Q/A with Paul Finebaum: New book and unexpected national role at ESPN

My latest entry for Awful Announcing is my Q/A with Paul Finebaum.

Here is an excerpt.


It’s good to be Paul Finebaum these days.

He has a daily ESPN radio show that is simulcast on the new SEC Network. He will be featured prominently on the SEC Network’s pregame coverage on Saturdays and on ESPN’s College GameDay.

And Finebaum has a new best-selling book, “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why The SEC Still Rules College Football.” It is co-written by his old University of Tennessee classmate and current ESPNer, Gene Wojciechowski.

It all comes as a surprise to Finebaum, who reveals in a Q/A that as late as two years ago he was told to forget about working for ESPN. He thought he was just going to be regional personality in Birmingham.

He also discusses his drive to complete some unfinished business after getting turned down by papers like the New York Times early in his career.

Q: These are pretty heady times for you. You’ve got a book, SEC Network, ESPN, GameDay coming up. Do you feel like you’ve kind of won the lottery, so to speak, with all that’s happening?

FINEBAUM: A little bit. Listen, I’ll try to spare you the ‘I am blessed line,’ but it’s pretty amazing. It’s been a good career, but I feel like there’s been more failure than success, and I didn’t see this coming. I walked out of a meeting about two years ago in New York. Someone sent me to see this guy. He basically said, ‘Whatever talents you have, you’re going to be in Birmingham and be a regional guy and ESPN won’t hire you.’ I said, OK. I’ve had a good career and I’ll continue to do whatever I can. Then I was introduced to someone else, and it completely changed my career, my life.

Q: What happened?

FINEBAUM: Joe Tessitore, who’s a friend of mine, said, ‘I want you to meet a guy name Nick Khan, who is an agent at CAA.’ He now represents Kirk Herbstreit and Olbermann, a lot of other people. I met him at DFW airport. He said, ‘I think you could go to ESPN very easily.’ The next thing you know ‑‑ it took a few months, but my contract was up at the end of the year, and he put it together. Everything he said happened.

It just took someone who believed in me and knew the right people and did it the right way. It also, by the way, coincided with the launch of the network.

Q: Right, your timing was good here, too.  You had a huge following in Birmingham. Why did you feel the need to expand your reach?

FINEBAUM:   I wanted to at least explore and exhaust the possibilities.  I mean, I did have a really nice career and a nice life, and it wasn’t like I had to do this.  My greatest disappointments came 25 years ago in the newspaper business.  I thought I would be in New York and in Chicago at the Tribune and Sun Times.  That’s where I thought I was going to be.

I didn’t have to have it.  I wanted to at least have a conversation, and Nick made sure that happened, and it did.

Q: So was there a little bit of a feeling of unfinished business?

FINEBAUM:  Yeah, it was a little bit of that.  I wanted just to simply get an evaluation. Could what I do translate (beyond Alabama)?

Q: And then you wrote a book.  How did this book come about?

FINEBAUM:  The book came about very simply.  And by the way, this is another key component here, which I’m about to tell you.  About a little over two years ago, I got a call from a guy who writes a sports blog at the New Yorker magazine, and he wanted to talk to me about an article. OK, I didn’t really give it any thought.  Turns out that he had an idea.  They wanted to do a profile of someone in college football, and he came to me.

He hung around me on and off for six months.  The article came out in December of 2012.  I was in New York for a conference. The next day I got a call from a literary agent, and he said, ‘There’s a book in this.’  I said, ‘Really?’  And he said, yeah, ‘I think there’s really a big book in this.’

I was about to end my contract.  I thought it could be pretty messy. I was not overly excited about diving in, so I ended up hooking up with Gene.  I said, what do you think?  Gene said, ‘I think it’s a great idea.’

Q: What is the point of the book? What did you hope to say?   

FINEBAUM:  Well, it was a couple of books in one.  I mean, the original idea was to make it autobiographical but bring the SEC and the radio show in.  I frankly didn’t think my story was all that interesting. I thought the SEC was a much bigger vehicle, and we started thinking about the launch of the network, timing it, and that’s really the genesis of that.

And then the GameDay thing happened, so we used GameDay as the basic point or the jumping off point of the narrative week by week with GameDay.

Q:  Then you had that great finale of the Alabama‑Auburn game.  You really couldn’t have scripted it any better for a book.

FINEBAUM:  No, it was pretty dramatic.


And there’s more.


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