Football fans across the Southeast and the US have known Paul Finebaum for years as the go-to guy on SEC football. We reached out to him in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he runs a talk show for ESPN, to find out what to expect for the 2020 football season. Here’s what he said.
On the 2020 college football season
Bham Now: What kind of season do you think college football fans should expect this fall?
Finebaum: I think this will be like going to Disney World and getting on the most dangerous, scary ride that nobody wants to get near. It’ll be like that for months—sometimes calm like when you’re approaching the top of the ride and sometimes screaming and hollering when you aren’t able to see right, left, up or down as well.
There are just so many unknowns, and the fact that we are in the second weekend of September and still moving is good. Five weeks ago, not many people thought we would get there. I’m not complaining about whatever happens from here on.
On UAB football
Bham Now: What can you tell us about UAB football?
Finebaum: UAB obviously lost last week. As someone who hasn’t lived in Birmingham for seven years, it’s pretty amazing to think about flipping on the TV and watching UAB playing Miami.
It’s a program that’s had so many ups and downs. They literally killed it and it came back. I see it as one of the great success stories in Alabama sports history, which is crazy when you think about Alabama and Auburn.
I heard from a friend in Birmingham who was upset with the coaching of Bill Clark. It’s a huge compliment when fans are no longer happy about having a team, but are upset with the philosophy—that’s a good sign. The fact that they’re getting a new stadium is truly remarkable.
On SEC football
Bham Now: What about SEC football?
The SEC will be different: 10 games with no non-conference games. There are a lot of good non-conference games that won’t happen, like Alabama-Southern Cal, Auburn-North Carolina.
It will be different. We’re so used to certain games being on certain weekends. Normally, I know exactly when the Auburn-Georgia game is, but I have no idea right now. The schedule’s out, but it’s kind of like it’s been put in a blender when the top comes off and everything flies all over the kitchen.
I know when the Alabama-Auburn game is, but other than that, I couldn’t tell you when games are. In 2020, you can’t get too upset about anything and have to accept what you get.
If we get 10 games in, an SEC championship and a playoff, it will be pretty remarkable.
On stadium capacity
Bham Now: Stadium seating capacity is being reduced by 80% for Alabama, Auburn and UAB. How might this impact players? Game outcomes?
Finebaum: This is going to be the strangest part because you are so used to seeing a good play, and then cheerleaders and band members do their thing, people scream. You won’t see any of that right now—it’s going to be a real adjustment for fans.
From a TV standpoint it’s different and in the stadium it’s different.
I don’t know if fans will be able to adapt—we’re so used to doing it a certain way. Plus a lot of fans won’t be able to get to games. Some have been coming for 20-30-50 years and not missed a game. With Alabama and Auburn both capped at 20% capacity, a lot of those people won’t get there.
Students are the ones that concern me the most. Lots of them aren’t getting in. It’s outrageous for them be denied the opportunity to go to the game. People forget that it’s colleges we’re going to root for, not professional teams. It’s sad when a fat cat can sit upstairs in box while students aren’t let in.
On the experience of being a fan in 2020
Bham Now: What recommendations do you have for fans to help them enjoy this weirdest football season ever?
Finebaum: The first thing to do is to be thankful that we have something we enjoy. Quit trying to say “it isn’t what it was last year, the year before, the year before that.” We’re lucky to have college football right now. By no means was it a slam dunk that we would. Everybody has the same information that I do—it’s certainly a risk.
For all those reasons, I’m happy about it. Some days, some fan is calling and I realize, I do this for a living. For a lot of people, their lives revolve around college football. By the way mine does too, but it’s a little different, so I have to be patient with people.
I try to stay out of the politics of it, which is virtually impossible. I quit arguing with people who would call in and instead just try to listen and then move on to the next call.
Every time someone complains that they can’t get in, it’s not going to be as good without the band, without 100-200,000 people at Bryant-Denny Stadium, I try to get them to think about what would it be like if we didn’t have football right now. Ask someone in the Big 10—they’re sitting there without a football season.
At least we have something right now.
Bham Now: How has COVID-19 affected you personally?
Finebaum: It’s been the most incredible 6 months of my career.
