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Paul Finebaum Q&A: College football unlikely, Cam Newton ‘hung out to dry’

The guru of the SEC says "the positivity train — it has run out of gas" when it comes to whether a 2020 season will occur, and he's not a fan of playing college football in the spring.
ESPN and the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum, left, and Alabama coach Nick Saban have laugh on the "SEC Nation" set on Nov. 24, 2018, ahead of the the Crimson Tide's annual game against rival Auburn.
ESPN and the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum, left, and Alabama coach Nick Saban have laugh on the "SEC Nation" set on Nov. 24, 2018, ahead of the the Crimson Tide's annual game against rival Auburn. [ BEN FLANAGAN | BFLANAGAN@AL.COM | TNS ]
Published Jul. 6, 2020

To those who don’t follow college football closely, Paul Finebaum might seem to have had a meteoric rise through the sportscasting business.

Finebaum, 64, has lived in Charlotte, N.C., since 2013, when he moved to the Queen City to become the face of ESPN’s SEC Network. Finebaum now appears on a variety of ESPN’s programming while also anchoring his four-hour daily radio show that is simulcast on TV.

To those who do follow college football closely, Finebaum has been a star for decades. Originally a sportswriter, Finebaum made the switch to radio while living in Birmingham, Ala. There he became college football’s version of Howard Stern — opinionated, acerbic and able to draw out interview subjects and callers in a way few can.

Two Finebaum facts you might not know: He is married to Linda Hudson, a doctor specializing in internal medicine who works for Atrium Health in Ballantyne, a neighborhood in Charlotte. And there are now serious talks about a sitcom based on Finebaum’s life and early career.

Finebaum made himself available for about 45 minutes Friday, speaking about whether college football will be played at all in 2020, his all-time favorite interview and his take on Cam Newton’s awkward parting with the Carolina Panthers.

Tell me your thoughts right now on the likelihood of college football in the fall.

I think the likelihood of college football is slipping away by the day. … It’s remarkable to think from holiday to holiday — Memorial Day to the Fourth of July — what has happened. I would say on Memorial Day it was a slam dunk. It was going to happen. There could be some complications. As we hit the next big holiday of the year, which is the last holiday before Labor Day, it seems like everything has gone the wrong way.

And when I say that, it’s not even the complications within the sport, which are massive … It’s just the (COVID-19) spikes around the country are happening at probably the worst possible time to safely execute college football.

What in your view is the best-case scenario at this point?

I think probably the best case is to put off any important decisions for three to four weeks. … I think they’ll keep pushing, keep moving the invisible deadline to where, if the country is still in a freefall in a couple of weeks, then I don’t think they’ll have much choice but to then say, ‘We can’t do it at all’ or ‘We’re going to pause here and give it a few more weeks and maybe start in mid-September or late September.’

If you’re the SEC, ACC, Big Ten — maybe you just play conference games. I think the non-conference games are in serious jeopardy.

Charlotte plays at Tennessee on opening weekend (Sept. 5). You would think Tennessee is looking at it going, “We’re going to spend $2 million to bring a team in?” I mean, assuming they could even get the game? And then not have any fans, or have very few fans? I think economic decisions will start coming into play as well.

You have spoken about the ‘delusion of hope’ that colleges keep selling in terms of football being played on time. Are they continuing with that sales pitch as COVID-19 spikes around the country?

Almost all of the confidence has gone out the window. … It could get better, but I don’t see how it can get better before the decisions have to be made. So that’s why I think the positivity train — it has run out of gas. You’re going to start hearing some stark reality now.

Is there less than a 50 percent chance of having college football at all this year?

Yes. I’m not bullish any longer on the football season.

What if they tried to play college football in the spring?

I’m not crazy about the idea. … The complications are endless. First of all, the NFL is not going to adapt. The NFL, whether they play or not, they’re still having the draft on the final Thursday night in April. They don’t care.

So, if you’re (Clemson quarterback) Trevor Lawrence, are you going to be playing in March and April if you’re about to get drafted? There’s not a chance in the world that he’s going to do that. Whatever he says is fine, but I’m telling you he wouldn’t.'

Do you think the NFL is more or less likely to play than college football?

More likely than college football, because there is one person in charge.

Well, Roger Goodell theoretically is in charge. But the 32 billionaires that he reports to, they can more easily make a decision and a determination — and afford to deal with the consequences — then the chaos that is college football.

It’s far less complicated for the NFL. The NFL’s biggest issue, I think, is will the players deal with it? And by the way, a lot of these questions are going to be answered by the NBA and Major League Baseball (when they restart their seasons soon).

If those fail, then everything else will fail as a result. But if there is any success, then it would give the NFL more hope.

Speaking of the NFL, how do you think the Panthers handled Cam Newton’s release?

I thought they handled it poorly. I watch enough pro football to know that things usually end badly. I’ve been critical of Cam. Like many. Like you.

But why be so unceremonious about it? I mean, just, let’s be graceful.

He’s one of the greatest players in the franchise’s history. Why treat him like an outcast? Which I think they did. … I thought they did the same thing with (Panthers tight end) Greg Olsen. I got to know him (Olsen) fairly well over the years. … What’s the point? Why be crass about things like that when you can show a modicum of class?

