The process was an arduous one: a series of satellite phone calls, a dead drop at a barren bus station in Albany, Georgia, coded message sent by microburst transmitters across state lines...but finally after a long, blindfolded journey in the boot of a car to an anonymous safe house somewhere in the suburbs of Birmingham, we got in touch with Paul Finebaum, the agent provocateur of SEC sportswriters and host of a massively followed sports talk show on XM Radio. (For more on exactly who Paul Finebaum is if you don't know about him, and why Alabama fans sometimes try to flip his car over, the Library of Congress recommends that you check out Wikipedia's article on him, which includes mention of the book his friend Tommy Charles wrote about him, "I Hate Paul Finebaum: 303 Reasons Why You Should, Too.") We talked about living under the angry eye of Bama fans, why you shouldn't go to Garth Brooks shows, and about actual football matters later in the interview. Enjoy.
Orson: Do you find it unusual that your career in sportswriting led you to testifying in a trial?
Paul Finebaum: If you go back 25 years perhaps, I’ve probably been in a courtroom more times than O.J. Simpson. It’s been--almost from the beginning—trending in that direction. I’ve had a number of lawsuits. I’m kind of surprised when I don’t get called now.
Finebaum in reporter's garb.
O: Was the Ronnie Cottrell case the most high profile, the one with the most at stake?
PF: Clearly, I think that that’s true. We had a couple of trials in the 80s, and I was involved in a couple of cases in Alabama—I’m actually on the fringe of one now involving a prominent former CEO who had an infamous trial, I don’t know if you followed the case of Richard Scrushy—
O: Oh, yeah, yeah.
PF: They’ve got a case against him, too. In terms of walking out of a courtroom and feeling like I just testified against Samuel Alito in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, or talking about Clarence Thomas like I was the one who checked out the porn tapes for him, it was pretty amazing. There were about 80-90 cameras and 5-6-7 more reporters. It was pretty heady stuff for a lowly sportswriter. I could get used to it by the way. It would make me think that I’d killed my wife or was running for president. I’m not really sure which.
O: Or both.
PF: There’s been times when I’ve thought about doing both.
O: You live in a particularly intense fishbowl—Alabama—where you cover the most popular sport in the state. While publicity’s good, the intensity has to wear on you. How do you cope with that?
PF: It does. I take a lot of drugs, been in and out of rehab more than Courtney Love. Here’s an interesting story: my wife was reading Warren St. John’s book, and she got to one of the chapters about what I went through, and she asked “Did this really happen? Did these people try to turn your car over after the championship?” My wife was shocked that people hate me this much, because I think that sometimes people think this is some big façade, that I play this role on the radio or in the newspaper and it really doesn’t happen. It happens, and it can be kind of scary. You don’t see me walking to a bar at 5 o’clock on St. Patrick’s Day and saying “Anybody wanna fight?” You don’t go looking for trouble when you’re me. I don’t mean to make myself as anything I’m not, but I’m recognized as someone people like to hate, so therefore you do have to be careful. I try not to get involved in pool games in places that are called “Lefty’s Pool Hall.” I try to be pretty careful, and when I go to Wal-Mart on Sundays I wear a Groucho Marx mask.
O: Give our readers you most recent example of fan contact of a non-pleasant or at the least disturbing variety.
PF: Usually, it’s particularly bad at the football games. You go down to the field and walk down on the field from endzone to the other, and the student section begins chanting Finebaum sucks and throwing things, all 5-10,000 of them. The worst experience I think I’ve had in that regard came about 10-15 years ago at a game in Baton Rouge.
Alabama had clinched the SEC on a Saturday night down there. There were about 20,000 Alabama fans down there waiting—Bill Curry was the coach at the time, so that’s sixteen years ago—and they were waiting for him to come out of the tunnel chanting his name. I walked back out to go to the press box on the other side and someone called out my name and all 15-20 thousand start chanting “Go to hell, Finebaum!” Now that sounds funny, but at 11 o’clock in Tiger Stadium? When you can imagine if you added up the drug alcohol level of those 15,000 combined you could blast a rocket to Jupiter from that spot? I’ve been known to run to my car after a game. You don’t want “HEY! That’s Finebaum”
Hey! That's Finebaum!
