The call came in December 2006 from “a prominent Alabaman” – that’s as far as Paul Finebaum will go in identifying the person – and the question he asked sounded, at first, like idle sports speculation.
“Do you think,” the Crimson Tide backer asked one of his athletic program’s most vocal critics, “(Steve) Spurrier might want the job?”
“The job” was as head football coach at Alabama, which had just fired Mike Shula after four seasons and a 26-23 record. Asking Finebaum made sense: he and Spurrier knew each other away from football, and Finebaum had already named Spurrier and Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban as who he thought Alabama’s prime targets should be.
Then, Finebaum says, the Alabama backer asked another question: “Would you call him (about the Crimson Tide opening)?”
“You want ME to call Spurrier?” Finebaum replied.
The caller, Finebaum said, explained that Alabama athletics director Mal Moore “doesn’t want his fingerprints on this. He can’t call (Spurrier agent) Jimmy Sexton. He has to have total deniability” in case Spurrier turned an offer down.
So, Finebaum says, he called Spurrier, who agreed to talk with Moore. “Then I got out of the way – but I was the middle man,” he said.
Finebaum swears the story is true. Spurrier well, he doesn’t deny it, but is quick to dismiss the notion of leaving USC.
“I took a call from Mal Moore,” Spurrier said. “I’ve had a lot of calls, though not much the last five years. He (Finebaum) probably thought Alabama could get who they want.”
In fact, after Spurrier signed a new contract with USC three days later, “I told him, ‘You’re turning down a gold mine,’ ” Finebaum said. “But his daughter had just moved there and he said, ‘I can’t do it.’ ”
What led to such an exchange? Would you believe golf?
In 1990, Spurrier had returned to Florida, his alma mater, after winning an ACC title at Duke. “At SEC media days, I mentioned we had a good team and our goal was to win the SEC,” he said. “Most of the writers sort of laughed; they said, ‘Who’s this loudmouth from Duke? What’s he talking about?’ ”
Then the Gators won that year’s title, and the next one, too. “Paul wrote, ‘Maybe this guy Spurrier knows what he’s talking about,’ which was different,” the coach said.
In 1997, Gene Hallman, in charge of Birmingham’s first-year Champions Tour event (now The Tradition) held at Shoal Creek, decided to put Spurrier in a pro-am group with Finebaum, Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino and Tour player Hale Irwin.
“Paul likes coaches, just not bad ones,” Hallman said, laughing. Later, he said, he, Finebaum and Spurrier dined together.
“We were throwing a football around in the fairways, had a big time,” Spurrier said of the pro-am. He and Finebaum played together again this year, with Fred Couples.
Spurrier, though, says he doesn’t consider Finebaum a close friend – at least, not publicly. “I’m not friends with sports writers. I don’t think you should be,” he said. “You do your job and I’ll do mine.”