Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Finebaum's career did survive Shreveport

     Sports writing at the Shreveport Journal, Part III:
     Paul Finebaum came to the Journal sports staff as a young man out of Memphis, and the University of Tennessee, in 1978. He is now a very respected sports writer and, even more so, a radio sports talk show host who SI.com ranked recently as one of the 20 most influential media people in the country.
     And he is one of the biggest success story of line of sports writers who worked at the Journal, and who could have imagined that?
Paul Finebaum (photo from aol.sportingnews.com and the
Paul Finebaum Radio Network/WJOX)
     In a short time, Finebaum made people in Shreveport mad. He was a different type sports writer than the town had seen.
     Even as a young man, Paul was just a bit cynical. He was a quiet, soft-spoken guy, really mild-mannered. But he didn't write like it.
     I had seen Wally Rugg come into Shreveport sports writing, at the Journal, a few years earlier, and shake things -- and people up -- with his opinionated writing style. Finebaum topped even Wally.
     Paul was ahead of his time, at least in Shreveport. He was what became known in sports writing as a "chipmunk." I guess I could do a whole blog on that, but let's see if I can explain. These were young guys who were irreverent, or agitators. They had answers to their questions, or thought they did, and they wrote what they wanted, no matter what.
     Summing it up: They were smart asses.
     So Paul wrote with satire, and he did that well. He was just a bit caustic; he did that well, too. He perhaps questioned some institutions; he was not enamored with history.
     Shreveport readers didn't understand. One example was when, in a column, he referred to the basketball coach at Centenary College as "Thomas of Canterbury." It was actually cleverly written. As the sports information director at Centenary, I tried to explain to some upset people what Paul was trying to do. It was satire, people.
     Then he wrote a piece on the semipro football team, the Shreveport Steamer. It was really a fly-by-night operation, and Paul saw it as such. So his tongue-in-cheek report on a game didn't go over well ... at all. The next game, Steamer "fans" had signs berating Finebaum. "Fire Finebaum," I think one of them read. (The fans also might have had rope ready for Paul's neck; I'm not sure.)
     Paul also was not exactly thrilled with covering Shreveport Captains' games at a wreck of a stadium, SPAR Stadium. Long, hot nights and games there could be a test. Paul, as I recall, wasn't all that much of a baseball fan, either; he did prefer college football over anything. Couldn't blame him for that.
     So his Captains' game stories weren't, let's say, enthusiastic.
     But that's not what teed me off one Fourth of July afternoon game Paul was covering at SPAR Stadium. I was the ballclub as public relations director, and what sent me over the edge -- an edge I went over much too often -- was a disparaging remark Paul made about Shreveport, my hometown: "Some people have to die here."
     Let's leave it at I owe Paul a button off a shirt. It was an embarrasing moment, not exactly good public relations.
     I apologized then, and as often as I could later. Still apologizing, OK.
     I defended Paul often in Shreveport; he didn't ask me to, but I tried to say to people that he had the right to write whatever he wanted, as long as it was OK with his bosses at the Journal.
     Ah, but Paul wasn't all that happy there at the newspaper and, as it turned out, neither were the paper's editors with him. Soon he was moved to newsside -- mutual agreement, perhaps -- and he took off on an assignment. He made a road trip with a trucker, to do a one monsterously long story. (A monster truck story?)
     After he did his work on that, he was gone ... fired from the paper. Something about overtime hours; I never knew the details, and don't need to know.
     And so away he went. He wound up in Birmingham and then in Mobile, and he became a well-known sports columnist/writer ... and more significantly, he became a radio sports talk show host.
     He became a tremendously popular/unpopular radio sports talk show host, and he became an expert on Alabama football and Auburn football, and Alabama/Auburn basketball, and on the SEC. His radio sports talk show is known throughout the Southeast, and he has a national reputation.
     He is often seen on the major sports network shows being interviewed about college athletics; he's regarded as an "expert" on NCAA matters and on football and basketball. When there is controversy -- and isn't there always between Alabama and Auburn faithful? -- Paul's viewpoints are what people want to hear, one way or the other.
     He can still do controversy.
     Paul has appeared on many top talk shows on television, and not just sports shows.
     He is the host of the "Best of the SEC" series for cable television; I've seen some of the shows, and they're well done.
     I visited with him at an Alabama football game I covered in Tuscaloosa in 1995, first time I'd seen him since he left Shreveport. We had a nice visit -- I apologized again -- and we've talked a couple of times since. He's been a guest a few times on my son-in-law's sports talk radio show in Knoxville.
     And we talked last week. In private, he's still as soft-spoken and low-key -- and entertaining -- as ever. He said he's never been back to Shreveport.
     His career didn't die there, and he won't either.


1 comment:

  1. From Jim McLain: Read your piece on Finebaum and I can add some things about the Steamer game.
    I did a column [in The Shreveport Times] on that incident in my series of farewells to sports writing.
    The banner was about a foot high and stretched clear across one section of the stands. The Steamer fans, mostly Western Electric company workers, were just below the press box. They turned toward the box shaking their fists and screaming that Finebaum should be fired. I thought it amusing at first because Finebaum wasn't even in the press box.
    Then I had a chilling thought. What if those same pissed-off fans would be waiting for Finebaum at the elevator entrance after the game to beat the crap out of him? And what if I was the only guy getting off the elevator with a note pad and pencil? They might jump me and ask if I was Finebaum later. Fortunate for me, the Steamer lost and there were no irate fans waiting. I did get asked several times by irate Steamer players in the dressing room if I was Finebaum? Never saw him that night, although I noticed that he had picked up all of my quotes for his next day story.