By J. Henderson
My first memory of Paul Finebaum — sports columnist, radio talk show host, man, legend — is of listening to Tommy Charles and John Ed Willoughby mock him on the radio in, I believe, 1990. I was in middle school and, for a time, a regular caller to the TC and John Ed morning show on WERC (if memory serves, for my first call I pretended to be concerned about Gene Stallings, who started 0-3 at “The Capstone.” “TC,” I said, “if Curry was getting bricks through his windows, I’m afraid they might kill this new guy.”) Throughout his ascent to SEC Power Brokerdom (4th most influential!), this memory often returned to me.
Seems even then Finebaum created controversy faster than Holiday Trees and started drama better than buzzing sorority girls – it was, and is, after all, his job and he will typically sell his opinion to whatever side of a debate will pay the most in ratings, i.e. Alabama fans. He is great at what he does, addictively so. But despite his best efforts at projecting the image of non-partisan provocateur, of tailoring himself as the agenda-less hair-shirt both Aubies and Bammers love to hate to wear, he is, after all, only human, and he occasionally slips.
So an appreciation for his clandestine but very genuine affection for the Crimson Tide is usually something built over time; show after show, double standard after double standard… the tone of his insipid comebacks when called out on his funding of the Bama hegemony (“Spoken like a true Auburn fan” is his standard retort ) slowly peels off the mask for those with ears to hear. Occasionally, however, he will all but blurt it out.
His reaction to the Nick-Saban-to-West-Virginia rumor, particularly his shows on December 17th and 18th, is a obvious example.
While the internet was collapsing under the weight of the rumor that Nick Saban might be eying the newly vacant West Virginia job (The apparent origins? A post by fellow West By God Virginia which Monday, the 17th, received 68, 530 hits… it was the most viewed post on any WordPress blog that day), Finebaum seemed put out by having to address it. That day’s show was instead framed by the question of whether Michigan or Alabama now had the better coach, presumably prompted by newly announced Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’ earlier insinuation that the Wolverines were more “special” than the Crimson Tide. Judging by Paul’s tone, it seems possible he might never have broached the Saban angle, as he only got around to it in response to an early caller; since “Brian from Ragland” raised the question minus direct reference to Saban, we can, if anyone was wondering, rule out the possibility that Paul’s till-then silence was simply the result of being uninformed.
“Hey, lookin’ on the internet here, do you think there’s any truth to this West Virginia deal or not?”
“Well, you’re talking about a story, and I’ve seen the story, I don’t really know where it’s coming from, whether its even legitimate or not, in relation to, you know, Nick Saban being interested in West Virginia. I have a hard time believing that he is. We all know that he’s friends with the Governor up there. The Governor was very outspoken last night about all these scurrilous agents ruining college football. Well, his best friend Nick Saban is as responsible for that as anyone.”
“Right.” [Alabama fan agrees that Nick Saban is responsible for ruining college football, good to know]
“So I’m going to say no, I don’t believe it.”
“I don’t think he’s going anywhere, either. He’s got too much invested here so far, in his recruits and everything, but enjoy the show Paul, thanks for taking my call.”
“I don’t think Saban is going, but I think Tommy Tuberville is. You haven’t heard that rumor? Tub to Morgantown? Seriously. I don’t know who he was representing, I know that Jimmy Sexton was talking to West Virginia. Could it have been for Jimbo Fisher, could it have been for Tommy Tuberville, could it have for Nick Saban, could it have been for… I don’t know, forget that, that was a false rumor, didn’t mean to start the Tubs to Morgantown rumor. Makes as much sense, by the way, as the Saban to Morgantown rumor…. “
This last bit is facetious, sure, but telling, I swear: Paul ends his blasé response to the possibility of Nick Saban bolting for West Virginia by deflecting it towards Tommy Tuberville, with a poor attempt at humor and with a poor analogy – the Saban-to-Morgantown rumor, in terms of plausibility, was much more appropriately likened to Tuberville-to-Texas A&M or Tuberville-to-Arkansas, depending on which factoid you wanted to hang your theory (Saban knowing someone big = Tubs to TAMU, Saban tempted by his home state = Tubs to Ark.).
