Eleven Warriors and Paul Finebaum Chat About His Show's Northern Invasion

By D.J. Byrnes on August 29, 2016 at 1:30 pm
Paul Finebaum chats with 11W about his show's move into the Columbus Market
Shanna Lockwood | USA Today Sports

The South, historically speaking, has a bad track record of invading the North. Yet, Paul Finebaum, the raconteur-in-chief of the unapologetically SEC-centric Paul Finebaum Show, will attempt that Monday afternoon when his show debuts on 1460 AM in Columbus at 3 p.m.

Buckeye fans can say what they want, but most have a strong opinion on him. Me included.

It shocked me when an ESPN PR email about a chance to interview Finebaum ahead of his show's debut landed in my inbox. My "frequent writing" on him earned a 15-minute phone interview with the man I once called "the SEC's lizard king."

Finebaum's rise to the top of the college football media viper pit is no coincidence. He is a well-oiled machine, as he's been in the opinion business for decades.

When Ohio State dumped Alabama in the Sugar Bowl five months after the release of his book My Conference is Better Than Your ConferenceBuckeye fans flocked to his call-lines to mock him and the SEC. Finebaum had eyes on Big Ten expansion before that, but Ohio's response only solidified the move.

Though interested Columbus residents can now tune in locally, Finebaum knows he faces an uphill battle. He won't alter a long-proven recipe, though.

"Yeah, it's SEC-centric, because we're on the SEC Network. What I want is people who love college football to come to us because they want to get a flow of what's going on in and around the game.

"I fully understand if you're a Buckeye fan, a local show is going to be your first line of attack. I get that. I used to do that. But we also think there is a broader audience out there that likes Ohio State but likes what's going on at Alabama, what's going on at some other school. And that's really what we do. In the end, it is a college show."

Paul Finebaum and Nick Saban
Paul Finebaum and Nick Saban at SEC Media Days. (Shanna Lockwood | USA Today Sports)

Still, Finebaum knows how to spin a favorable opinion to a new market. When asked about the Big Ten race, he didn't spare a chance to disparage Jim Harbaugh and Michigan fans.

"I was fascinated by Harbaugh from really the day he arrived there. In some ways, I was defending him, because I felt like he was getting under the skins of a lot of people, primarily SEC coaches. And I made that statement on SportsCenter and other avenues that the SEC would be wise to quit reacting to everything he said.

"Now some people have said, 'What's happened since then?' Well, nothing has happened since then he has been in the news so often, I'm called to react to it. Has it gotten to be a little bit of a sideshow? Yeah, of course. Do I poke fun at him and Michigan fans? Yes, but that's part of college football.

"I'm in constant amazement when Michigan fans calls our show, which they do, quite often, and act like we, meaning the SEC, are scared of Jim Harbaugh. Nobody is scared of Jim Harbaugh. Is he a good coach? Yes. Has he made a lot of noise? Yes. But again, the University of Michigan has won a half of a national championship in 68 years. Since 2009, the state of Alabama has won five.

"... I don't know if there's a more insecure fanbase in America. Just because you have a coach who gets a lot of publicity and can reel off Drake's top five singles of the last ten years and takes his shirt off and takes cheap shots at Nick Saban doesn't mean that you are going to be successful. To be successful, you have to beat Michigan State, and you have to beat Ohio State. And last year Jim Harbaugh didn't do either one."

Finebaum cited Kirk Herbstreit's belief that "Michigan is still a year away" when asked how he sees the Big Ten shaking out in 2016.

On the subject of the Buckeyes, Finebaum "definitely" thinks they will capture the second conference crown of the Meyer era. Are they a national title contender?

"Oh, no question, I think Ohio State will go 11-1. I think the only loss for Ohio State will be in Norman."

Finebaum also acknowledged the Big Ten closed the competitiveness gap that, despite most Big Ten's fans assertions, existed during the BCS era. 

"No question it has closed. I wrote a book two years ago, with Gene Wojciechowski, who lives in Chicago. The name of the book was My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football. But the premise was, it was really an SEC–Big Ten book. What was so disappointing was, at the time, the Big Ten had not quite lived up to its billing. It finally has.

"If you back three of four years, [the Big Ten] has come a long way. Yeah, I respect it. I think last year on the College Football Selection Show, I thought the Big Ten had matched the SEC in some respects for the regular season. Now, it changed during the bowl season, and certainly the Michigan State debacle against Alabama was a big factor."

As one of the media's most prominent opinion dispensers, many people (author included) accuse Finebaum of being a puppet-master that polishes his takes with aim towards the biggest detonation possible. When I broached this subject, Finebaum remained resolute in his genuineness.

"I try to be as humble as the next person. But, my life does not revolve around a bunch of Michigan fans living in their mom's basement reacting to me on Twitter. I've got a job... I'm going to continue going to work every day whether some Michigan message board blows up over one of my comments. It doesn't matter to me."

A Tennessee graduate painted by enemies as an Alabama fanboy, I asked about his confrontation with Nick Saban when he refused to suspend Cam Robinson and Hootie Jones after Louisiana police said they found marijuana and a stolen gun in their car. Both were charged with marijuana possession with Robinson catching a felony for the gun.

Saban said he would let the legal system play out before rendering judgement.

Jerry Jones, the Monroe district attorney edition, tossed the case. He told KNOE-TV he refused "to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and their teenage years, working and sweating, while we were all home in the air conditioning."

What unfolded was one of the best moments of journalism to come from a conference's media days:

Saban, who clearly doesn't deal with a combative journalist often, continued his diatribe against Finebaum after the cameras went off. Finebaum recalled it fondly.

"First of all, I believed the question had to be asked. It had not been asked at the print media part of it ... I grew up as a newspaper reporter, an investigative reporter, and ultimately a columnist. So this is my background.

"My goal was not to go in there and make a big deal of it. But when he didn't answer the question, I interrupted him. When he tried to obfuscate, I challenged him. When he tried to blame it on the police, I just felt like he needed to be countered.

"And afterwards, he was furious. As soon as we went on camera, he unloaded on me in a profanity-laced tirade. And I ran into him again about 20 or 30 minutes later and it continued.

"Ultimately, he did call me later that day to apologize. I saw him a week later at ESPN when he was going through there and we moved on. It's not the kind of thing that I dwell on, and obviously he doesn't either. He felt like he had a point, and he agreed that I had a point."

Realizing my allotted time waned and still reeling from his potshot against people that live in their mother's basements, I forged ahead with a question I long wondered.

Is Phyllis — a Mulga, Alabama caller known for her crudely loquacious outburst after the 2014 Sugar Bowl — real?

"Phyllis is the most real person I've ever met."

Does he have plans to find a northern equivalent of Phyllis? Because they're out there, they just wear jerseys and are 450-pound men.

"We have a guy named Tom, who calls in from Cleveland a couple of times a week. We've got a couple of regular callers from Dayton and Columbus. We've got a couple of folks in Michigan that try. We get calls. That's one thing I'm so excited about being on in Ohio: We'll get more."

"... Anyone who is honest, just watch or listen to the show one day. Every call doesn't come from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We're on a national television signal. We're on a national radio signal. We have affiliates all over the South, and now, hopefully, all over the Midwest. That's our goal. That's what this is all about."

The Paul Finebaum Show makes its northern debut Monday from 3 to 7 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1460 in Columbus.

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