You could argue the most powerful person in college sports runs a television network, deciding where television dollars – and conference-shifting programs – go next. Or you could argue it’s a powerhouse conference commissioner in Chicago or Birmingham. Maybe even an iconic college coach whose teams compete for national titles on an annual basis.
You could go there.
Or you could go to a television studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the most powerful voice in the SEC – if not all of college football – pulls Machiavellian moves four hours a day, five days a week.
We’re talking about Paul Finebaum. And while “Machiavellian moves” sounds downright poetic, the truth is the former sports writer turned broadcasting juggernaut isn’t really the bombastic host he plays on TV.
In person, he’s low-key and thoughtful in his responses. Arguably shy. But his brand – including “The Paul Finebaum Show” on radio and TV and his weekly role on “SEC Nation” – makes him among the 20 most powerful people in college sports, according to a 2019 New York Post ranking.
And to think it all started years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, where college football’s most recognizable voice barely knew the sport existed.
“Growing up, I was always a sports fan – but more of a baseball fan,” Finebaum said. “Dad was from New York and was a Yankees fan. We also were big (University of) Memphis basketball fans. But I didn’t pay much attention to college football until I was a teenager.”
That all began to change. By the time he attended college six hours away in Knoxville, he had no choice but to become a part of the college football culture.
“Tennessee football was terrible when I was there,” Finebaum laughed. But the program was newsworthy, providing fertile ground for a budding sports writer working for the University of Tennessee’s daily newspaper, The Daily Beacon.
His first job took him to Shreveport, Louisiana, then Birmingham, Alabama, as another cultural shift was underway. Bear Bryant, the University of Alabama’s coaching legend, was in the twilight of his career. And the brash, young Paul Finebaum was about to shake things up.
He did it first as an investigative reporter uncovering a high school pay-for-play and recruiting scandal involving one of the state’s best-known blue-chip basketball stars while Finebaum was starting out at the Birmingham Post-Herald.
But when he started looking at Alabama football, and Bryant in particular, with a more critical eye everyone was shocked. Including his own peers in the industry.
“Remember, I was only a reporter, but I was delving into heavy duty stuff. I got the feeling everyone else was against me. It’s not like today when, if you do a really great investigative piece, you get support throughout the industry. Back then, I got daggers. I’d go to a Tuesday press conference at Alabama or Auburn, and it was a pretty lonely experience. No one talked to me.”
Oh, there were those that wanted him to talk – in court. A defamation lawsuit from his first big investigation led to more than a year of controversy. Meanwhile, the notoriety led to job offers. He got a call on a Friday to come to the Philadelphia Inquirer the following Monday to interview for a job, only to have the offer pulled without explanation. A sports editor in Pittsburgh called about Finebaum joining the staff, but then put the opportunity on hold until the lawsuit was resolved. When the trial was delayed, another candidate filled the job.
What followed was an emotional rollercoaster. Finebaum and the Post-Herald won in court, just a few days before Bryant shockingly announced his retirement after 25 years as Alabama’s football coach. A December farewell followed at the Liberty Bowl, in Finebaum’s hometown, as Bryant and Alabama closed out his career with a 21-16 victory against Illinois.
And then a more shocking farewell: 28 days after his final appearance on the sideline, Bryant suffered a massive fatal heart attack.
Two years later, Finebaum attempted his first foray into radio. Birmingham sports talk host Eli Gold, before he became known as the voice of the Crimson Tide, asked Finebaum to sub on his nightly show when Gold had conflicts with NASCAR.
“So, I filled in for Eli in ’84,” Finebaum said. “I’m on from 5 to 7 (p.m.). And it just so coincides with Ray Perkins’ first losing season at Alabama in 25 years. I was relentless.”
Perkins, Bryant’s successor, found out how relentless. His weekly call-in show aired on the same station immediately after Finebaum signed off. So, the coach’s show began with a backlog of callers who had patiently waited on hold to vent to Finebaum. Only now they had the target of their ire on the phone with them.
It made for great radio. But the station happened to be the home for the Alabama radio network. That meant that with a few calls from prominent fans Finebaum was off the air.
Yet within days, rival WAPI – host of the Auburn radio network – reached out with a broadcast offer for the young reporter. That led him to a spot on the morning drive-time show with Mark & Brian, a popular duo that went on from Birmingham to a hall of fame career in Los Angeles.
WAPI wanted more Finebaum, teaming him up with Crimson Tide radio play-by-play man John Forney on a Saturday show before eventually setting him up with his own daily drive-time gig. He was now the Post-Herald’s lead columnist, but it was on radio that his reputation expanded well beyond the South’s borders for his take-no-prisoners opinions and his ability to wrangle an ever-eccentric gaggle of regular callers.
And now the world of college football knows him simply as, “Hey, Pawlllll …”, thanks to the 2014 arrival of the SEC Network. Finebaum is the face of the network as well as a major fixture through parent company ESPN’s daily shows.
That meant uprooting from Birmingham to Charlotte, the network’s base of operations. But it never meant staying home. For six years, he was constantly on the move – from Charlotte to New York to “SEC Nation” stops across the SEC to Bristol, Connecticut, once the Saturday morning pregame show was done.
Then came 2020 and the COVID pandemic. While it shook a nation, it gave Paul Finebaum time to catch his breath.
“When you get to ESPN, you want to experience everything. And I did, traveling everywhere,” he said. “Then came COVID, and I quit traveling five days a week. I realized the thing I wanted to do first – the radio show every day – was still what I enjoyed most.”
How long he remains on the radio depends on a number of things.
Including the current Alabama football coach, who replaced Bryant as college football’s greatest.
“When I started at ESPN, I said I wouldn’t be here without Nick Saban. There’s a modicum of truth to that. The Alabama-Auburn rivalry taught me about college football. I got a PhD in college football hate.
“Now, when I get asked, ‘how much longer?’, it’s probably the most difficult question. I’ve said that covering Bryant was the first act of my career, Nick Saban was my second act. So, I won’t leave a day before Nick Saban does.”
4 Questions with Paul Finebaum
- How long do you expect Nick Saban to continue coaching at Alabama?
I think two more years. Because, ultimately, the pressures of NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) and the transfer portal will drive him crazy. He disguises it well, but my sense is he’s bothered by what college football has become.
- How would you rate Auburn’s hiring of football coach Hugh Freeze?
I think it filled the need of bringing someone in who understood the SEC and Auburn – two things they didn’t have with Bryan Harsin. It’s still unclear how great of a hire it will be. I see some similarities with Gus Malzahn. I think Hugh Freeze is a good football coach, but not a ‘We’re going to win the national title’ coach.
- Which SEC program is most likely to threaten Georgia and Alabama for annual football supremacy?
I think it’s LSU. They won the coaching carousel last year with Brian Kelly (hiring him away from Notre Dame), and there are just so many natural resources LSU has.
- We’ve seen so many Richter-scale changes in college football in the past few years. What’s the next big shakeup coming?
I believe it will be players sharing in (college football) television revenues. I don’t think we’re very far away. As these new deals take effect players are going to say, ‘We want more. We want to be paid.’ They’d better figure it out quickly.