Paul Finebaum had been pretty quiet about the Clemson Tigers this offseason, but we all knew that wouldn’t last forever. Sure enough, in June he got under Tiger Nation’s skin by saying Clemson was the most likely elite team to miss this year’s playoff. Never mind that Clemson brings back more talent than both Alabama and Ohio State. Never mind that Clemson’s 2021 starting quarterback started two games in 2020 and had over 900 passing yards in five appearances, while the Tide and Buckeyes are starting guys who barely played at all in 2020. Never mind that JT Daniels has one half of fine football against a Top 25 team, one half of trash football against a Top 25 team and three games against opponents that equate to seasonal garbage time.
Logic doesn’t matter when Finebaum gets rolling on TV. Football logic, at least, doesn’t matter. Marketing logic? Knowing your target demographic logic? Paul Finebaum is a master of those disciplines. He knows where his bread is buttered, and he has been playing up his fanbase, and antagonizing his fanbase’s enemies, with expert precision for a very long time.
I completely understand why people get so upset at Finebaum when he says something uncomplimentary about their team. They shouldn’t really get mad though. There is no reason to let him live rent-free in their head. This is just what heels do.
I know professional wrestling isn’t for everyone (yes, I know it’s not real, thank you), but the concept is simple: you have heroes, and you have heels. A hero is the person who stands up for what the crowd loves. The heel intentionally tries to anger everybody and make them hate them. It isn’t because they are bad people, or stupid people. Some of the best heels in wrestling history were known as the nicest, most beloved people behind the scenes.
When I was a kid, the old Jim Crockett Productions group, which years later evolved into WCW, held their house shows about ten minutes south of where my family lived. I saw wrestling shows, on the cheap, with my church’s bible study class, with my Cub & Boy Scout troop, and sometimes my dad took me just for fun. The heroes were Dusty Rhodes & Magnum T.A., and the heel was the most arrogant, unlikeable jerk named “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. I hated that guy. He had a gang of brutes named the Four Horsemen. He made my skin crawl. He cheated. He screwed people. When the hero had momentum, Flair would get on his knees, beg for mercy, and when the hero paused for a second, Flair would poke him in the eye, then start beating on him. There was no one who I wanted to lose more than The Nature Boy and his Four Horsemen lackeys. And then, I grew up.
I realized that the people I saw on TV and in the ring weren’t who they were in real life – they were characters. I saw Ric Flair become a fan favorite, and the good guys pulled heel turns (they became bad guys). It was a production designed for a target audience. The heroes had a job to do, and so did the heels. They were responsible for making you hate them. They would attack the heroes at random times when you didn’t see it coming. They would cut a promo – that’s when they pick up a microphone – and rip the people in the audience, usually by making fun of their hometown, to draw heat (anger) so the crowd would cheer hard when the hero kicked their tail later in the main event. There was a formula to their success.
Paul Finebaum has a formula too, and he is the best in the business at executing it. The difference is that Paul gets to be the hero and the heel at the same time. Paul plays the hero to his traditional fan base: Crimson Tide Nation. They want to hear about how great their team is and how awful all their opponents are. Paul worked for years in Birmingham, and even though there were War Eagle listeners, Alabama fans constituted the bulk of his listenership, and his programming became customized to take advantage of it. As his star grew, he became syndicated. His reputation grew, and eventually he earned an opportunity on the SEC network. The subject matter of his show grew to encompass an entire conference, and at many times all of college football, but the Alabama focus never changed.
Paul Finebaum’s supporters would tell you that everything I have just said is boloney. They would tell you that he is an emotionless observer simply telling you the truth, and that any appearance of him favoring Alabama is a side effect of the fact that Alabama has been the best program in the nation since Nick Saban became the head coach. He says good things about Alabama naturally because they have had the most success, therefore must be doing things better than anyone else. In other words, there is plausible deniability.
I mean, they’re not wrong. Finebaum can say “scoreboard” and most of the time, the argument is over. When Finebaum has no case to make, he swallows his pride and admits it. There are some wonderful videos on YouTube of Finebaum as a guest on First Take with Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman, right before the 2018 National Championship, explaining why Alabama was going to win. Those are followed by videos of First Take the next morning with Finebaum having to explain why he got it wrong. He would have explained the Tide loss away if he could, but he couldn’t. If he tried to claim Alabama was the better team after a four-touchdown loss, he’d have lost the credibility that he needs to be taken seriously. Those situations are pointed at by Finebaum’s supporters as evidence that he is not an Alabama homer – that his acknowledgement of how great Clemson played in that game proves he is objective. He occasionally sprinkles in compliments of LSU and even Auburn. From time to time, he compliments the Big 10 (but not Michigan, and most certainly never Jim Harbaugh). If he didn’t maintain this small amount of balance, his formula wouldn’t work. He’d just be a troll who has no credibility and just gets attention by insulting people.
You can hate Paul Finebaum all you want. You can let what he said get under your skin and drive your sports hate. That is what he wants, after all. The more you hate him, the more Tide fans love him, and the more the name ‘Paul Finebaum’ drives ratings. Sportswriters for teams throughout the southeast love it when Finebaum says something bad about their team because it becomes a story.
As a child, I genuinely hated Ric Flair and everything he represented. As an adult, he’s one of my all-time favorite performers because I appreciate how great he is at being a heel. He made wrestling fun, and I think he may be one of the best wrestlers of all-time, if not the best period. Best heel of all-time? It’s difficult to choose someone other than Finebaum. That also means he is probably the greatest hero of all-time. It just all depends on your perspective. The moral of the story: don’t let Paul Finebaum ruin your day just because he said something bad about your team. Just laugh and move on. I guarantee that is what Paul is doing.