It’s a story of success, and one of failure. It’s about the long, arduous climb of one man to the top, and his sudden plummet back down. This is the Un-True Hollywood Story of Pawwwwwwwwwl.
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“Paul Finebaum joins ESPN and the SEC Network,” was the headline on May 21, 2013, weeks after Finebaum’s program on Birmingham, Ala.-based WJOX went silent.
The ringleader of the South’s most notorious radio circus signed a five-year deal. He was to be the unofficial voice of the Worldwide Leader in Sports’ new partnership with the nationwide leader in college football.
Finebaum told The Wall Street Journal after the agreement was publicized:
“It would be the understatement of my life to say I wasn’t thrilled,” Finebaum said. “It is incredibly exciting to be part of a new adventure, particularly one that involves the premier brand in sports along with the pre-eminent conference in sports.”
Finebaum’s meteoric rise had seemingly reached its pinnacle. He gained notoriety hosting “The Paul Finebaum Show,” which was now ready to reach a national audience, eagerly awaiting the boisterous banter that defined his program.
For a year, the partnership exceeded everyone’s expectations.
ESPN executive vice president, Daniel Clarkson:
“Two months in, we’re going guns blazing. We’re beating every show on the radio — not just sports, mind you. We’re beating Rush Limbaugh. On TV, it was even bigger. Paul was looking like he’d become the biggest thing on the airwaves since Oprah. Advertisers are giving us blank checks.”
The money was rolling in…but Paul Finebaum was spending faster than the deposits were clearing.
“He would drop five, 10-grand a week on seersucker suits,” one source told us. “The man owned 37 houndstooth hats. Thirty-seven! And his house was a to-scale replica of Bryant-Denny Stadium. He would even pay out-of-work SEC players to reenact classic games in his backyard when company came over.”
“He paid for a robot that cleaned the house, did chores, the whole nine,” another source said. “The amazing thing wasn’t the helper robot so much as it was a real, life-like duplication of Les Miles. It ate grass and everything. Kind of creepy.
“I guess that would be a cyborg, and not a robot,” the source added.
Fueling his out-of-control spending were Finebaum’s vices: unbridled devotion to the SEC, and his need to goad other conferences.
Professional heckler Vinnie DiBasso:
“I’d met Paul at the 2009 SEC championship. He was impressed with how quickly I fashioned a baby’s bonnet out of my t-shirt to mock Tim Tebow’s crying on the sideline. We struck up a friendship then that lasted the entire Saban era.
“Sometime in 2014, he offered me $3500 a week to follow around Bob Stoops and shout stuff about the Big 12. Just real vulgar things. I’d get bonuses for getting on TV with signs or getting Bob to verbally acknowledge me.
“One time, OU was playing Baylor in Waco. You know the big banner behind the end zone there that says BAYLOR in huge block letters? Well, OU is in the red zone, facing those goals. I had another banner rolled out from a remote, so I could unveil it at just the right time.
It’s got a really professionally done painting of Johnny Manziel’s second touchdown in the 2013 Cotton Bowl and the final score in huge letters — paid for by Paul, of course. Bob doesn’t react, but Mike runs onto the field without calling a timeout. He climbs up that hill and starts trying to tear that banner down.
Paul paid me a cool quarter-million for that one.”
Recreating classic games and trolling the Big 12 took its toll on Paul.
In debt hundreds of thousands of dollars, Finebaum’s partnership with ESPN became tenuous. He asked for a more prominent spotlight — the Disney Corp. was willing to comply, allowing Finebaum to call play-by-play on everything from Sunday afternoon billiards to Monday Night Football. He became a co-host for each of the network’s radio shows, from 6 a.m to 6 p.m.
“Mike & Mike” became “Mike & Mike & Pawwwwwl.” And every morning, listeners could hear Finebaum very calmly make such claims as “the New York Yankees would finish last place in the SEC.”
The extra workload supplemented his lavish tastes, but it also spread Paul Finebaum too thin. As is the case with any over-exposed personality, fans grew lethargic.
