Whatever controversy might be brewing in college football, you can count on Paul Finebaum to comment on it.
He did as a newspaper columnist and radio host in Birmingham, and now he does it daily on the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum Show.
“What gives Paul Finebaum the right to voice his opinion on sports — he’s never touched a ball in his life,” said Charles Barkley of Leeds. “He can come on the radio and everybody in Alabama thinks it’s the gospel because Finebaum said it.”
The 59-year-old Finebaum, born in Memphis and educated at the University of Tennessee, built his reputation in newspapers and enhanced it in radio. Now he is known nationwide as a fearless commentator who isn’t timid about bashing callers and coaches.
“Back in the day I was just thrilled to be writing a column for a newspaper,” Finebaum said. “My dream was to work for a big newspaper, maybe the New York Times.
“I started from scratch. There has been a shift over the years. I was evolving, and I found myself choosing radio over newspapers.”
As a talk show host on WJOX in Birmingham, Finebaum and his callers would often go into a tizzy over some trivial matter. If you called his show, you may have been shouted down, but hey, you had plenty of company.
Someone once said the show is most compelling when the wheels come off. And if the wheels came off one day, they were back on the next, with callers backed up on the hold line, eager to talk to Finebaum … until his contract expired in January 2013 and he was off the air.
“I decided not to renew it and became a free agent, so to speak,” he said.
During his four-month layoff, he signed a contract with HarperCollins for $650,000 to write a book, “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference,” which spent six months on The New York Times bestseller list.
As listeners waited eagerly to find out what Finebaum would do next, the announcement that he would go to ESPN with a five-year contract was surprising.
“I could see a change coming, but not this,” he said. “There are days I still can’t believe it.”
And with the promotion to ESPN, Finebaum has been on his best behavior … most of the time.
“After a while, you don’t want to keep being a bull in a china shop every day,” he said. “As I’ve gone through changes, I now try to elicit comments more from listeners.”
But he can still be combative. Recently a caller from Ohio argued that the Big Ten was better than the SEC. After bickering back and forth, Finebaum called him a “blithering idiot.”
The same person called back a day or two later and apologized. “Aw, that’s OK,” Finebaum said.
The caller asked, If Ohio State played in the SEC West, who would win the division? Finebaum thought about it and replied, “Ohio State.”
“At the core, Paul is a good person and he very much believes in the good of the people,” said Joe Tessitore, Finebaum’s colleague at ESPN. “He is brilliant in ways that aren’t obvious … he’s flat-out smart and perceptive and analytical. He is a craftsman at the unique craft he himself seemingly created.”
Tessitore added, “His ability to listen well to both callers and guests is superb” and his understanding of Southern football and life has “blossomed to mega success.”
Off the air, Finebaum is mild-mannered and reserved.
“He is less confrontational, very comfortable, and smiles and laughs more,” Tessitore said.
Chris Vernon, a sports radio host in Memphis, once said “Outside of Nick Saban, Paul Finebaum is the most famous person in Alabama.” To which Saban replied, “I don’t think you can function in the Southeast and not know who Paul is.”
Finebaum’s reaction: “Any time you hear something like that it’s flattering, but I don’t take it seriously.”
Saban and Finebaum are friends. They met when Saban was head coach at LSU.
“He was involved in some controversy there involving (former Alabama coach) Dennis Franchione, and I was extremely fair to him,” Finebaum said. “Later, the day after he left the Miami Dolphins to go to Alabama, he came on our show. It was his way of saying thanks, I remember what you did.”
Finebaum majored in political science at Tennessee but, after reading a biography of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, he developed a keen interest in sports.
He became sports editor of the Daily Beacon, UT’s student newspaper, where he stirred the pot just as he did later in Birmingham.
“No doubt, that’s where it all started,” he said.
In 1978, the year after Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King left Tennessee for the NBA, the Vols lost at home to a small-school team they should have beaten.
“I wrote a story that said the Tennessee basketball program died that night. We bordered it in black in the paper,” Finebaum recalled. “I was banned from traveling with the team.”
Last year, he received a Distinguished Alumni Award from his alma mater. He returned to Knoxville to accept it and speak to students in the school of communications.
Mike Slive, who retired recently after 13 years as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, calls Finebaum “a renaissance man,” explaining that he has a broad range of intellectual interests including literature, politics, philosophy and history.
When Finebaum lived in Birmingham, he and Slive would shop for books and meet for lunch.
“We seldom talked sports, but we would share books,” Slive said. “He liked books about important media personalities such as Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Tom Brokaw and others.
“He has a great sense of humor and he is extremely bright,” Slive said. “He’s a private person while at the same time a very good friend. And he is uniquely skilled at what he does.”
So when you turn on ESPN and The Paul Finebaum Show, you’ll still hear Tammy from Clanton and Legend from Hueytown. But more and more, callers from Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa and even California are checking in with the man The Wall Street Journal once called “the Oprah Winfrey of college football.”
ESPN wants to expand his role, according to Rosalyn Durant, head of the SEC Network. She recently told AL.com, “We want to continue to grow his brand on television. … You can expect to see more of Paul.”
Finebaum met his wife, Dr. Linda Hudson, when they lived in the same Birmingham apartment complex. Married for 25 years now, they sold their house in Shoal Creek and moved to Charlotte, home of the SEC Network, where she is an internist for the Carolinas HealthCare System.
With football fast approaching, Finebaum made these predictions for the 2015 season:
SEC championship game: Alabama over Georgia. College Football Playoff: Alabama, TCU, Ohio State and Southern California. National champion: Ohio State.
Credit to the Anniston Star who originally published this article