One has to wonder what the Alabama – Auburn rivalry would have been over the last 30 years without Paul Finebaum.
News broke Tuesday that Finebaum’s silence would soon cease, as the ultra successful talk show host will soon join ESPN. The marriage will include a new show broadcast from Charlotte, North Carolina, a television simulcast on the coming ESPN owned SEC Network (in 2014), and 100 television appearances a year on the network.
But how will this move impact the climate between the two schools that the nation loves to watch hate one another? This may seem like a silly question, but dig a little deeper and it makes perfect sense to ask.
Finebaum’s show will likely air on 97.3 The Zone in Birmingham, which is an ESPN affiliated partner. But AL.com reported a source saying WJOX 94.5 could still make an aggressive bid to get his show back on the air.
Still, it’s an interesting question of how this affects Alabama and Auburn.
Paul Finebaum came on the scene in Birmingham in the early 1980’s, as Paul W. Bryant was bowing out and Pat Dye was stepping into the ring. That period of history, also known as “the beginning of time to Auburn fans,” was colossal to say the least. Two decades of utter Bama domination came crashing down with 23-22 in 1982, and 23-20 in 1983. Bo over the top…and seemingly anywhere else he wanted to run…was stoked by this bald writer from New York who studied at the University of Tennessee.
Later came run-ins with the brash Ray Perkins, and later Paul’s public ridicule of the sham known as Bill Curry. Paul’s opinions, then as a columnist for the Birmingham Post-Herald, and as an occasional radio/television guest, made headlines that were bigger than the headlines. Everybody wanted to read what “that jerk Paul Finebaum” had to say, and they couldn’t help themselves…no matter how angry it made them. There are crack addicts with greater control over their problem.
Finebaum then evolved into becoming a talk show host in the early 1990’s, slowly but surely building dominance of the local airwaves. Fueled by NCAA scandals, besmirching the good name of tiny tot Terry Bowden, and a personal friendship with Steven O. Spurrier, Finebaum slowly built a momentum local radio had never seen. His fame would take him into the Dubose years (and scandal), more NCAA trouble with Phil Fulmer and Alabama, through the Tuberville-Shula years, into a public feud with former Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried (really his wife), and into the arrival of present day Nick Saban and Alabama domination. Not to mention possibly the biggest story in Finebaum history…Harvey Updyke.
Through it all, the littlest big man in SEC country has made his living stoking the fires amid the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn. His show created a public forum where folks from both sides could call in, speak their minds, revel in successes and slowly move the Alabama – Auburn relationship from a rivalry into a downright hatred. That’s not to say Paul Finebaum is solely responsible for the intensity of the rivalry…it’s always been intense. But let’s just say, he’s been the bartender that helped fuel the liquor-filled brawl.
Through the years Paul has mastered the art of pitting one side against the other, seemingly changing colors like a chemeleon. Make no mistake, it has been his bread and butter in an era where both schools have seen some unbelievable extremes. His show has been national for a while, gaining callers from Boise, Idaho to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. But Finebaum’s new marriage with ESPN takes him to heights that his ultra successful show has never enjoyed, or imagined.
ESPN will spend millions pimping Paul Finebaum to the masses, and while his show will most definitely have a college football base, one has to wonder how much time he will devote to stoking the fires between the University of Alabama and its little brother. One has to wonder what effect his trail of tears of joy (and truckloads of cash) to Charlotte will have from here on for people wearing crimson, and orange and blue?
Tuesday I attended the Alabama – Auburn baseball game at the Hoover Met, seeing the Tide top the Tigers 6-3. But while there I couldn’t help but remark to a friend with me that it was the most uncontentious Alabama-Auburn game of any sport that I could remember. There was no jawing, no taunting, very little reveling by either side in the highs and lows of the game. And though Finebaum’s absence from the airwaves likely didn’t impact this particular game (it was likely instead the lowly current position of both baseball programs), one has to wonder: Is this the future between the two fanbases without a professional antagonist?
As I watched a grown man who happened to be an Auburn fan wrestle a foul ball away from a child, who happened to be wearing Alabama gear, the bewilderment I have for that orange and blue subculture will likely always be there. But one has to wonder if a permanent absence of the Finebaum we’ve come to love and hate will fuel a more civil co-existence between “us and them?”