(Former Panthers head coach Ron) Rivera came out of it really good. I mean, they fired him. He ended up looking great because he didn’t have to coach the last eight weeks of the Titanic.

So he walked away, but he also but he made the most of it. To me, Cam didn’t have the luxury of coming in and knowing when his last day was going to be. He was just like hung out to dry.

And how do you think he’ll do in New England?

I think his health is the key. I kind of wondered last year what he has left. I think the most amazing thing about Cam is that someone who virtually nobody in the NFL wanted has become the most talked-about athlete in the world for an entire week. … I think it shows that celebrity matters. And Cam is, in some ways, a bigger celebrity than he is a talent.

I was a fan of Howard Cosell when I was young, and you remind me a bit of a modern-day Cosell. Where do you see as your niche in the sports and entertainment world?

Yeah, when I was a kid, Howard Cosell was one of my idols. Later Howard Stern became one of them. … I don’t want to try to portray myself as a journalist doing what I’m doing. But I have the background in journalism (Finebaum spent many years writing a sports column, mostly for the Birmingham Post-Herald). I spent a long time understanding what it meant to be a journalist seeking the truth and not accepting convoluted answers, total B.S. and outright lies, which I think we get too often in our industry.

I have always looked at this show as a program for fans. I don’t start the program like (Fox Sports 1′s) Colin Cowherd — someone I’ve been friends with and admire, or Jim Rome, or (ESPN’s) Stephen A. Smith — and rant and rave. That’s never been my style. Even though I was a newspaper columnist, I’ve never really valued the sound of my own voice as much as some of my friends in the industry.

Being in Birmingham, Ala., as long as I was, we didn’t have the ability to grab the “A List” guests that you can at ESPN. So we turned the callers into the stars. … I really believe this is the one show that, on a regional or national level, still depends heavily on the fans of the sport.

Did the radio show change much when you went to the TV simulcast or is the show the same?

I think the essence of the show is the same. It’s difficult. I mean, you can’t be on television and not fall victim to the mind-set of television.

People that operate television programs think in terms of visual, and obviously radio is about the conversation, just like newspapers are about words.

And so you have to balance that. You’re always aware of the cameras on. But you just can’t let it overwhelm the conversation. … However long I do it, I will resist the change that many of my bosses and colleagues believe — that we don’t need to listen to the caller. I think we absolutely have to.

Stephen Colbert always said he played a character when he was doing his The Colbert Report show for Comedy Central. Do you play a character on your own show?

I really think as I’ve gotten older, I have become truer to myself on the air than I’ve ever been.

The columnist Paul Finebaum? I was a loud voice and always angry and, you know, kind of the guy at the end of the bar. … Age and experience have helped.

And I think during the last four months, I have tried even more diligently to be myself on the air because the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, I was openly admitting that I was scared of what was happening in the country. … I was just trying to be honest. And I really tried to communicate that every night, especially in the first couple of days or weeks. And I felt by the end of the first month or so that I had never done anything more important.

Slowly, we started bringing people to the program that we would have never had on before. We had Bob Costas one day — just because. And he was great reminiscing about his career. And (MSNBC’s) Joe Scarborough came in one day. And (ESPN’s) Keith Olbermann. And we had an astronaut who had been in space for two years to talk about what it was like to be isolated. Psychologists. Motivational people. Epidemiologists. And it became really interesting. And just as that was calming down, something else happened that totally changed the program.

That was the murder of George Floyd. … It has been eye-opening. I found myself listening to people and admitting things on the air. Just when you think you know it all and you’ve got everything in the world figured out, you find out you don’t know anything.

Who was your best interview of all time?

I love authors, and one of my favorite interviews of all time was Pat Conroy. … He was coming through town (in Birmingham).

I rarely do this, but I went into this deep dive on Pat Conroy. I already had read all of his books, but I made 10 pages of notes, which I don’t normally do.

He walked in. And I moved the notes away and we went for over an hour. And finally when it was over, he said: “Finebaum? On this tour, I have been on the Today show, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, MSNBC and NPR, but that was the best effing interview I’ve had.” And to me, that was the compliment of my career.

There have been there many others. If I died next week, The Charlotte Observer would probably have a three-paragraph brief on page D-17.

And the first line would be, “Paul Finebaum, who took the most famous call in sports radio history from some crazed lunatic who admitted poisoning an iconic tree at Auburn University … " I know that I’m known for certain things. But the Conroy interview always sticks out.

I see you’ve said some things on Twitter about mask-wearing — where do you fall on that issue?

Well when you’re married to a physician, you follow her lead. My wife, Linda, was talking about masks really early on.

So I’ve been wearing them. When I go out, I try not to get annoyed when somebody is walking next to me in a store that doesn’t have one on. … I will say it’s pretty frustrating to see that wearing a face covering that will protect people has turned into a political conversation.

What is the current status of the talks about a potential sitcom based on your life?

The conversations are getting very serious. There is a major Hollywood production company involved and already several writers are working on the script to be pitched to the major networks soon.

The biggest news is a well-known actor is extremely interested in playing the lead. We did a call recently and it was fairly bizarre having a successful Hollywood actor asking me about me. He is considerably younger, so the idea is to set the sitcom at an early point in my career.

Who’s the actor?

I am proud to announce that Matt Damon will be playing me.

Just kidding. Until we get to the next phase, the producers have strongly encouraged me not to reveal the name.