The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is the brawniest thing in college football right now, and a scrawny man, Paul Finebaum, sits atop it.
Finebaum is the host of The Paul Finebaum Radio Network, a daily show that has won the men's 25-54 demographic in Alabama for five years running and which serves to overturn the rock and reveal the writhing passions of the SEC. Finebaum, a 56-year-old with a bald, turtle-like head and a Memphis accent, doesn't do much talking. When he does talk, he's monotone, sly, and deadpan. He is there to let his callers rant and spew.
A decade ago, Finebaum was a local show in Birmingham. Then it went regional—you can hear it everywhere in Alabama, and on stations in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia—and now it's national, via Sirius XM.
"I'm surprised how well Finebaum seems to have translated nationally," says Jeremy Henderson, editor of the War Eagle Reader, "because the stuff he's talking about is mostly Auburn and Alabama fans screaming at each other."
But that's what college football is now. Tonight, No. 2 Alabama plays No. 1 LSU in the BCS championship game, a rematch of their regular-season SEC West contest. The winner will be the sixth straight national champion from the SEC; the loser—thanks to the intraconference matchup—will be the first SEC team to to have lost in a BCS title game. Against other conferences, the league is 7-0.
The SEC has more than $3 billion in television rights fees coming over the next 15 years, the biggest deal in college sports. Where other conferences are withering away in the realignment frenzy, the SEC keeps growing stronger. The South rules the sport.
It's a streak of regional dominance unrivaled since the late 1800s, when Harvard, Princeton, and Yale traded titles for 30 years. Then, in the 1920s, the South—still resentful about the Civil War and Reconstruction—decided to apply its sectional aggression to the sport, challenging the North and West for supremacy.
"That legacy, that bitterness lives on," said Andy Doyle, a professor of sports history at Winthrop University in South Carolina. "And it certainly lived on into the formation of football."
In 1926, Alabama beat Washington in the Rose Bowl. The Crimson Tide returned as heroes, meeting adoring crowds at every train stop, according to football historian Michael Oriard. In 1935, the SEC began offering athletic scholarships. The Big Ten and Pacific Coast accused the conference of outright professionalism—sound familiar?
The mythmaking was self-conscious. Hardscrabble Southerners like Alabama defensive end Bear Bryant played "more desperately and ferociously," Oriard said, till the Yankee sport became identified with Southern pride.
In the '60s, Southern columnists crowed about how their all-white teams could still beat integrated Northern ones. And for a while they did. Once they couldn't, the SEC finally yielded to history and desegregated—if slowly; Ole Miss didn't have its first black player till 1972.
But the regional jingoism survived. SEC enthusiasm is—along with a certain bourbon-drinking literary posture—one of the last socially acceptable forms of Confederate exceptionalism.
And Finebaum gives voice to its fullest enthusiasm. Even Texas isn't Southern enough. As a Heisman Trophy voter, Finebaum left Baylor quarterback and eventual winner Robert Griffin III off his ballot because, as he tweeted, "Baylor would finish 6-6 in SEC West".
"SEC defenses would have eaten him alive," Finebaum added. "Haters get a clue."
Finebaum, like the college football itself, has a tale of regional migration. He was born in Tennessee to parents newly arrived from New York. As he moved even deeper into Dixie, he kept rhetorically evoking his Northern roots: "I'm the son of New Yorkers," he said over the phone. "And here I am fighting some battle for the South."
He was recounting his October appearance on ESPN's Outside the Lines, in which he sparred with The Nation's Dave Zirin when talking about Hank Williams Jr.'s remarks about President Obama. He said he covered his eyes at points when watching the episode on his DVR.
"That said, I didn't have to buy a beer in Alabama for a week, and I'm sure I got free tickets to every Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, and Marshall Tucker reunion tour."
It was a textbook Finebaum maneuver, disclaiming the Southernness he'd shown on national television, while explaining that Southerners had his back anyway, before poking fun at Southern icons. With each clause came a new barb, directed at another side, till it was impossible to tell which side he was personally taking. Then he told me Williams had called to thank him, too.
"Life can't be all bad when Bocephus is your friend," Finebaum said. "By the way, I thought his comments on Obama were ridiculous."
The OTL appearance with Zirin was one of Finebaum's multiple appearances on ESPN over the past few months. His radio show served as a framing device for Roll Tide/War Eagle, the ESPN Films documentary on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, which aired before the Iron Bowl in November.
Finebaum is the face and—in his understated way—voice of the ascendant SEC tribalism. Bryan Curtis explained it well at Grantland: Fans root for the conference as a whole, in addition to boosting their own teams. They chant "S! E! C!" when Florida vanquishes Ohio State, when Auburn defeats Oregon. They like seeing SEC brethren, even their rivals, beat down on other squads. The SEC-on-SEC action in the championship game will invariably let down some SEC fans, save the Auburn types who want to see Alabama lose at all costs, because there won't be any foil for the conference.
