When Terry Bowden was Auburn's head football coach, he was holding a press conference and chatting with writers about Paul Finebaum, who -- SHOCK! -- had written something provocative about Auburn.
The tone was less than flattering. To say the controversial Birmingham columnist not universally loved among his Alabama peers would like saying Harvey Updyke doesn't care much for Auburn.
"But you know what?" Bowden said to the writers. "Y'all can say what you want about Finebaum. But he's the only one of y'all who can afford to live in my neighborhood."
Bowden was spot on. This was some 15 years after landing in Birmingham as a provocative sports columnist unafraid to challenge Bear Bryant, which led to a part-time gig as radio show host that quickly supplemented his modest newspaper salary.
The Paul Finebaum Show grew into a statewide and then regional and somewhat national hit, thanks to satellite radio, which led to a feature in The New Yorker magazine. Suddenly, as if some Seinfield writer penned the script, Finebaum found himself on college football's national stage, ESPN's Game Day alongside Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Lee Corso.
Next week, Finebaum will help debut the SEC Network, which will be available in 90 percent of the U.S. cable homes, according to Sean Breen, Disney and ESPN Media Networks senior vice president. It will be in 90 million homes, according to Finebaum. The security of a five-year contract was enough for Finebaum's wife, Linda Hudson, an internist, to give up her successful practice in Birmingham to relocate to Charlotte.
Finebaum was in town Friday to promote his new book "My Conference Can Beat Your Conference," a collaboration with respected sports writer Gene Wojciechowski.
Pretty good for a political science major who grew up on St. Louis Cardinals baseball and Memphis State basketball, not college football, and dreamed of working for the New York Times, not the Birmingham Post-Herald. He made $145 a week -- gross -- in his first job as a reporter for the Shreveport Journal. He sold the rights to the book for $650,000. He can live in any neighborhood he chooses.
Hardly an ex-jock -- unless you count a "terrible" (his word) Little League stint as an athletic career, Finebaum is "built like a paper clip" and "wouldn't know a skinny post from the postmaster general," as he wrote in his opening chapter.
"It's like asking who thought a comb-over was a good idea. Some things defy logic. I guess my career is one of them," Finebaum wrote in the third chapter.
The turnout Friday was relatively light -- a few dozen loyal fans and callers, including Darriel from Columbus, the lonesome Bulldog voice on a show dominated by Auburn-Alabama bickering. The night before, Finebaum was in Dothan and people waited in line three hours to get their book signed.
On one level, even Finebaum doesn't understand his popularity. But he totally gets the root cause -- the unparalleled passion of SEC football fans.
"I really don't take myself that seriously," Finebaum said.
On the air and in print, Finebaum is antagonistic. In press boxes, he can seem aloof. In conversation, he's extremely gracious, engaging and sincerely humble.
"Anybody could do what I do," he said.
But he's wrong about that. Few have the guts to say or write the things he does. He's extremely intelligent, quick-witted and very well read. He admits that it bothered him knowing that some Alabama writers resented him.
"Everybody wants to be liked," he said.
But neither criticism from his peers nor irate letters and calls from fans -- including one death threat after he criticized Bryant -- didn't stop him from being provocative. His popularity as a columnist led to the radio show for the princely sum of $100 a week.
"There was no blueprint," Finebaum said. "I always knew being in Birmingham, we're not going to get that many guests. "We started taking callers. We began making a connection. Slowly but surely, the callers became the stars of the show."
It's the ultimate reality show of college football -- SEC football in particular. Only it's more authentic than Duck Dynasty. No contrived plots. The callers are real. The arguments are real. Just a couple dozen or so regular football zealots whose days revolve around calling the show either to light into Finebaum or each other. I-man, Jim from Tuscaloosa, Darriel, Phyllis, Tammy, Legend.
"Lemme tellya sumpin' Pauuuuuuul."
Sometimes, the show gets more real than anyone ever expects. During the Jerry Sandusky investigation, which led to the former Penn State defensive coordinator being sentenced 30-to-60 years in prison for molesting children, Tammy opened up about having been abused. And then another abuse victim called in. And then another.
"This was no longer about whether Alabama would beat Auburn this year," he said.
The book, published by Harper, came out last week and is 273 pages. It's funny and entertaining, but also insightful -- both to the passion of SEC fans and to Finebaum himself. He confessed to crying while covering Bryant's funeral procession, which surprised himself. He opens up about some of his own insecurities and heartache, including the sudden death of his father when he was 15.
"After that, something changed in me, in who I was. The change was permanent and irreversible. I went from being a teenager with all those teenager concerns (girls, Clearasil, sports) to the man of the house. His death didn't make sense then, and I'm not sure it makes sense forty-plus years later. One day your dad is walking in the door from work. The next day he's dead."
His mother initially didn't approve of him wasting his education on sports writing. She has since come around. You get the sense that part of what drives him still is the desire to make his dad proud. I'm sure he would be.