(In the last segment of that show, something similar occurred. Almost immediately after playing the extended version of the impromptu radio interview with Rich Rodriguez from 2006, in which Rodriguez, after calling a local West Virginia radio talk show, vehemently denied interest in the Alabama job, Finebaum and Co. cut to commercial with a 9 year old clip of Tommy Tuberville, then at Ole Miss, denying his interest in coaching Auburn. A caller from Opelika opened the next segment by raising the point that Nick Saban’s notorious [and much more timely] reiteration that he was “not going to be the Alabama coach” would have been infinitely more apropos. By order of Saban, he was no longer allowed to play that clip, Finebaum answered. I’m only 90% sure he was joking. The next day, in full seriousness, he attempted to explain the clip choice with the claim that the Saban clip was mysteriously unavailable, not only on Monday, but Tuesday as well. So… you can find the tape of an obscure Tuberville quote while prepping that day’s show, but you can’t drum up, i.e. click on, a file of the the most popular sports sound byte of 2007?)
Finebaum’s career-staking insistence that the Saban rumor was completely baseless–he actually vowed to “quit this job on the spot” were Saban to leave the Tide)–and that Saban will lead Alabama into the renaissance “Sports Illustrated” dreams for them at night, plus his habitual certainty that Tuberville is a coaching dog in heat for any job but Auburn are the symptoms du jour of his bias.
Every Finebaum-sponsored Tub-Watch is based on this equation (the logic of which he considers unassailable): Despite near-universal support from Auburn fans, conniving Tubs is bent on spiteful revenge for Jet-Gate + Tubs once lived and/or drove through [college town X], where he is still loved by millions = Tub is begging Jesus for greener… or Lord God, just other… pastures.
In a column written still early in the season, when these thoughts weren’t even twinkles in bloggers’ eyes, Finebaum, self-proclaimed (and rightfully so) master of “tomorrow’s headlines,” had his bases covered. Texas A&M? Check. Arkansas? Check.
As popularly commented on by The War Eagle Reader’s own J.M. Comer, Finebaum, in the immediate wake of Auburn’s second spectacular win in a row over Florida (all the way back on October 2nd), wrote that “Tubs knows the terrain in Aggieland, having spent a brief period of time out there as R.C. Slocum’s defensive coordinator. He is a close friend and confidant to Slocum [A Google search of Tuberville+confidant+Slocum results in 4 pertinent web pages, all matching only by virtue of Finebaum’s column] who still carries weight with high-ranking boosters.”
The previous sentence?
“He might also be hotly pursed by Arkansas after the expected removal of Houston Nutt.”
Paul consistently explains his fixation on Tuberville’s job status by claiming that he is only reporting “stories that are out there” but if anyone can find an earlier reference to the notion that Tommy Tuberville might have left Auburn for Fayetteville at the end of this season, or even an earlier launchpad for the 2007 round of Tuberville-to-College-Station talk, please let me know – until then, I claim Finebaum’s Oct. 2 column as the genesis of both.
As Hog fans slowly soured on Houston Nutt, the Tuberville-to-Fayetteville line became a talking points favorite, owing to Arkansas’s status as Tuberville’s home sate, with Texas A&M’s role as perennial siren owing only to the fact that Tuberville, as Finebaum puts it, knows the terrain, and the bigwigs, in College Station…
However in the case of Nick Saban, the West Virginia job matched this exact criteria, and much more closely: not only does Saban hail from West Virginia, his best-friend – his son’s freaking godfather – is West Virginia’s governor, Joe Manchin, a former Moutaineer quarterback who calls Nick “Brother” and who , it seems, was ultimately in charge of hiring Rick Rodriguez’ replacement (also, unlike Tuberville, Saban has no buyout, no red-tape to swallow before moving onto to his next course, were he to so desire. ).
And yet Paul was unmoved.
“Could someone please answer me why [Saban] would leave?”
If that question sounds familiar, that’s because it was also asked last year… by Saban himself (“I took [the Dolphins job] as a challenge. We certainly haven’t seen this through and gotten where we want to go and finished the job here, so why would I be interested in something else?”).
Even after the Tide’s win in the PetroSun Independence Bowl, Saban’s first year winning percentage at Alabama is still shy of his last season record with Miami. He ended his second and last regular season with the Dolphins with three consecutive losses, his first with the Crimson Tide with four. Why would Saban take a pay cut to leave beautiful Tuscaloosa, Alabama for Morgantown, West Virginia, which, according to Shane from Centerpoint, is the “butthole of the earth”? For the same reasons he took a pay cut to get out of Miami, Florida – for a better situation. Strike that… for what he thought would be a better situation, and he thought dead wrong.