Whoever's winning, Finebaum's audience wants to yell about it. Finebaum got his start in radio appearing on morning shows in Birmingham in the mid-1980s, when he was a columnist for the Post-Herald. As the Auburn blog editor Henderson remembers it, the morning show hosts brought the writer in as a punching bag. From there, Finebaum started a weekly talk show in 1987, and went daily in 1993. He had a sidekick until 1999, when he went solo. He's hopped around every talk station in Birmingham, and many of the TV outlets too. Presently, he's at WJOX on the radio—but he's suing the station, too and WBRC on TV. So this could always change.
Listening to Finebaum's show is a lot like watching Maury or Jerry Springer. An educated onetime journalist plays tickled ringmaster while crazies holler. There are media guests, but they hail primarily from the murky world of college football. USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan recurs. So do old Alabama and Auburn coaches, like Gene Stallings and Pat Dye. There are a few national types, like Kirk Herbstreit, Gary Danielson, and Bruce Feldman, who pop up weekly.
But the civilian callers define the show. They aim to irritate other callers, and Finebaum works to coax out their tempers. Where tabloid television guests talk about babydaddies and meth, Finebaum's talk about Cam Newton and synthetic weed and their fellow audience members.
If they're Bama fans, they talk shit about this year's Auburn Tigers, who had already lost to LSU and Georgia by a combined score of 90-17 before losing 42-14 in the Iron Bowl. They still grouse about "Scam" Newton's recruitment, as though NCAA regulations would undo the mortification wrought by Auburn 28, Alabama 27. Auburn fans this year retaliate by taking pride in LSU.
Finebaum is best known for his regular callers, with names like Tammy, Legend, and I-Man, the Alabama and Auburn fans who phone with little interest in discussing football. People tune in for them, for the soap-opera storylines.
On Finebaum's show the night before Thanksgiving, Tammy called about giving her boss a ride home. The ensuing male callers wanted to talk Tammy just as much as they wanted to talk football. Finebaum says, "I can't remember which game I was at, a few years ago, but I started getting texts there about what Tammy would say on Monday, could I imagine what Tammy was feeling. People started wondering what the callers were going to do." Finebaum even told a story of power company employees who stopped him while jogging to ask what Tammy looked like.
He says other stations' regular callers are boring and predictable. His aren't: "We have Legend, who was in jail for capital murder charges. He told the story on the air. We had several callers, after Penn State, who talked about being abused when they were young. You couldn't do this on Colin Cowherd or Jim Rome."
It was the confessional format that gave Finebaum's show its greatest moment of national notoriety, the call from "Al from Dadeville," boasting of having killed the oak trees at Auburn's Toomer's Corner. Al—real name: Harvey Updyke, Jr.—now denies it.
Glennon Threatt, a Birmingham lawyer who once represented Updyke, called the show "a public water cooler, with anonymity. They can appear before 700,000 listeners with an axe to grind." The actual figure, per Pat Smith, Finebaum's network director, is 250,000 listeners in Alabama.
"He isn't just giving voice to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry," Henderson said. "He now has the power to actually affect it, to permanently change the narrative. The main story line of this year's Iron Bowl—I've already nicknamed it Toomer's Karma—was essentially written by his producers. His producers put Updyke on the air. His producers took the concerned call from the Auburn horticulture professor who heard Updyke on the air. His producers pulled the audio for police. After Updyke's arrest, his producers put him back on the air. And back on the air. And back on the air."
Finebaum doesn't accept any blame for Updyke's alleged actions: "He said that several callers on the show played a big role, but it's not my fault that someone does something incredibly stupid," Finebaum said.
A few weeks ago Finebaum broadcast a show where Threatt was his guest. One caller was a printer repairman who had been convicted on child porn charges, and Threatt had been his attorney. They wrangled over the details of the case on-air, how young the girl had been, whether she was wearing nothing at all or a swimsuit, whether the man had videos or just still images. They didn't take too many football calls.
"I'm a football fan, but I'm not as passionate as these fans," Finebaum said. "Would I go to a whole bunch of games if I wasn't a journalist? Maybe one or two."
Being a journalist, and billing himself as a former journalist, is an essential part of Finebaum's program of detached aggression. "I wanted to go to The New York Times or Sports Illustrated," he said. "But I ended up hanging out here. It's hard to explain how it became that way, because it just happened."
He said he's done now with reporting—although when prodded about a dream job that would cause him to leave radio, he suggested reporting for 60 Minutes or HBO's Real Sports—but he does have a column on SI.com.
"Paul used to be a very good journalist," said Tom Arenberg, the sports editor of the Birmingham News. "And I think occasionally, he still brings that perspective to the show."
"He is, at heart, a really good journalist," Randy Kennedy, sports editor of the Mobile Press-Register, said. "But you might not pick up on that for a good while."
There are lots of writers who have discovered the attraction of letting their opinions out through talk shows—Mike Lupica, Bernie Miklasz, onetime Washington Post scribe Tony Kornheiser—but no one else talks to the callers Finebaum does.
