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September 20, 2014

Bob Davis: Finebaum, slightly above the chaos

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Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2014 5:45 am | Updated: 6:01 am, Sun Aug 17, 2014.

I asked my wife, Do you know who Paul Finebaum is?

Her response was much the same quizzical look the dog gives me when I burst out in whatever De La Soul song is stuck in my head at the moment. It’s a sort of head-turning squint.

First off, let’s cut her some slack. She’s from Texas. She went to Texas Christian University. She really only follows football when TCU is winning, which, granted, it’s been doing a lot more of over the past 10 or so years. The Southeastern Conference just isn’t her bag.

So, for her and the … what? … five others in Alabama unaware of Finebaum, allow me to attempt an explanation.

We can start with his latest gig on TV. Finebaum hosts an afternoon show on the newly launched SEC Network, a cable channel partnership between the Southeastern Conference and ESPN. Finebaum is porting over his wildly popular sports-talk radio program to television. His first show on Friday looked about what you’d expect when TV cameras intrude into a radio program.

Sports-talk is something my wife knows a thing or two about. When we commuted to work together while living in North Texas 15 years ago, we’d listen to the sports-talk station from Dallas, KTCK-The Ticket. Mostly, we’d laugh at the morning-show characters — the overly juvenile Fake Tiger Woods, the sports psychologist, prolific author and heavily closeted Dr. Carlton Maxwell and, of course, the regular updates from Coach Tom Foolery of Lollygag High School.

Finebaum’s program is something else entirely. The main topic is SEC football, and for the show’s regular callers, that is rarely a laughing matter.

Finebaum is surely the only sports-talk host from Alabama to be profiled in The New Yorker magazine. A 2012 article by Reeves Wiedeman described visiting the annual preseason SEC Media Days alongside Finebaum: “I felt as if I had entered a middle-school cafeteria with Justin Bieber.” Finebaum was swarmed by the college football groupies drawn to the proceedings. That article was headlined, “King of the South.” A profile in The Wall Street Journal described him as the “Oprah Winfrey of college football.”

Finebaum’s talk-show career began 30 years ago on a Birmingham radio station. At the time, he was a columnist for the Birmingham Post-Herald. It was around then that Finebaum’s name was prominent in a Sports Illustrated article highlighting the struggles of the University of Alabama football team and its second-year coach, Ray Perkins.

“It’s sad to accept that a program once considered the greatest in college football has become a joke,” the article quoted Finebaum as writing of the 1984 UA season.

More recently, Finebaum’s radio program is where the world learned that a rabid Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke had poisoned Auburn’s famed Toomer’s Corner oak trees. After Finebaum asked if the trees died, the on-air conversation went like this:

Updyke: “They’re not dead yet, but they definitely will die.”

Finebaum: “Is that against the law to poison a tree?”

Updyke: “Well, do you think I care?”

Finebaum: “Uh, no.”

Updyke: “I really don’t. Roll Damn Tide.”

I was never a regular viewer, but I don’t think Oprah hosted a self-professed tree-poisoner.

My two cents: He’s not Oprah-like. Finebaum is a modern version of George Burns, particularly from the 1950s TV comedy Burns and Allen. Most episodes were not that different from sitcoms of the day. However, George would regularly break the fourth wall. Staring directly at the camera, Burns would clue the audience in on what was about to happen. He was involved, yet also slightly removed from the chaos.

That’s Finebaum with his passionate callers. Hey, guys, he seems to be saying, I’m about to put some maniac on the air and he or she will get so worked up that’ll you’ll wonder if medical attention is required. And, get this, the object of all this hollering is college football.

Then when the caller starts to run out of steam in cussing out a rival school, coach or another caller, Finebaum will expertly take a stick and jab it into the cage once more.

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