I know I’m just kind of droning on, but there was an occasion a few years ago in Birmingham at a Garth Brooks concert—don’t ask me why, I was seriously depressed. (Laughs.) My wife wanted to go. You ever been to one of these concerts?
O: Oh, yeah. I’ve been.
PF: The line outside the women’s restroom is quite longer. (I haven’t quite understood this.) At one point they let the women start going into the men’s restroom as well, with the women at the stalls and the men at the urinals. I’m standing there with fifteen or twenty of my closest friends, and some woman who was coming out the other door saw me and recognized me and said, “Hey, there’s Paul Finebaum!” I kid you not: sixteen guys turned their heads like it was some bad Chevy Chase movie. I was like, “What do you do?” You kind of try and avoid that. You try not to drink too much if you’re going out in public.
I’m not complaining. It’s good to be recognized in public. You always love when a Hollywood star or a rock star is complaining about how hard it is, and a year after their last picture bombs they’re dying to have someone say hello or ask for their autograph. It comes with the territory and you embrace it as best you can.
O: Do you think you fell into that role, or do you think you just figured it out?
PF: Man, you’re asking really intellectual questions for a sportswriter.
O: Blogger, not sportswriter.
PF: I think it evolved. It started at college at the University of Tennessee. I was controversial there as a columnist, and I quickly realized that at that point it hadn’t happened very often. I kind of embraced it and I got reaction. In the earlier part of my career I was a serious journalist—I was mainly an investigative reporter—and as I moved into a role of a columnist and later a columnist and a talk show host, it became pretty obvious what worked and what didn’t work. I think because there had been so little critical analysis in sports in this part of the country I gained a lot of attention as somewhat of a trailblazer. I was originally much more interested in the serious side of journalism, and still am doing it to a degree rather than being a circus clown.
O: Now you went to the University of Tennessee. When you were getting your sportswriting chops—and this doesn’t just apply to journalists—what writers or journalists did you look to in terms of style and technique?
PF: It’s funny, there were several. As a kid growing up, Dan Jenkins was my favorite. What I liked about him was that he would write this long piece in Sports Illustrated about going to the Texas Oklahoma game or the Alabama Auburn game. He would maybe get the score in the last paragraph, but he would talk about the scene, he’d talk about the people, and that’s what fascinated me about college sports He was one of my favorites.
Lupica was someone as a college student and a young writer that I looked up to. Another guy—I followed him when he was at the NY Times, and the Post, and now at ESPN, but Kornheiser was someone whose writing style I really admired.
O: Who’s taken a similar career path to you.
PF: Well, maybe the difference of a few zeroes in our salaries, yeah. Now I’ve gotten to know him a little bit and really admire him. More from a political standpoint, George Will was someone I read a lot. Not so much for the politics as for the writing style. I was more interested in politics than sports, and in many ways still am. I’m fascinated by how sports and politics intertwine. Political columnists and sportswriters have always been where I’ve looked, as well.
A role model for writing, if not fashion.
O: Speaking of writers…you play a prominent role in Warren St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. Do you think Warren’s portrayal of you is accurate?
PF: I’d really rather not comment considering that I’m working on an 18 billion dollar lawsuit for ruining my good name. Yeah, I think he did a good job for someone who works at the New York Times. He, as I’m sure you may know, I was reluctant to do it but he was so, I don’t know if it’s Warren’s personality—he’s such an engaging personality—you kind of forgot that he was around at times, which is the mark of a great journalist. I think he nailed it. He gave an interview in the Birmingham News in a piece on me last April, and I think his quote was that it was fairly disappointing to him to find that Finebaum wasn’t this ogre that he wanted him to be. It was fun to read. Obviously, your eyebrows raise when you have that prominent a role in a book, but I think for the most part he came as close as anyone has done.
He’s cost me a lot of money, though. I’ve probably given that book out a hundred times for Christmas.
O: Are you a fan anymore?
PF: Probably not. You really do kind of get worn out. There are times when you go to a game when you forget and enjoy the moment. For the most part, though, you’re always thinking about the angle, and what it means, and what you’re going to say and write. So it’s hard to just sit there and just watch the game and cheer and enjoy it. If there’s a pitfall to the profession, that’s it. You’re a fan of the big picture, but as far as sitting in front of the television set or in the stadium and enjoying it, probably not.
