It might seem simplistic, but Paul Finebaum is like boiled okra: you either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground.
The same holds true for Finebaum, a college football analyst for ESPN who cut his teeth as a sportswriter and columnist in Alabama and then rose to fame (or infamy) as a brash, opinionated radio talk-show host.
He gives readers plenty to chew on in his book, “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football” (Harper; hardback; $26.99; 275 pages). Finebaum passionately advocates the sheer dominance of the Southeastern Conference as a football powerhouse, and tells some great stories gleaned from his 34 years as a sports journalist.
Never mind that Florida State ended the SEC’s stranglehold on NCAA championships this past January; Finebaum explains it away by reviewing the extensive SEC pedigrees of Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff.
The book is co-written with ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski, but it is Finebaum’s voice that comes through. The book is timed to coincide with the 2014 college football season, and also with this week’s debut of the SEC Network (Finebaum was the fledgling network’s first on-air hire). Finebaum’s wit, sarcasm and in-your-face opinions are entertaining and illuminating.
Trying to explain the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, Finebaum writes, is “like trying to teach someone how to play the harp with his earlobes. It can’t be done.” The national title game in January 2012 between SEC rivals Alabama and LSU “was as interesting as an afternoon of “C-SPAN.” When Mike Slive was hired as SEC commissioner in 2002, Finebaum called it an odd combination, “like chocolate syrup on tuna fish.”
Finebaum is a talented writer, but he made his mark as a talk-show host. Finebaum realized that local talk radio needed certain dynamics to be successful — an opinionated host (wishy-washy doesn’t fly on the air), compelling topics (in football-crazed Alabama, the Crimson Tide and Auburn dominate), and callers willing to engage him in on-air debates. To that final point, Finebaum was blessed: his callers through the years have been legion, and each chapter of “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference” is prefaced by a quote from a “famous” caller.
One Tide fan, Harvey Updyke — “Al from Dadeville” — called Finebaum during Alabama’s 2010 national title season, claiming that he poisoned Auburn’s legendary 130-year-old oak trees at Toomer’s Corner. That resulted in a jail term for Updyke.
Another caller, “Jim from Tuscaloosa,” was “the human safety net for the show.” “I could be interviewing President Obama, but I’d bump him for Jim from Tuscaloosa,” Finebaum writes. Then there was Tammy, an Auburn fan “so outrageous, so politically incorrect and so proudly redneck” that some listeners believed she was an actress paid to call the show. She dispelled that notion in the wake of the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky sex scandal, calling the show and talking about being raped as a child.
“It was chilling, compelling and intensely personal,” Finebaum writes.
While this book uses the 2013 season as its backdrop, Finebaum also takes time to write about his youth — “I was a politics junkie in high school” — and how his family dinners had been “debate clubs with food.” He writes how as a political science major at Tennessee, he was intrigued by an ad for a sports writing job and applied for it.
Certainly, Finebaum has a sharp edge, but he also reveals a softer side. A 2000 Mother’s Day column he wrote about the loss of his own mother, who had died in December 1994, is particularly touching. He shows genuine compassion for his callers, going as far as to deliver a eulogy for one and visiting another — Robert Fisher, confined to a wheelchair and known to callers as “Robert from Waterloo” — at his Iowa home.
Finebaum believes that Alabama’s Nick Saban is the best college coach in the nation, followed by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer — who won two national titles while at the University of Florida (there’s that SEC angle again). He also enjoys LSU’s Les Miles, South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
The book rolls to a solid conclusion with a compelling look at the 2013 Iron Bowl, when Auburn’s Chris Davis returned a missed field goal attempt by Alabama 109 yards for the game-winning score. Auburn’s 34-28 win in the “Kick, Bama, Kick” game is perhaps the most improbable finish to a football game, ranking with the Stanford band game in November 1982 or the Doug Flutie Hail Mary touchdown pass in November 1984 (Finebaum ranks it higher).
It was the play that helped propel Auburn into the national title game, where the Tigers nearly pulled off the upset against FSU but were thwarted by Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston in the final minute.
An epilogue updates readers on events that occurred since the 2014 national title game.
Finebaum pulls no punches in “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference.” Love him or hate him, there is no mistaking that his opinions will get a reaction.
Kind of like boiled okra.