The last time the SEC Network’s “Paul Finebaum Show” aired from somewhere other than the network’s Charlotte studios was in Glendale, Ariz., for the College Football Championship and Alabama’s victory over Clemson.
Before that, the weekday show (3-7 p.m.) was on hand for the Crimson Tide’s Cotton Bowl and SEC Championship wins.
And before that? Other than weekly Friday visits to SEC games during the regular season, you have to go back to SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Ala., last August. If you’ve detected a pattern here, congratulations: to no one’s surprise, all those remote telecasts centered on football.
All of which made Monday afternoon’s broadcast from Colonial Life Arena – on site for the women’s basketball regular-season showdown between No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 South Carolina – anything but the Finebaum norm. But after this night, he said, that might not always be so.
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“Frankly, we don’t often go on the road,” the SEC’s popular host said before taking the air. “It’s a big production, a lot of people involved; it’s not like when we were just radio – now we have to take our own truck.” Not to mention 25 camera, sound and production personnel, in addition to the 25 working the night’s ESPN2 game telecast.
Credit two people for this precedent-setting occasion: Gamecocks’ coach Dawn Staley, and – perhaps surprisingly to SEC fans – Finebaum. The genesis, he said, came last May at the SEC’s spring meetings in Destin, Fla., where Staley was a guest for Finebaum’s beachfront show.
“I made reference to their great season last year (when USC reached the NCAA Final Four) and asked about the UConn game coming up in February,” he said, “and Dawn said, ‘You need to cover that game.’
“Without thinking, I said, ‘I’ll be there.’ And she said, ‘I’ll hold you to that.’ ”
Flash forward to October’s basketball media days, when Staley spotted Finebaum and said, “You are coming, right?” Laughing, he admits now, “To be honest, I hadn’t discussed that with anybody” at the network. “It’s not easy to pull off.
“But we all thought it was worth doing. And fortunately, the game has lived up to what we hoped it would be.”
Has it ever.
Of course, four hours of Finebaum on-air could not exist completely without football. So Monday’s lineup included interviews with former USC coach Steve Spurrier (who told how not only did his Florida teams beat Super Bowl 50 hero Peyton Manning four straight years, but his Washington Redskins also topped Manning’s Indianapolis Colts) and Spurrier’s successor, Will Muschamp, a past guest in Charlotte. Others appearances included athletics director Ray Tanner, school president Harris Pastides and, for promotional purposes, several ESPN personalities.
But the star turn and leadoff interview belonged to Staley. Finebaum showed off his hoops chops, quizzing the coach about USC’s glory days and her efforts to recreate a “basketball culture” largely dormant since the 1960s-70s heyday of Frank McGuire. Staley was up to the question, saying anticipation of the first CLA sellout in women’s hoops history “is great for our program, our fans and our state. They deserve to have basketball played on this stage.”
Staley even got in a mention about Hillary Clinton’s social media shout-out to the Gamecocks earlier Monday. In the SEC Network’s production truck, supervising director Brian Hegner and his crew cracked up when Gamecocks senior Tiffany Mitchell paused her pregame shooting practice to break out her dance moves behind Finebaum.
While Finebaum has built his reputation as a Birmingham newspaper columnist, and in radio and television as an SEC football insider, his roots in women’s basketball go back even further.
In 1977-78, the then-college junior at Tennessee was sports editor for the school newspaper and cultivated a relationship with the Volunteers’ fourth-year women’s coach, a relative unknown named Pat Head – now Pat Summitt.
On road trips, “I’d sit next to Pat and got to know her well,” he said. “One day, I saw on the Associated Press wire that UT had been voted No. 1 in the nation, and I ran three blocks to her broom-closet of an office – we didn’t have a phone – and was the first to tell her.”
Finebaum also got an early look at the rivalry that, until recently, defined big-time women’s basketball.
“At one time, Tennessee and Connecticut played twice a year,” he said. “Those were some epic games. It’s hard to find a more intense rivalry than Pat and Geno (Auriemma, the Huskies’ coach).”
Now, he said, USC-UConn has the potential to become the rivalry of the future.
“First, though, South Carolina has to win sometime,” he said. “Right now, a debate on a barstool is: Are we seeing (in Connecticut’s women) the most dominant sports team ever? And South Carolina has one of the best chances to end that.”
Finebaum isn’t alone in that assessment.
Pat Lowry, coordinating producer of women’s college basketball for ESPN and the SEC Network, believes that the Gamecocks’ challenging conference schedule, compared to the Huskies’ relative cakewalk to date, is a big reason Auriemma “needs this kind of competition, to get his team prepared for postseason. South Carolina has tough games in the league that prepares them for games like this.”
Lowry also sees a time when the fairly friendly rivalry between USC and UConn morphs into something else.
“Right now it’s not as ...” she paused, searching for a diplomatic word ... “you won’t see the stare-downs that you had with Geno and (Summitt). But as South Carolina gets really close, I think the classic Geno will come out.”
A year ago, the Huskies won handily 87-62 in Storrs. Monday night’s 66-54 loss, while disheartening for the Gamecocks, at least at times following UConn’s 17-8 first-quarter start seemed to offer a hint of things to come – moments that suggested the kind of fierce feud that is red meat for Finebaum’s shows.
“No doubt, we’ll do it again,” he said. “This is a chance to show that the SEC Network is about more than talking college football. I think it’s a great moment, and I’m proud of it.”
Good for the show, too.