Longtime Finebaum fan Bear Duggan:
“I listened to Paul way back. When he went to ESPN, I went with ‘im. But you could tell the money and fame changed him. He wasn’t the same no more. He stopped talkin’ ’bout how much Auburn paid Cam Newton and started talkin’ ’bout how much ESPN paid ‘im.”
Yes, the born-Tennessean went Hollywood. When he wasn’t working on one of his many endeavors, he was found in some of the trendiest nightclubs around the globe.
But one night in Miami, things became especially heated when Finebaum — always proud of his Southern roots — challenged New Orleans-born rapper Li’l Wayne.
Li’l Wayne’s head of security, Alvin Smith:
“We were on South Beach after the 2015 Orange Bowl in this club. Exclusive spot. Either you were somebody or were an oil baron to get into this joint. Finebaum rolls in with Katherine Webb, Johnny Manziel and Harvey Updyke.
“Updyke is starting mess with everyone. He gets in Wayne’s face, flashes this platinum and diamonds ‘Bama ‘A’ — no doubt Paul paid for it. His rep was well known. He was buying things, expensive things, for people left and right.
“That night in the club, he walked in and laid down a couple G’s buying a round of Sabanade for the entire bar.
“But back to the brawl — I tell Updyke to step back. He says he’s going to find Wayne’s house and cover the yard in herbicide. Paul intervenes in the way only Paul does.
“He very calmly apologizes for Updyke’s behavior, but tells Wayne, ‘you would understand…if you were a real Southerner.’ Then he pulled a corn dog out of his jacket pocket and flips it at us, says, ‘This outta make you LSU fellas feel more at home.’
“That didn’t sit well. I didn’t see who threw the first punch, but both groups come to blows immediately. Johnny, being friends with both guys, is trying to intervene. I’m pulling Wayne away to get him out of there. Paul is just headbutting guys, stomping on people.
It was ugly.”
Finebaum was arrested, making national headlines. ESPN was forced to respond. His show was still top rated, but treading water. His ensuing 90-day suspension did not help.
He attempted a comeback, with lukewarm reception. Many of the outlandish phone calls that once defined Finebaum’s show were replaced with paid actors, because the real calls simply weren’t coming.
A second arrest followed an altercation with Mike Gundy, sparked when Finebaum asked the Oklahoma State Cowboys head coach if his 2012 Fiesta Bowl ring came out of a Cracker Jack box, landed Finebaum on “Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab.”
Dr. Drew Pinsky:
“I’ve dealt with countless addictions in my career. I have never seen any as severe as Paul’s dependence on trolling. And he was way too adept at trolling anyone and everyone, including myself.
“I once engaged in a 12-hour, circular argument with him about ‘Loveline.’ He insisted the show was better with Striker than with Adam Carolla. Later I realized he didn’t actually believe what he was saying, but he said it with such a straight face and deadpan conviction, I was suckered in.
“Paul was just too good at trolling. But I had to fight for him — for his life. Trolling was what made him, but trolling was about to break him.”
An enthralled nation tuned into the “Celebrity Rehab” finale in record numbers. Finebaum listened to hours of voice actors who stated superiority of ACC football over the SEC, championed Notre Dame’s tradition over that of Alabama’s, and Auburn fans.
His trolling addiction was cured.
ESPN welcomed its star back with open arms — but he declined. For his own health, Paul Finebaum gave up trolling.
He did not, however, give up radio. Paul now hosts a weekly high school football call-in show in a coastal, Alabama town. He told us he is happy. He takes morning walks along the Gulf Coast beach with his dog, which he named “Griffin.”
“It’s part of the healing process,” he explained. “I didn’t put a deserving Big 12 player on my Heisman ballot because of my addiction to trolling. This beautiful Chow is a daily reminder of the ridiculous things trolling made me do.”
As for the revamped “Paul Finebaum Show,” he does not allow callers to demand for coaches to be fired. He has never had Danny Sheridan on as a guest. And he has never uttered the letters “S-E-C” in succession.