"I was on PTI a couple months ago, and Kornheiser asked me why I take calls like Harvey Updyke's," Finebaum said. "It's an understandable question, but at ESPN, they have former coaches and players lined up in the cafeteria. Here in Birmingham, where our resources aren't as vast, I decided to let the inmates run the asylum."
Some listeners find the inmates appalling. "Ninety percent of the stuff on that show makes educated people in Alabama cringe," Kennedy said.
On this point, Finebaum gets political. "There's an attitude toward callers that they're stupid and don't know what they're talking about," Finebaum said. Finebaum's SEC is a populist institution above all.
"I was at the LSU game, and a former ESPN executive was talking about the documentary, and he was unloading on the depiction of the fans, saying those people are a bunch of nuts," Finebaum said. "I said, 'You're completely wrong. Those people are college football right now. There are 60,000 people in Tuscaloosa partying on the quad right now who are as much a part of it as the folks sitting in luxury boxes.'"
"I'm not trying to start an Occupy College Football movement here, but those people who were there that night may not be folks who've gone to Alabama, Auburn, or Tennessee, but they buy the products that go to the bottom line of sports. A lot of the folks who hang out in tony bars on the Upper East Side or go to work on Madison Avenue or Avenue of the Americas might not realize that."
Is that a North-South thing?
"There is a disconnect with college football and people from the North and Northeast. They have a low tolerance level for Southerners."
This is Finebaum at his most crusading, an almost New Yorker railing on behalf of the South, squawking on Alabama's behalf against the people who brought him nationwide. Sirius XM headquarters, after all, are at 1221 Avenue of the Americas.
He can get away with bashing people that other sports personalities cannot. "He can bash Mike Slive or Nick Saban—the most powerful person in our state right now—because he's so respected," Rick Karle, sports director at Fox 6 in Birmingham, said. "He can offer his opinion, and Saban and Chizik and Slive care."
Finebaum said he occasionally eats with Slive, the SEC's commissioner, whom he considers a good friend. He wouldn't say much about how he gets along with Saban and Chizik. "Put it this way: I'm not getting a lot of phone calls from Nick about my opinion on the BCS."
There's bashing, and then there's bashing. In 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education tried to figure out why the SEC had gotten so good. It concluded that SEC schools spent more than other Division I schools on athletics and continually increased their budgets. But they increased funding while supporting a smaller number of sports than other conferences do. The Big Ten fields 25 sports, the Big East 24, and the ACC 25. The SEC fields only 20. There is no men's soccer in the SEC.
At the same time, the SEC has persistently lower academic standards for its athletes than other conferences do, the Chronicle reported. Mike Slive cleaned up the conference when he took over in 2002 by telling them not to rat each other out for violations. That's why then-Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, who publicly accused then-Florida coach Urban Meyer of cheating in 2009, was such an oddball in the SEC. This is the good ole boys' conference, and he had broken the code of silence.
When Finebaum tears down coaches, he doesn't go after academic standards or NCAA rules violations. He takes the ones with indiscreet wives, like Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, or the ones at strip clubs instead of with their wives, like former Alabama coach Mike Price. The recruiting scandals are nowhere near as fun.
And the callers—frothing though they may be—are in it for the fun. How does the Finebaum show make its format work? It's not immediately obvious from listening from 2 to 6 on weekdays.
"Why has Coca-Cola held onto its secret recipe for so long?" Finebaum asked, linking himself to the ultimate Southern-gone-national product.
He flips the formula every way: He privileges small-time callers over national guests. He doesn't do a monologue. He doesn't cut callers off for saying stupid things.
"Taking calls is like being a quarterback or director of the Boston Pops," he said. Finebaum and his screener watch over his eight phone lines, looking for the right callers. Behind the microphone, Finebaum can see the callers' names and the topics they want to discuss. "I kept a guy on hold for 90 minutes today because he wanted to talk about how Alabama defended Georgia Southern's triple option," he said. The guy was willing to wait.
He'll often go quickly to the frothing callers who want to kill him. Off air, he lives in a gated community and doesn't have a listed phone number.
John Carvalho, a professor of sports journalism at Auburn, says, "When someone asks him a question, he treats it like a psychologist. He draws his listener out. He throws in characters, the Legends and the Tammys, in a shrewd way. But I don't care to know exactly how he does it, because I don't want my students to be that way."
Finebaum's approach seems less inspired by conventional talk radio than by Dale Carnegie. He lets others talk about themselves, and he engages them by asking follow-up questions. His interest rarely seems genuine, but it doesn't have to be. He wins over the callers by letting them talk about themselves.
"Fans who call into a radio show do so because they're fascinated by their own interests," Finebaum said. "They want to share with everyone, particularly the host of the show."
Finebaum is there. That's what the fans want. He gets how they feel about their football. Or he seems like he does, and that's enough to keep the phones ringing.