With the physique of a librarian, compounded by a mean-mugging glare, spectacles that surely must have some Scotch tape on them somewhere and Chrome-finished head, Paul Finebaum hardly looks the part of college football analyst.
That’s especially true when he’s seated or framed alongside men who played or coached the game at the highest level. A political science major at Tennessee, Finebaum looks like a guy who belongs on CNN panel arguing about the FBI investigation, not on the stage with Tim Tebow, Booger McFarland and Greg McElroy arguing which team poses the biggest threat to Alabama.
Finebaum himself addressed this anomaly in his book “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference.”
“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.’”
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The thing is, it works.
Thankfully, ESPN still agrees. The network and Finebaum ended their tiff and agreed to a contract extension, just in time for SEC Football Media Days 2018. The thought of him simply not being part of the greatest TV drama in sports is one thing. But to think he was actually considering joining the Big 10 Network was unbearable. It would be like Steve Spurrier coaching at Georgia or Gus Malzahn hiring Saban as his defensive coordinator. Some things just should never be.
“It was a perfect match. This is what I’ve done my entire life,” Finebaum said.
He had been up since 5:30 Saturday morning working on an article for Time magazine. The topic? What else. SEC football. He got my text and invited me to call.
“I forgot how difficult writing is,” he said. “I don’t know how people do it for a living.”
So said the man who spent the first half of his career as a writer.
Those rumors about him jumping from the Mothership? They had some merit.
“There was some temptation to doing other things,” he said.
But in the end, Finebaum realized that the SEC Network, which is owned by ESPN, is where he belonged. Another veteran writer and friend Tony Barnhart is known as “Mr. College Football.” It would be just as appropriate to call Finebaum “Mr. SEC.”
Yeah, so he occasionally crosses the line, like when he compared Lane Kiffin to Miley Cyrus. “He has very little talent, but we simply can’t take our eyes off him.” Finebaum later apologized. No word whether Miley accepted. Or when he called former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney “the biggest joke in college football right now.”
And, sure, sometimes listening to Auburn and Alabama callers arguing on his show is like hearing squabbling siblings in the back seat on a cross country trip. You’re both great programs in your own way. Now don’t make me pull this car over.
But he’s entertaining, knowledgeable, insightful and provocative. He’s the New York Post to the industry’s New York Times.
He’s a breath of fresh hot air. He’s not a former coach, so he doesn’t try to make excuses or apologies for coaches when they do something stupid. He’s not a former player, so he doesn’t treat players as fraternity brothers.
McElroy is good at explaining offenses, especially quarterbacks. But does anybody think he’s going to criticize Saban, his beloved coach, when the situation calls for it?
I’ve been around Finebaum for almost 30 years, going back to when I was put on the Auburn beat in 1990. I quickly learned that there was a lot of professional jealousy toward Finebaum among the Alabama media. It was understandable. There were better writers and better reporters. But nobody developed a stronger following than he did.
After all this time, we don’t know each other that well. Just well enough to say hello in passing in a press box. Or maybe just walk past each other without even speaking. He’s not there to socialize. He’s there to work. I respect that.
Now, with his new contract, he’s not going anywhere any time soon. That’s a good thing. Well, unless you’re a coach or player who says or does something stupid.