Paul Finebaum, the popular SEC Network host, recently signed a contract extension at ESPN that’s given him more responsibilities and exposure, including more SportsCenter appearances and weekly trips to New York for “Get Up!” and “First Take.” In a lengthy phone conversation with Awful Announcing, Finebaum, 63, talked about how close he really was to leaving ESPN last summer, the perceived bias ESPN has towards the SEC, how college football has become more zero sum in the playoff era and the next huge change he thinks is coming to the sport.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
You’ve been doing this a long time. What keeps you motivated? Because even if you love what you do, there’s some point where you’re feeling a little burnt out in a sense.
I think with me, I spent the majority of my career in Alabama, first as a sportswriter and on radio. So five years ago, joining ESPN was like a totally new world. I felt like I didn’t just hit reboot, I started all over again. And even though that’s not really the way it was, that’s how I looked at it. I just kind of went through that with bright eyes and every experience was really unique. And of course I just recently signed a new deal, so I’m doing different things.
I think the key is, it’s almost like a template for every facet of life, by doing different things. My first year at ESPN, I did College Gameday and I was like in awe. And this year is like the second stanza of my run at ESPN. I’m going to New York every week and doing “Get Up!” and “First Take” and go to Bristol on the weekends and do SportsCenter. Even in my early 60s, these are still pretty exciting things for me. So I think that would be the long answer to a pretty simple question.
That’s what keeps you driven…
I haven’t lived in that many places, but going to New York, I walked in there for the first time three months ago and I was like wow, this is pretty cool. Doing the morning show with Mike Greenberg, then I’m doing Stephen A., I’m looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge right across to the borough where my mother grew up…I know this sounds kind of goofy from someone who’s occasionally been pretty cynical, but it still gets to me. And that’s hard to do. I’ve been to pretty much every football game you could go to, basketball game. And after a while, you’ve seen it all. But because this happened to me late in life, it probably means more than had I done this at an earlier age.
Definitely. Everything in life that you have to work and toil for, you end up appreciating it more.
You do. And I think because I had been told not even that long ago that this wasn’t probably happening. “You’re a local guy, you’re a regional guy.” I think even that probably has made this more meaningful. Look, I’m not gonna come off like I’m in a “Miss Congeniality” contest. There’s good with the bad, but it still means a lot to me, I will put it that way.
You see people out there who say that ESPN is kind of biased towards the SEC. Do you agree?
I don’t believe it. I just don’t see any evidence of it. I understand the arrangements. Of all people I would certainly understand that, having a daily show on the SEC Network. But I would like to know how that is so.
A caller called in yesterday [Monday] and asked “why does Gary Danielson hate Alabama so much?” I go, “well, please give me one degree of specificity on what you’re talking about.” “Well, he just is,” he said. And I respond the same way to the general question with where is the bias?
If you look at College Gameday, this is week 12, they’ve been to three SEC sites, Clemson-Texas A&M, Georgia-Florida and Alabama-LSU. I don’t see it, and if I did I’d say it. What do I care?
It’s like somebody saying is Fox biased towards the Big 10? I watched the Big 10 championship last year and the announcers said the winner of this game is going to the playoffs. Well, that’s not true. And they didn’t go. So I would dispute that, and I’d want to have people show me the evidence.
With you locked in to the SEC every week, what’s your process like in keeping track of the other conferences?
Certainly five days a week in the afternoon, the show primarily deals with the SEC. But I’m following college football as broadly as I can with other appearances, whether it’s SportsCenter during the week or on the weekends or whatever else I do. And really after about the 4th or 5th week of the season, it’s not so much conference dominated as it is College Football Playoff dominated.
So yeah, if you’re conversing on college football for any network, you have to know what’s going on elsewhere. And I watch the games like everyone else. No, I’m not going to Michigan games or Notre Dame games, but I certainly keep up with it as much as humanly possible.
So you watch all these games, since we’re Awful Announcing I have to ask a broadcasting related question: Which announcers routinely tell you things that you don’t know, and which announcers make you want to press the mute button?
[Laughs] This is going to sound like a cliche answer, but [Kirk] Herbstreit I think will tell me things I don’t know, as will Gary Danielson. In terms of people who make me want to mute the TV, what bothers me, what irritates me the most of any television announcer is to be disingenuous and not authentic. And what I mean by that is don’t tell me so-and-so is doing a great job when you know he’s about to be fired. That personally offends me and it should offend the viewer. I think there is too much of that, covering for coaches. Every coach is not that good. Look, I’m not expecting a broadcaster to come on and just unload on a coach, but be truthful. And I’ve seen this over the years, if a coach is doing a lousy job don’t act like he’s going to save mankind. He’s not.