“He’s from [West Virginia],” Paul admitted, “but a lot of people are from places and never go back.”
Of course the home-state factor was enough to birth the Terry Bowden candidacy, enough for Finebaum to completely assume, as if he rented space in his head, Jimbo Fisher’s eager interest in the West Virginia job, and of course way more than enough for him to invent Tuberville’s secret itch for Hog Country.
But Saban, somehow, was simply immune…
In one of his most recent columns, Finebaum, rather pathetically, is still giving Tuberville hell for deigning to go on his annual hunting trip rather than putting out the fire of the Arkansas rumor, a fire started by Finebaum himself, of which Tuberville was actually unaware of at the time. And, lest we forget, completely baseless.
“And while Rome burned, what was Tuberville doing? Hunting in Arkansas.”
His December 18th treatment of Saban was slightly different.”It’s not as if Nick Saban is in a position to comment on [the West Virginia rumor]. What’s he supposed to say, ‘I’m not a candidate.’ That’s ridiculous. I think the best thing to do is ignore it because [West Virginia] will have a coach in a week or two.”
(Actually, I think the easiest way Nick Saban could have calmed the fears of Bama fans would have been for him to publicly, passionately announce at a press conference that he was going to take the West Virginia job.)
It’s likely his advice to Saban – to ignore the rumor – was predicated on his disgust at having to dignify it with air time.
The Dictator vs. The Guerrilla Democracy
On the 18th, Paul ranted, even raved about SI.com’s linking to the WBGV post, righteously indignant that the legitimate online mirror to the biggest sports magazine in the world would validate what he called, without qualification, a bogus story.
“This is what really irritates me, and we’ve talked about the internet but I was looking at something a minute ago and you would think that Sports Illustrated has a reputable Web site… I just went to it a minute ago… and I’m looking around on the site… and at the bottom it has all these little sub headings, and it has a picture of Nick Saban, and I’m thinking ‘well this could be interesting,’ and you click it, and it says ‘A Juicy Saban Morsel,’… this isn’t just some bogus website, this is a legitimate Web site and there’s a picture of Saban being hugged by Collette and the it says, ‘though it’s likely just a rumor stated by an LSU fan, the internet is buzzing with word that Nick Saban contacted West Virginia…’ … so you think, ‘maybe there is some credibility to it, so you hit the link, and then the headlines say Nick Saban’s Agent Contacts WVU’ and you go to this idiotic Web site which was the rage yesterday… [reads a little of the WBGV post]… now I am here to tell you this is a completely bogus internet link. So would please explain to me why a reputable magazine, Sports Illustrated, is linking completely bogus material on its Web site. It’s one thing to have something posted by an anonymous person on any message board, but this is different, this is on a reputable Web site. SI.com is one of the most traveled sports Web sites in the country. It is linked to CNN, which is one of the most heavily traveled Web sites in the world and I’m shocked that someone at Alabama in the publicity department or the athletic department has not immediately ordered this thing to be withdrawn, because it is completely bogus, it is injurious to Nick Saban’s reputation, it is detrimental to the University of Alabama’s image, and I’m a little bit in shock that I’m the first one to bring this up, but again, I’m just a talk show host, but I can’t believe somebody at Alabama isn’t raising Cain about this.”
Ignoring, for now, what could be classified as his gushing concern for the University of Alabama’s image and for Nick Saban’s personal reputation, and forgetting, for now, the fact that Finebaum’s radio commentary and weekly column (posted on Finebaum.com) are some of the finest sources in the south for unsubstantiated sports scuttlebutt, the gagging hypocrisy in such a statement is best evidenced by Finebaum’s own Web site, which features in the sidebar a paid advertisement to FootballRumorMill.com. Here is a sample of one of the many news items posted the morning of Tuesday, the 18th, on FootballRumorMill.com, mere hours before Finebaum’s broadcast:
“The search to replace Rich Rodriguez went along quietly as speculation swirled as to whether or not Alabama coach Nick Saban’s agent contacted WVU…”
Sports Illustrated directed people to reports of the Saban rumor as part of its Web site’s general news content; Finebaum made… a nickel? a hundred bucks?… expressly from the exact same thing.
