A little more than five years ago, few college football fans outside of Alabama could probably tell you who Paul Finebaum was. Sure, his name cropped up on a few of those lists of influential radio hosts and the like, but Finebaum was not then what he is now -- a Twitter meme ("PAWWWWWL"), an ESPN personality and the soon-to-be-host of a radio/television simulcast.
To hear him tell it, Finebaum is almost as surprised as anyone by his newfound fame.
And you can hear Finebaum tell it in "My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football" ($26.99, Harper, out Tuesday), which is less the pro-SEC conference manifesto the title promises and more a memoir of Finebaum's rise through the sports media to become one of the most famous (and infamous) radio personalities in college football. It also happens to be an enjoyable read.
With the help of Gene Wojciechowski, Finebaum recounts how an almost accidental job working at his college newspaper turned a political junkie into a sportswriter and then into a radio talk show host. It's a book that is by turns self-deprecating, opinionated and at times even warm.
This being Finebaum, there are also plenty of #HOTTAKES tucked into the book's pages. He ranks all 14 SEC schools based on "a martini mix of tradition, facilities, media exposure, recruiting, ability to win consistently, coaching, stability and the IT Factor" -- a method that allows him quite a bit of latitude and seems almost designed to spark arguments. He maintains that Sylvester Croom should have been hired as Alabama's head coach in 2003. Finebaum will "go to [his] grave knowing [Nick Saban's] 2010 team was the best team in the country, even though it lost to South Carolina and Auburn." But Finebaum doesn't even allow for questions of luck to come in when assessing Mark Richt's lack of national titles at Georgia.
In a concession that will surprise precisely no one, Finebaum essentially admits that he intentionally stirred the pot early in his radio career to help the ratings. The discussion is so frank that it's almost refreshing.
And some of the observations are actually funny or insightful. Talking about Alabama fans who flock to Hoover for SEC Media Days, Finebaum writes: "It isn't just a Saban thing, though. The Bama fans used to go nuts when they saw Mike Shula. At least now, they have a reason to go nuts." His description of the Iron Bowl rivalry is one of the best I've read, though some of his comments will probably set Auburn fans' hair on fire.
The best parts of the book, though, are when Finebaum gets away from opining about all things SEC and instead writes about his personal story or his show. He gives a spirited and almost heart-warming defense of the callers that have made his show must-listen radio (for many); before each chapter, there is a page with a quote, and almost all of them are from regular callers. Finebaum's discussion of his mother is touching. And when he talks about getting a tour of the A&M campus from Texas Gov. Rick Perry or his first appearance on College GameDay, he genuinely seems to be in awe.
There are a few quibbles here and there. It's sometimes a bit repetitive -- did you know Auburn sacked Brodie Croyle a lot during the 2005 Iron Bowl? -- and there are a few factual questions I have, though nothing that's really distracting.
Overall, "My Conference Can Beat Your Conference" is a funny, breezy and entertaining read. It might even give you a great respect for Finebaum; it might even convince you to like him. Unless you're Tammy, of course.