I think that’s what separates me probably from a lot of people who do games. I’ve never done games and it’s highly unlikely I ever will, and I think they’re in a more awkward position, keeping relationships. I don’t have to. I mean yeah, I try to get along with everyone that I can, but I’m not going to Michigan next week to do Ohio State-Michigan and need Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh to sit down and talk to me. If they don’t want to talk to me then that’s great, that’s their problem, not mine.
I don’t think Urban Meyer wants to talk to anybody right now
No, I agree. But I think even during the Urban Meyer situation, there was a lot of soft-pedaling about Urban Meyer when it was pretty obvious to me what was going on and anyone who could understand the circumstances.
What are the main differences in talking about college football during the playoff era as opposed to the BCS era?
I think it’s still pretty dictated by the end, but I think it’s more obsessive now. In the BCS era, I don’t remember week one, two, and three people saying “who’s your top four?” Now it’s almost just a cliche. And it’s way too soon, but I think the playoff has put us in that position where it’s all about the top four and the rest of the schools seem diminished.
How can that really be solved? Are we talking about college football becoming more zero sum?
I don’t think you really can, because that’s what you get with a playoff. And by the way, I’m not unhappy with it. I’m just simply stating that, by week two we’re talking Heisman candidates, who’s your top four, and we tend to rush it. But that’s the nature of the industry now. I don’t have an alternative of what we should spend time doing something else, I’m just saying that’s probably the most stark difference. I just don’t remember that in the BCS era, you only had two. And even though four is only double two, it just seems like we get to it a lot faster.
You re-signed with ESPN over the summer. How close were you to leaving?
I was very close to leaving. I had pretty well decided to leave. I just felt like it was maybe a good time for me to try something else, and I’m sure you’re gonna ask me what happened [laughs]
That is my job
I had a conversation with Jimmy Pitaro after he took over and one or two other people. I went up with Lee Fitting to dinner, and I think those conversations played a big role in me changing my perspective, that I wanted to continue what I was doing. But I think that happens. You have to remember, as I’m sure you do, John [Skipper] left in December and we were suspended in air for a couple of months and that happened to come at a time when I was nearing the end of my agreement, so you start probably to think too much about those things, and you look around. And I certainly did what anyone would’ve done in that predicament. But I think finally sitting down with Lee, and ultimately talking to Jimmy convinced me this was the right thing to do.
And you have an agent who plays a big role as well, so that was probably the final chapter. Nick Khan came to town and he sat down with my wife and I. As I walked into that dinner on that July Friday night, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But by the end of it, he had laid it out and laid out the alternatives and my wife and I together made that decision. She’s a big part of what I do and where I am.
You said you were pretty close to leaving. Was there a preferred destination you had in mind if ESPN wasn’t going to work out?
There were a couple of places that I’d looked at pretty seriously. I’m not saying that I’d made a final determination, but yeah, I was certainly looking at other things. I’m not being coy, I’m just stating the obvious here.
There were reports about Big Ten Network, Fox…
[Laughs] Let me say this: As someone who has been a writer and a reporter for a long time, I found some of the stories to be pretty entertaining. I’m not exactly sure where they came from. And the Big Ten was probably the one I got the biggest chuckle over. I wasn’t going to the Big Ten Network. That was not going to happen. But you look at everything else. The world’s pretty big out there, and I think I just had to do it. I just had to take a look. That’s the kind of person I am, and I wanted to make sure that I covered all the bases. I look back at it now a couple of months later, and I’m going why did I go down that path? I wanted to make sure I had covered every base.
Last question: What do you think is the next huge change that comes to college football?
I think there are many issues, but I think the biggest issue that could prompt change is attendance. I go to stadiums, I watch games, I see more empty seats, even at the biggest games. And whether that’s television, students wanting to be more interactive. Whatever it is, I think it’s a major, major problem for college sports. And I talk to athletic directors and they talk about “the gameday experience is so much better.” Well that’s not really the issue. The issue is getting students to the games, which I see fewer and fewer students go into the games, and making it attractive versus sitting at home or sitting with your buddies at a sports bar and keeping up with all the other games. I’m hearing this from athletic directors privately, nobody wants to talk about it too loudly, but I think it’s a freight train that’s racing right toward the college football landscape. And it’s not far from getting here.