by Darren Carter –
Someone once compared Southern Football to religion. A reply was made that, in fact, Football was much more important than that. While such commentary might border on blasphemy to some, it doesn't strike far from the truth. While Sunday mornings remain the most segregated time in our nation, Southern College Football Saturdays have become a time of fellowship and camaraderie that would make even the Apostles proud—the jihad of rivalries not withstanding.
Coming out of the reconstruction period following the Civil War, the South had little to be proud of. When Alabama burst onto the national scene as a power in 1925, the sport became a point of pride for southerners—something that continues to this day. In fact, 13 of the last 20 years have seen a team east of Texas and south of Kentucky win at least a share of the national Championship. Suffice it to say that while others play football, the South lives it. To continue the comparison to religion, the South is often referred to as the “Bible Belt,” and the Southern Baptist denomination is the largest in the land. If there was a “Football Belt,” it would reside in SEC country. Media markets around the country resemble dying churches and seldom visited Sunday Schools outside of football season, but the Deep South is College Football's mega-church, and like it or not, the evangelist with the largest pulpit and congregation is Paul Finebaum.
Love him or hate him (and it is likely that one applies), Finebaum is the South's most listened to sports-talk radio program, and his syndicated column is read by fans all over the world. Since his arrival on the scene in the waning days of Bryant era, Finebaum has made an indelible mark on the most intense and involved sports market in the nation.
Finebaum is a masterful writer, and if influencing the court of public opinion is any indication, an expert on the human mind vis-á -vis L. Ron Hubbard. Countless thousands pay attention to what Finebaum says. Sports Illustrated named his radio program one of the top 12 sports-talk shows in the country, and Finebaum is a permanent fixture among top 10 listings of the most influential people in the Southeastern Conference. While the intro to his radio show proclaiming that he gets football coaches fired may not be a bragging point, it is not entirely untrue.
Finebaum is opinionated and will state his opinion without a sugar coating, a practice that has garnered the hatred of some and the respect of others. Some have called him the pied piper of sports talk—he plays his flute (stirs the pot) and whatever fan base he is after will respond in droves—driving up his ratings even more. Regardless of how you feel about him, an undeniable truth (T-R-U-T-H) is that Finebaum's opinions are both informed and uncannily accurate—a side effect of having spent 30 years building relationships and connections in the Southeast.
Last week, Finebaum wrote a column (as in a statement of opinion) stating that he believed Florida Coach Urban Meyer would leave the University for Notre Dame in 2010. While no doubt largely speculation, it is his opinion. Meyer has stated publicly (and privately) that Notre Dame is his dream job. His biography revealed that he passed on Notre Dame because the timing wasn't right. It has been commented on in the past that Meyer chose Florida over Notre Dame because there was far less rebuilding to be done, and that Florida would give him a platform to win championships and make Meyer a household name. It is hardly speculation to say that recruiting nationally (as a Notre Dame coach must) would be much easier as a proven winner on a national state—instead of someone who just flew in from Utah. Meyer knew that a good coach could win big right away at Florida, and he is a good coach.
Not surprisingly, Finebaum's column ruffled feathers and rattled cages in the Sunshine State. Meyer's media men went running to their keyboards to defend and deflect Finebaum's speculation. Daily fishwrapper “journalists” aspiring to gain the confidence of Meyer flew into action; venom flowed from their Underwoods.
I am sure that Finebaum was smiling as their attention expanded his market and Internet listening base, and brought in dozens of new callers to his radio show. The Florida writers heard the flute and followed...but it doesn't change Finebaum's accuracy or reliability.
The most recent “journalist” to bite on Finebaum's bait is CBS Sportsline columnist Gregg Doyel. To clarify with another church comparison, Doyel is the Sunday School Teacher whose only students are his own children. His church is large but nobody attends outside of Football season. Even then, nobody really listens to him. In his July 19th article “Idiots Making Meyer News Where None Exists,” Doyel launched one of the most venomous print attacks in recent memory, calling Finebaum: an idiot, dishonest, hack, empty-skulled, third rate, and a cockroach. Gee Gregg, tell us how you really feel. Adding to the humour of his rant, Doyel readily admits to being a Florida grad who touts the intellectually stimulating sport of MMA as being the best sport on earth. Doyel's open admission of his history as a Florida homer wreaks of self-indulgence, and in no way invalidates the truth of the issue. Lampooning the truth doesn't change it.
What Doyel fails to realize is that he is a mosquito insulting a windshield. His characterizations of Finebaum fly in the face of reality. Doyel's attempts at downplaying Finebaum is akin to ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and while Finebaum is a pot-stirrer, he is no fool.
Whether or not Doyel believes his own diatribe is questionable, given his background and connections I would speculate his article was the result of a late night phone call from Gainesville. I can imagine a call along these lines...“Gregg, this is Urban Meyer, I need to you go after Finebaum for me.”
Doyel complied. After all, he doesn't want to end up like Shane Mathews—excommunicated by Pope Urban.
Taken in light of his background, his rant has the reverse effect of what he desired. I am more convinced than ever that Meyer is on his way out. The voracity of Doyel's attack on Finebaum was not fueled by a desire to defend honesty and integrity in the media—after all Doyel works with Dennis Dodd. If Doyel truly desired to be a media exterminator, he would lead Dodd to a roach motel. The problem is, neither of them would check out.
Ultimately, Doyel came across as a love smitten buffoon having his strings pulled like a marionette. The whole world knows that his girlfriend is cheating on him, yet he attacked the only person with the guts to tell him.
Or maybe Doyel just heard the piper.