O: Done with the touchy-feely questions. Shula’s contract extension: is this a sign of acceptance, or greater patience on the part of the Alabama football community, or is this just politics?
PF: I think it’s more politics than stability. I think the University of Alabama has put themselves in a corner. He was an interim coach when they hired him, they paid him an interim salary commensurate with the night manager at a KFC. After last season, they didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t an option: they had to pay him reasonable money. So it’s hard to answer the stability question because I did an article where—I looked it up—if he loses to Auburn in November it will be the first time in Alabama history that a coach has lost four straight to Auburn. That goes all the way back to 1892. Now there was a forty year hiatus in the game, but that’s still a long period, but you tell me: if he loses to Auburn, and that’s the fifth straight loss to Auburn and fourth straight by Shula, how much is that contract worth?
It’s one of those situations that reminds me of politics, where he loses in the primary and next week John McCain’s got his arm around George Bush. They’re not against you; the university president and athletic director at Alabama have a lot invested in Mike Shula’s success, so they’re hoping to shape the picture. The public right now, I think, is into him. In terms of politics, he’s got good numbers. Those numbers will change, of course, if he can’t continue the success.
Good numbers. Bad hand placement.
O: Given 10-2 last year, is there any chance this year won’t be a letdown for Alabama?
PF: I think it will be a letdown for Alabama. I think last year was a magical year in many respects. It’s always easier to exceed expectations. A lot were reporting on the national scene that Alabama had the potential for a good season. Every one of them offered the following caveat: if Brodie Croyle doesn’t get hurt. If you could have assured me that Brodie Croyle doesn’t sustain a single serious injury the entire season and would be playing in the bowl game, the prediction would have been significantly higher. Did we know Tennessee was going to be a losing team? Those are some little bitty things there.
The two swing games were Tennessee and Florida (I thought they’d lose to LSU and Auburn before the season.) Florida was a little hard to get your handle on… it was a favorable schedule. I’m not taking anything away—it was a senior team, and they clicked—but 10-2 was a fortunate result.
O: Moving on that: did you ever think Tommy Tuberville would have anything close to the status of elder statesman of coaching at Alabama?
PF: No, I really didn’t. Tuberville’s one of those guys you thought would either blow out or get out as soon as he could. I’ve always liked him and thought he had the potential to be a really good coach, but he’s always had this little black hole around him and as soon as he could, he’d manage to step on a mine and blow it all up. Somehow, the best thing that ever happened to him was almost getting fired. He’s been a little different since then. It obviously played a big role in his perfect season, and it was kind of a wake up call. He’s a fantastic coach: that’s the story. Everyone fawning over Alabama last year, but what he’s starting to do at Auburn…9-3 is a letdown for some, but after a 13-0 season to win nine games in the following season is a nice second act.
O: And beating his rival, too.
PF: You can argue whatever you want about the state of the Alabama football program, but he’s 5-2 against his rival. He also has a winning record against most everyone else, too. He’s done well against Georgia, he’s done well against LSU, and those are critical aspects of his resume. As for Shula’s resume, he doesn’t have a whole lot to stand on besides enough wins to be governor of Mississippi. He pretty much owns that state.
O: He does have that one win against Florida, though.
PF: Yeah, I agree, but he’s not going to beat them this year.
O: That’s what we’re hoping.
PF: Look, there’s one guarantee on the 2006 schedule: I can’t tell you about the Auburn game, I can’t tell you about the Tennessee game, but I can tell you that Urban Meyer will not lose to Mike Shula again.
O: What do you think of Meyer? He hasn’t shown his hand a lot. We’re intense Meyer-watchers, and from what we gather he’s an extremely intense, and an extremely private person. We know Florida will have a winning record, but other than that we know little about him.
PF: I think it’s difficult, to be honest. I like him; I don’t know him, but I like him from what I see. I’m just impressed with his recruiting. I think it says a lot about a coach to be that dogged in his pursuit of players. I really think he’ll be successful. You know more about the Florida scene than I do, but that is not the easiest place to enjoy success.
O: It’s really not. It’s an unusual environment, and I don’t think very many people have their finger on it.
