In Paul Finebaum’s world, he’s a kingmaker. Coaches – and in some cases politicians – if they made it in the state of Alabama, he may have played a role their success.
Finebaum, the long-time sports columnist and talk radio provocateur, teamed up with ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski for a 300-page treatise published by HarperCollins, “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football.”
The book meanders through Finebaum’s life, from childhood to college and through his media career to what he would have you believe is the mega-ESPN star he is today as he rubs elbows with Bill Murray and Drake and pontificates on the politics of college football on ESPN’s “College GameDay.”
Finebaum’s premise is solid. The Southeastern Conference is the dominant collegiate athletic conference in the country because: A) college football is the top sport in all of collegiate athletics and B) the SEC has the best track record over the past several decades in college football.
That’s fine, if it’s your thing. Particularly striking, however, are his implications that the state of Alabama exists solely for college football season.
One of the perhaps more extraordinary claims in the nonfiction work is Finebaum’s argument that University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban is by far and away the most powerful man in the state.
He goes as far as putting Saban as occupying positions 1-10, downplays Gov. Robert Bentley and then gives no mention of anyone else.
Forget Sens. Richard Shelby or Jeff Sessions. David Bronner, head of the RSA? Paul Bryant, Jr., who pulls a lot of strings behind the scenes at the University of Alabama to make sure Saban is around for long time? Nope, in Finebaum’s world – it’s Nick Saban, who he argues not even Bentley can match.
Interestingly, Finebaum also takes credit for Bentley’s governorship, albeit with some revisionist history. As he tells it, Finebaum had Bentley on as a guest on his show, but only because of Bentley’s connections to former Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. It was only after that appearance that the so-called “accidental governor,” as he labeled him, catapulted in the polls and rallied to a commanding general election win in 2010.
That’s not exactly how it happened. Bentley was just at the right place at the right time and found himself in a runoff with Bradley Byrne, who was likely the victim of shenanigans by political opponents in the Republican primary runoff. That gave Bentley the advantage to win the nomination and in this one-party state, in a midterm election against Democratic nominee Ron Sparks, one he in fact did win by a landslide.
But it was hardly because of Finebaum’s king-making prowess.
That passage highlights Finebaum’s problem (and it is a problem that undermines his book’s arguments): He is a product the sports talk, Alabama-Auburn college football bubble. Thus, he presents a skewed picture of the entire state – nearly 5 million people – whose lives he believes all revolve around the University of Alabama or Auburn University’s football teams.
For better or for worse, Finebaum is a towering figure in the world of college football. He has become somewhat more regional than local, but he’s still primarily a Birmingham phenomenon who has struggled to become as big in other markets in the South, including Mobile.
Having grown up in Birmingham, I remember when Finebaum was just starting to hit his stride. He was always a bit of a bomb-thrower in his Birmingham Post-Herald and later Press-Register columns, but it took years for his radio act to evolve into what it is now.
I was first introduced to Finebaum by listening to the Saturday morning show he moderated during football season with two in-state broadcast legends, Auburn play-by-play announcer Jim Fyffe and Alabama play-by-play announcer John Forney.
It was the late-1990s that he became the go-to place whenever you needed to hear wild-ass speculation about the controversies in college, especially at Alabama and Auburn. That’s when Finebaum thrived, whether it be Alabama’s first few bouts with the NCAA, former University of Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer feeding information to the NCAA about Alabama, Auburn’s failed coup to overthrow then-head coach Tommy Tuberville or perhaps better known and more recently the allegations surrounding Auburn’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton.
And when there were no controversies to exploit, Finebaum would simply invent them by pitting his callers against one another, which created a ratings sensation but also perhaps toxic atmosphere. And it seemed that ginning up those emotions could have some consequences.
Would convicted tree killer Harvey Updyke, who Finebaum for whatever reason decided to make out to be a sympathetic character in this book, have acted criminally if he had never gotten caught up in Finebaum-mania?
In our culture, we have tendency to blame outside influences for the acts of some crazies, especially in politics. Finebaum has avoided taking a hit for Updyke’s poisoning of the Auburn Toomer’s Oaks in 2011, but it might have been worth him discussing if his manufactured disagreements on his radio program motivated a guy like Updyke to do what he did.
Nonetheless, if you can see through his shtick and endure his tedious similes and metaphors, the book is one that is definitely worth the read, even if you only read the three or four chapters about Auburn and Alabama because they do provide insight into the state’s history and culture.
In other words: Come to read about what Finebaum thinks of your favorite SEC college football program and stay to see the delusions of grandeur that caused him to formulate those opinions in the first place.