Does Paul therefore believe his own Web site isn’t “reputable” or do the rules simply not apply to him? I’m sure it’s the latter, especially where equal treatment of Alabama and Auburn are concerned, for it could be easily argued that Tuberville’s bags were packed for Fayetteville by “completely bogus” and “illegitimate” internet content: the origin of the Tuberville-to-Arkansas crack rock of late November seems to have been a breaking-news “special report” from KNWA-TV in Fayetteville, which cites HogsIllustrated.com – “an unofficial UA fan site” – as a source.
Finebaum didn’t bat an eye while discussing Tuberville’s “imminent” departure from Auburn the following afternoon – why start with Saban’s reported panting for West Virginia? Both stories were based on the same quality of information.
“The internet is a very useful tool,” Finebaum said, “but it is also very illegitimate in many respects and people put stuff out there that has no basis in truth. And by the time its passed around to 1,000 people, it looks legitimate, but I don’t think there has ever been anything legitimate about the Nick Saban to West Virginia story.”
Read that again… and now this, from his December 1st column (the “you” is Tommy Tuberville – and note that LSU was slipped into the mix, to keep things fresh):
“Well, if life’s so good, why does it look like you are so desperate to get out? You have been rumored to be leaving for College Station, Texas; Fayetteville, Ark. and Baton Rouge, La. If you are so happy, why has your name popped up with more schools lately than Britney Spears has boyfriends? Why are you dragging your feet in negotiations with Auburn, burning good will with recruits in the process, while your mercenary agent starts forest fires in any state with good timber?”
(Here’s another “why”: Why are Tuberville’s “actions” always analogized with fire? By the way, Tuberville and Saban have the same agent.)
Going strictly by the facts reported the way Paul knows and trusts, the claims made in that last line, addressed by yours truly over a month ago, are entirely false (and yet still, on Jan. 4th, Finebaum referred to that month-removed bit of ancient history as “when there was talk of Tuberville going to Texas A&M and Arkansas” but “when Tuberville was talking about going to Texas A&M and Arkansas”; in the column posted today, he scripts a conversation between Tuberville and an imaginary recruit: “But coach, didn’t you have a big contract squabble and wanted out for another job at Texas A&M and Arkansas but you couldn’t leave because of the buyout?”).
Also, do not for a second believe that Finebaum, despite his protestations, is above setting his daily agenda by the ticks of the internet. He increasingly finds his topics of discussion dictated by internet postings, often playing catch-up to the 24/7 hyperactivity of bloggers, which has trumped even that of talk-radio; a Finebaum episode airing in 2005 saw several minutes devoted to a post listing 52 reasons to hate ESPN by the then still relatively unknown blog Every Day Should Be Saturday (hard to believe… what was life like before the internet? Did EDSBS ever not exist? I can’t say…). Since that time, Finebaum and EDSBS have ingratiated themselves with one another through, from what I’ve been able to tell, mutual acquaintance with famed Bama raconteur Warren St. John (a very regular guest on Paul’s show, St. John’s new book is a collaboration with the EDSBS guys, who have exchanged interviews with Finebaum, who apparently thought enough of blogs during his interview with main EDSBS’er Orson Swindle to consider him a sportswriter. “Blogger,” Swindle corrected, “not sportswriter.”).
“[Finebaum] pushes more buttons in a single column or broadcast than any other Southern football deity,” EDSBS contributor, Orson Swindle, told me for a story on football blogs I wrote a couple of years back (his brother graduated from Auburn in 2005, by the way).
“He’s the dictator, and the internet is the guerrilla democracy that sometimes, in rare instances, gets things done,” Swindle said.
David Housel, former Auburn Athletic Director, has reportedly said that Finebaum “has done more to change the face of sports journalism in the state of Alabama than any other individual.”
Housel is right, he has. And you can’t not listen and pay attention. Or at least its really hard… I tune in every chance I get and I know what I’m getting. But while Paul sarcastically dismisses the notion that he plays favorites, his double standard approach regarding the recent coaching rumors involving Tuberville and Saban, indeed his entire demeanor since the Saban hire, reveal that his opinions, like so many of the state’s sports writers from his era, are determined by a predisposition to Bryantism and, therefore, Sabanism, be it for nostalgia (“When I started in the business, Alabama was playing for national championships…”), sheer preference (“… that’s maybe why I acted so giddy on the day Saban was hired…”), or pandering to his audience (“… there would be far more interest in what I did everyday if Alabama was heading for New Orleans playing for a national championship…”).
The irony is that, instead of the sham impartiality, his simply coming out of the Crimson Closet in full hounds tooth would likely double his ratings.