pick up on it at first – fans say a lot of crazy things,” he said. When the whole story unfolded, “I knew it was important, shocking.” Still, the significance of his role in it didn’t strike home until later.

“That night, I heard (the tape) on NBC News with Brian Williams. I’m sitting in my living room, the first time I really listened to the call when we weren’t on the air, and I put my hands over my eyes and thought, ‘Could I have handled that any worse?’ ”

Updyke was ultimately found, arrested and imprisoned – he has since been released – but the story gave Finebaum a national presence. An ESPN documentary, “Roll Tide War Eagle,” included the Updyke crime and Finebaum’s part in discovering it. Justin Connolly of the SEC Network says the documentary – and a lengthy December 2012 profile of Finebaum in The New Yorker, its first on a college football figure in more than a decade – put Finebaum on ESPN’s radar.

Still, it was another story – having nothing to do with sports – that cemented Finebaum’s stature as a talent ready for a bigger stage. On April 27, 2011, a devastating tornado struck Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, leveling parts of both cities, causing $2.2 billion in damages and killing 64 people, six of them Alabama students.

“That became one of the more important moments in the show’s history,” said Finebaum, who saw the tornado strike less than a mile from the radio station. “Besides the destruction, it was the timing: the next day was the NFL Draft: (Auburn’s) Cam Newton going No. 1, four Alabama players in the top 10. That day I told Pat (Smith), ‘We can’t talk about the draft.’ So we talked about the tornado.”

Later, Finebaum visited Tuscaloosa, an event he calls sobering. At week’s end, U.S. officials announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, and “everyone leaves Tuscaloosa,” he said. “That compelled me to talk more about the tornado.

“Looking back, that was something I believed in strongly. The audience saw we weren’t just about craziness and absurdity – the whole state came together, and I think we helped by being the place people went to.”

“We were doing what we could to make sure people (outside Alabama) didn’t forget,” Smith said. “Sports are our livelihood, but it’s not as important as losing homes, family members. We wanted to do what we could to raise awareness.”

Hallman calls those days “a landmark event in (Finebaum’s) life. He went (to Tuscaloosa) the day after the tornado; he was there when the cadaver dogs found a body. He saw suffering, and it moved him greatly.”

Today, Finebaum thinks of that moment as a transformative one for his show and for him. “But really, the transformation had started earlier,” he said. “Remember, for most of the 2000s we’d had Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, who abandoned Alabama – Mike Price didn’t even make it to the first game – Mike Shula. Fans wanted to support Alabama, but they were torn.”

So, too, was Finebaum. “I had been very critical,” he said, “but – and this is important, I don’t think I’d be where I am without it – I had to change. I was getting older and thinking, ‘Do I want to be a flamethrower all my life?’ ”

Turned out he wouldn’t have to be. Turned out, in another right time/right place/right man sequence, Finebaum’s path was about to intersect with history – again.

‘TEFLON DON OF THE SOUTH’

In December 2006, after Shula was fired following a 6-6 season (26-23 over four seasons), Finebaum again inserted himself into the conversation – only instead of criticizing, he offered a solution. “Alabama needs to go after the best coach in the country,” he wrote. For him, that meant two men: Steve Spurrier, just finishing his second season at USC, and Saban, then head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

After a brief flirtation with Spurrier (see sidebar) and after Saban turned them down, the Crimson Tide wooed West Virginia’s mercurial Rich Rodriguez. About the same time, Finebaum saw a photo of Rodriguez’s wife on the Internet one day and, he said, made a “flippant remark.” When Rodriguez (told Finebaum had “trashed” his wife) reportedly accepted the Alabama job, then abruptly changed his mind to sign an extension at West Virginia, “Alabama went into total meltdown,” Finebaum said.

“We go to the phones (on the show) that day and the first caller curses me, says ‘You cost us Rodriguez.’ For about an hour, I’m getting destroyed, and I think, ‘This could be the end of my career.’ ”

Make that a new beginning. Three weeks later, Saban accepted the Alabama job, and on TV Finebaum predicted a national championship for the Tide within four years (it took three). Suddenly, the outpouring for Finebaum was unprecedented.

“I went from ‘you cost us Rodriguez’ to ‘you ran off Rodriguez – thank goodness,’ ” he said, laughing. “And I stopped arguing. I said, ‘You’re absolutely right,’ took credit for something I had nothing to do with.”

Then Saban reached out to Finebaum. “It goes back to LSU,” where he won a national title there in 2003, Saban said this week. “I got to know him then; he was a guy who always treated me with respect, and I try to show him a lot of respect, too.”

Saban also said callers to Finebaum’s show are not “reflections of Paul and his professionalism. He’s created a lot of interest in Alabama and Auburn football and the SEC and college football in general. And I respect that.”

Respect. Not since Aretha Franklin’s heyday had that word sounded so good to Finebaum.

So now it’s the 2013 football season, and he’s not just about Alabama and Auburn, but the SEC and the entire nation. Saban has given his blessing – “I think he’ll do a fantastic job for the (SEC) network,” the coach said – and that carries a lot of weight around the league. So, too, does the approval of Slive.

“I think Paul has a significant following, and that’s become national – and the SEC Network is going to be national,” Slive said. “It’s not unlike when we announced the first game will be South Carolina-Texas A&M. The combination of that game, and Paul at that game, sends a signal to fans everywhere, this is going to be special.”

Tim Brando, studio host for CBS’s weekly SEC Game of the Week, laughingly calls Finebaum “the Teflon Don of the South,” but gives him credit for being able to touch the soul of his audience, yet stay in charge. “He enjoys being in a three-ring circus with callers,” Brando said. “What makes his approach different is, he lets (the audience) say what they want – but then he can come back and do an interview with, say, Condeleeza Rice, and it’s a well-done interview. He’s no one-trick pony.”

Pat Smith says, though, that one thing always stands out with Finebaum. “He’s always been a fantastic listener,” Smith said, “and he allows (callers) to state their opinions. So many (personalities) want to come on and tell you what they know; Paul is more inclined to step back and listen, then react. That’s why most folks say he’s the best interviewer on radio.”

Starting in August, Finebaum will be – Connolly’s mild objections notwithstanding – the face, and voice of the SEC Network. Even now, his impact on the growing national face of a once-regionalized college football scene is noticed. Just ask Lane Kiffin.

“To me, what Paul brings (to the network) is a heck of a lot of gravitas,” Connolly said. “He has a whole lot of stories to tell, and he can engage the fans beyond football season. The Kentucky basketball fan, the South Carolina baseball fan, the Tennessee women’s basketball fan – there’s a whole lot of passion out there, and he’s where he can stoke that passion.”

Whether that’s with a conductor’s baton or a sharp stick – whether fans love him or hate him – “he’s like a car wreck,” Sheridan said, laughing. “You can’t not look.”

And while Finebaum has mellowed a bit – “he likes to be liked now, too,” Hallman said – it won’t change what SEC Network viewers and listeners can expect see and hear, now and in August 2014.

“There’s a softer touch to Paul when he’s away from the microphone,” Hallman said. “But even with two personalities – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – at the core is truth. He’s very much a ‘truth will prevail’ guy.

“He still doesn’t care if anyone he covers likes him personally because, at the end of the day, it’s about the truth.” Hallman paused, and added: “That, and making it entertaining.”

How will he do that? “No one knows yet how it will work,” Finebaum said, “other than I’ve been encouraged, by both sides (SEC and ESPN) to be myself. They say, ‘We hired you because of what you’ve done. We don’t want to change that.’ ”

Soon, the rest of the college sports world will listen and learn. Finebaum, after all, is rarely at a loss for words.

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