Paul Finebaum is a force in college football and the national media. His daily show airs via ESPN Radio, SiriusXM 81 and the SEC Network from 3-7pm Eastern. In part two of a three-part Q&A, Paul describes what it was like when his show moved to ESPN Radio and the SEC Network , his relationship with the late Mike Slive, and a some great career advice he got from Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Matt: So when you got to ESPN they must have expected you to be like every other show and have hot takes which is not really what you do…
Paul: Yes..I had this wonderful gig going in Birmingham and probably the biggest moment of the radio show, and you played a big role in this, was when we went to SiriusXM. All of a sudden the town hall got a little bit bigger and we fed off of that. We started incorporating callers from all over the country—having similar conversations but it was North vs. South, Big Ten vs. SEC.
Then we go to ESPN/ESPN Radio and they say “We’re not gonna change anything—just want you to be Paul.” Then the first day they’re like “You can’t do it that way! You gotta start the show hot and go to the Valvoline hotline!” That’s not me. I would be the worst ESPN radio host in America if I had to do that.
No matter how many times people (at ESPN) said they didn’t want to change everything, of course they wanted to change everything. You have what was a successful product and then you put it on television. “We don’t want to change anything. We want Paul to be Paul!” and then they go “We gotta change it, it’s television. We gotta produce it. We gotta do segments. We gotta do bits!” It was a very difficult transition. First, ESPN Radio and then the next year The SEC Network.
Suddenly this great radio show which I took immense pride in was not recognizable. After a lot of tweaking and working I think we have found some medium. Whenever executives in our business say “We’re not gonna change anything” they’re going to change everything.
Matt: I would like some credit for not trying to change you or your show when you were on SiriusXM..
Paul: That was the amazing part and in full candor my desire was to work for SiriusXM because I thought with what we had done–it was going to be perfect. There was a track record of Howard Stern and Chris Russo, and other people who had gone there—yea it was a bigger platform and there were more bells and whistles but it was still essentially the same show. ESPN and the SEC Network popped up..I don’t regret it but I still think I yearn for the original concept that you had and some of your colleagues had to make this bigger and better and SiriusXM exclusive.
Matt: Speaking of the SEC Network, former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive just passed a few months ago. You had a very special relationship with him. Can you talk about how your relationship started and developed with him?
Paul: I had met him once or twice when he was with Conference USA. It started off terribly. I criticized him about something and when he got the job (SEC Commissioner) I was really in shock. I think I said the first day “This guy has no shot at making it!” He heard that and six-seven months later we got thrown together at dinner which led to every six-to eight weeks lunches and I started bringing him books. It went from professional to cordial to friendly to almost like older brother. By the end I’m not sure there was really anyone who I was closer to outside my immediate family.
It’s kinda weird to talk about this but one of the biggest challenges of my life was giving his eulogy because it’s so personal and it’s so important. It would be important if I was giving it for a caller—I did for Shane in Centerpoint’s funeral-because it’s so final. For him it was even more complex because of the circumstances and because of the people in the audience. I’ve never met or worked in and around someone like him and I probably never will.
Matt: It was interesting that someone of such stature, he always had such interest in the other person no matter what rung on the ladder they were at.
Paul: He had that trait and I think most executives have it at some point where they’re curious. I think too often that curiosity gets lost. Almost three years ago I found myself at Auburn one night. We were invited to the Athletic Director’s house. I got the time wrong and got to his house 40 minutes early thinking I was ten minutes late for a party.
I walk in and there’s a man and a young kid with him as I think he lives on the west coast and he got the time confused as well. He walks over to me and he says, “Paul, I’m Tim Cook, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” In the back of my mind I’m like Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, knows who I am? He was an Auburn graduate.
We ended up sitting together and it was the most fascinating conversation. The first thing he did was look to see if I had an Apple Watch—which I do now! So I asked him, “When you hire people what are you looking for?” He said, “We’re going to get pretty high quality people, but I’m looking for three things. I want them to be wickedly smart, collaborative, and insanely curious!” I’ve taken that and think about it all the time. If you’re not smart, you can try to be smarter. Collaborative is easy to understand but curious is something that I don’t see much of.
When I talk to young people—I’ll have a young student or an intern come to me and ask to pick my brain. I’ll find that they end up doing all the talking. I’m concerned about people especially in our industry because there are so many rich resources that could be a big help to people trying to matriculate in the industry. But I stress that curiosity. I ask young people, “What do you want to do?” and they’re a student anchor at some university and they say “Well I’d like to host SportsCenter!” I’m like well that’s easy! I tell them to stay in touch with people. I meet a lot of people and it’s not like I’ll remember them, but if they stay in touch with me, I will. I just really learned so much from Tim Cook.
It turns out we started a series profiling influential people in the SEC that didn’t play sports. He (Tim Cook of Apple) was my first choice and even though I had dinner with him it took nine months to set up the interview! We ended up spending the better part of two days at Auburn and it was fascinating. I have always been curious and I think it has helped me. People in the industry need to quit talking some times and start listening.