PF: Most of my understanding comes from a long relationship with Spurrier, and what they did to him. I was close with Zook, too. That’s a tough place. I think he’s done pretty well. To be able to survive the absolute thrashing by Alabama and then to lose to South Carolina and to turn that….the Georgia win seemed somewhat tainted—
PF: To beat even a down Florida State team gave him the juice to go into the bowl game. I think people are upbeat on him, and it could have been a disastrous first season. I think he is going to be a terror in this league.
O: Going back to that: is your job a little easier with Spurrier back?
PF: Well, it’s not quite as enjoyable with him at South Carolina—it was more fun when he was at Florida—but it’s nice to have him around. I will say this: we all try to be objective, we try to say we don’t care who wins. But I found myself sneaking over in the press box last year to peek at South Carolina and whoever they were playing. I think I missed a whole game while I was watching the end of one of their games. I never understood the whole hatred of Spurrier when he was at Florida; I think that was a whole big act and Spurrier was the master of it. I was thrilled to see him do well. Usually you don’t care, but I do care about him.
O: He runs a clean program, too.
PF: Listen, I don’t want to bore you with Spurrier stories—
O: You couldn’t.
PF: Playing golf with him…Golf is a game for cheaters. You can shoot a thousand times during a golf round. Spurrier doesn’t tolerate it. He’s played with some prominent people, and he’ll tell you, “I can’t believe what this guy did, or how he cheated, or when he did this…” Part of you is saying, “Does anyone care this much about a golf round,” and a part of you really has to respect the guy. If you care this much about the rules of a golf game, you’ll care that much about what you do for a living, and he does. I’ve had many discussions with him about other schools, and he’s very honest about it. He usually, from my experiences with him, goes directly to the athletic director and says, “I’ve been told you’ve done this.” As opposed to being a tattletale or Inspector Clouseau like Phil Fulmer. I respect that a lot
Spurrier and Finebaum, seen here in a notoriously Spurrier-friendly environment.
O: Going to Fulmer: is this next season it?
PF: That is the best story in the SEC this year. I don’t know…a lot of my friends up there are saying that this is a program ready to implode, but if you look at last year, this wasn’t a disastrous season in the sense that they came out and got blown away. They beat LSU, probably the best team in the SEC. They’re a fumble on the goal line away from beating Alabama. The Vanderbilt game, the season was over by that point. I have a hard time believing he’s finished. If I have to give a strong opinion here, which sportswriters don’t like to do, I think he’ll make it back. That program is not in as bad a shape as most people think it is. I believe he’s a good ball coach, and that David Cutcliffe’s a good coach, too. When you’ve been on top as long as he has, you’re going to hit a bump in the road. It just hasn’t happened to him.
O: They haven’t even made an appearance in the Fulmer Cup yet.
PF: I saw that the other day. That was pretty funny. I really….by the way, I don’t like him. This isn’t a friend of mine I’m trying to elevate here. Don’t count Phillip Fulmer out. I’m amazed at how quick fans turned on him. We were talking about coaching combinations the other day. Somebody called in, and I said that Tennessee may have one of the best basketball/football combinations around. The caller asked, “You’d take Phillip Fulmer and Bruce Pearl over Mike Shula and Mark Gottfried?” I said, “Yeeeeeah?” And he answered, “Did you see what happened last season?” And that’s kind of the world we live in. You forget that the guy has one of the best resumes in college football coaching history. You saw that on the recruiting trail. Players can’t see past that, and in the fishbowl of Knoxville another year like that and he’s done.
O: Finishing up here…we always wrap up with the same questions. What was the last book you read?
PF: I read three or four at once, hold on…Prince of Fire, by Daniel Silvia.
O: If they’re making the movie of your life, what actor plays you?
PF: Obviously, I would prefer Brad Pitt. But unfortunately, it’s probably Ben Kingsley. Funny story, and stop me if this sounds too self-promoting. 60 Minutes came down and did something on Richard Scrushy, and Mike Wallace leans in and says, “Did anyone ever tell you look like Ben Kingsley in Gandhi?” I really don’t want that on my resume.
All set to play Finebaum. They're just working on the numbers.
O: You really want more the Ben Kingsley from Sexy Beast. Final question: if you were a fight with a bobcat, who wins?