More than 500 persons gathered in Freed-Hardeman University’s Brewer Sports Center Saturday evening, April 27, to hear Paul Finebaum, a leading voice for sports coverage in the Southeast. Proceeds from the dinner benefit intercollegiate athletics at FHU.
“I was very impressed with his preparation and comments,” FHU athletic director Mike McCutchen said. “His comments were relevant to anybody of any age.”
Wayne Scott, FHU vice president for student services, was equally impressed with Finebaum’s remarks. “He was outstanding, really entertaining and inspirational,” Scott said.
With self-deprecating humor, Finebaum talked about his experiences with ESPN on the SEC network and told stories about some of the more famous individuals he has encountered.
He began with his first appearance on College Game Day, opening Saturday of the 2013 football season. “I didn’t think there was any chance they would have me back after a disastrous first appearance,” Finebaum said. Asked by Chris Fowler how he thought Auburn would do under a new coach, he responded that he thought they would do very well since Malzahn (Gus) had been the key when Auburn won the title in 2010. Finebaum continued by pronouncing Gene Chizik the worst coach to ever win a national championship. Fowler’s mouth opened in absolute shock, Finebaum said.
Finebaum also talked about some of the most memorable callers to his radio program. For example, Smokey called from the ER saying he was having a heart attack and just wanted to tell Finebaum goodby. Thinking it was a joke, Finebaum left him on hold for 25 minutes, only to discover the call was real. Also left on hold for 25 minutes was Harvey Updyke, the Alabama fan who poisoned Auburn’s famed live oaks on Toomer’s Corner.
Then Finebaum’s reflections became more personal. Now acknowledged as the leading voice on sports in the Southeast, Finebaum said, “It sounds cliché, but you never know when you may have to reinvent yourself as events and times change. I moved from newspapers to radio to television as the media business changed with lightning and explosive speed.”
Faced with the potential end of his show in Birmingham, Finebaum followed the advice of a friend and sought the help of an agent. After he finally got an appointment with a very influential agent in New York City, Finebaum told him he was considering an offer from a national radio show. The agent, he said, nearly laughed him out of his office. “They’re not going to hire you,” the agent said. Then Finebaum asked about exploring an option with ESPN. “No. You’re a regional guy,” the agent said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Deflated and discouraged, Finebaum decided he would give up his dream of going national and make the best of his remaining years in Alabama.
Before he flew home, however, he had one more meeting. This one was with a blogger who wanted to interview him. The blogger worked for the New Yorker website but had never had a profile in the famed magazine. Over coffee, the blogger told him the magazine wanted to do a profile on him. Six months later, a 5,000 word article entitled “The King of the South” appeared. The next day, Finebaum signed with a New York literary agent for a book deal. Three days later, ESPN brought him in for an audition. Finebaum signed with ESPN in 2013, agreeing to appear on the SEC network in 2014 as host of the The Paul Finebaum Show. The show is simulcast on ESPN radio.
“After 33 years,” he said, “I was an overnight sensation.”
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