The first month was as terrifying as anything I’ve ever done because suddenly, on March 12, everything stopped. Nobody knew what was going to happen, and it seemed like the end of the world had arrived.
We went into crisis mode and treated it seriously. It was difficult at first. Instead of trying to be upbeat, we decided to be very real and changed our approach immediately to “Let’s talk about it.” COVID became our number one topic. Eventually, we began to wonder if we’d ever see another sporting event.
We talked to guests from every walk of life. It was no longer a sports show—we focused on what we were going through. I talked to a truck driver bringing produce from one end of the country to other, to checkout people at Walmart who said how terrifying and satisfying it was to help people.
Eventually, we evolved into a rush to get back to work and reopen America. For us, that became “when would sports return?” We ended up talking to coaches about what they were dealing with, including the mental health of players, people in public life, including a bunch of governors and mayors.
As we got into the middle part of it, we had an update from the SEC Commissioner every week on the topic of “will we have football?” It was kind of like FDR’s World War II-era Fireside Chats that just let people know what was going on.
Then on Memorial Day, George Floyd was murdered. As disturbing as it was, and it was very disturbing, it was inspiring to hear people’s stories. It put COVID on the back burner.
Eventually, that took a breath, and we got back to “would we have a college football season?” That became the engine that pushed us forward. One month ago, it looks like it was coming to an end. Two major conferences shut down, but the SEC kept moving.
In conclusion, it’s been the most satisfying period of my career because everything’s been different. Normally I’m gone five days a week from August to January, but I haven’t been anywhere since March.
There’s been a lot of adjusting. Also, it has been disturbing at times, with pangs of guilt that I’m blessed to have a good job and many people’s worlds have been turned upside down.
On air, I try to lower the rhetoric a little bit, and do a lot more listening vs. screaming, hollering or bloviating.
On social and racial justice
Bham Now: What do you think about Nick Saban leading the BLM march on UA’s campus and the video he and the students did?
Finebaum: Nick Saban leading that march was one of his finer moments. I say that because he did it without making a political statement. He didn’t overdo it, he did it quietly.
The video was very powerful. There was a lot of blowback. I had Alabama fans call in and say they’ll never support the team again. We all hear the same arguments about Black Lives Matter.
He was supporting his players, and to me that’s the most important thing. It’s what a coach is supposed to do, and I think that, to me, speaks very well of him. In a state like Alabama, it’s not the same as if he was doing it in Michigan, but he didn’t let it affect him.
On favorite football memories
Bham Now: Do you have a favorite football memory from your time in Birmingham?
Finebaum: I’m old school and have never seen a more exciting game than the 1985 Iron Bowl. The lead changed hands four times in the final couple of minutes and Alabama won on a 53-yard field goal.
I was standing on the Auburn bench next to Bo Jackson watching that field goal—his reaction was priceless.
The end of Coach Bryant was amazing. To be able to cover that and the hiring of Nick Saban were interesting bookends to a part of my career. These are arguably two of the best coaches in football.
Bham Now: What do you most miss about living in Birmingham?
Finebaum: Really, I miss the people the most. At times, I feel like I’m living in a foreign country, even though Charlotte, North Carolina is a Southern city.
Maybe it’s because I spent almost my entire career there before coming here in 2014. I felt like I knew everyone, and everyone was friendly. It was hard to leave.
Charlotte is perfectly nice, but it’s not Birmingham.
Early on, when we moved here, I wondered “What have I done?” This is a dream job with everything I ever wanted to do, but I never quite got over leaving Birmingham.
Obviously, I’ve been back—you can’t cover college football without coming through. At some point, we’ll be back.
On food in Birmingham
Bham Now: When you visit, what places do you like to hit up for a meal?
Finebaum: I don’t know if there’s been a time when we’ve come back yet where we didn’t go to Niki’s West on Finley Avenue. I’ve even taken my crew by there on the way to or from Alabama games.
I got to know the late Jimmy Koikos of the Bright Star really well, and we often try to get by there, too.
On the future
Bham Now: Any plans for the future that you care to share with Bham Now?
Finebaum: That is a tough question, but I’ve never shied away from my love for Birmingham. My wife is from Birmingham—I have every intention of coming back, and I hope that day is very soon.