Continuing in our heartily-researched, interview-heavy retrospective series on the campaign to bring the Heisman Trophy to Auburn for the second time, which so far includes an interview with Tony Barnhart, a look at the un-campaign of ’84, the promotional material they used in ’85, an interview with Randy Campbell about his country Bo ballad, a comparison of the Bo and Cam pre-Heisman SI covers, and Jeremy Henderson’s “Frank Sinatra Bo Jackson has a cold” story… and which better get fast-tracked before the blinding, newly-bronzed light of The Blessed Individual blots out whatever interest remains.
Largely due to his nothing but fair coverage of what he suggested might be the biggest story in the history of college football, it’s been hard for Auburn fans to keep the chip on their shoulder when listening to Paul Finebaum this season.
It’s been especially hard for me.
In early October, before the full dawn of Cam Consciousness, I interviewed Paul for my recent story on a former Auburn player named Bo Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy 25 years ago. He actually responded to my email and he actually picked up the phone when I called him at home. And he was nice. And he was accommodating. He talked to me for an hour about Bo’s impact on sports in the state of Alabama and his legacy at Auburn and he probably would have talked to me for two more.
But it took long enough to transcribe just the one (I almost missed Finebaum yesterday!).
DISCUSSED: Bo vs. Herschel, sabotage campaigns against Bama by Pat Dye assistants, Bear Bryant’s ‘moon craters’, 1980s Birmingham talk-radio, the salvation of Auburn football, and Mark Ingram’s complete inability to carry a certain jockstrap.
Do you remember the first time you heard about Bo?
Yeah, it was in high school and you just kept hearing about him and he got a little bit of coverage. You have to remember, back then you didn’t have radio shows and shows promoting recruiting, so there was an article or two written about him, and as the recruiting process unfolded, everyone got into the act, including me, and I remember interviewing Bo’s mother about his decision coming up. Everyone knew that Bo was going to go to Alabama and at the time, there were some problems at Alabama from a discipline standpoint. I remember Mrs… I think her name was Florence Bond… and she told me she didn’t want him going there because Alabama seemed like they had lost control and I did a big story. It was Coach Bryant’s last year or two. It really created a big controversy when Bo switched and a couple of their guys did as well, and it began kind of the avalanche of players going to Auburn.
So you actually wrote a story about his recruitment?
It was really more about Coach Bryant losing his grip, so to speak. My memory is a little fuzzy 28 years later or whatever it was, but the story was about Bryant beginning to lose his grip and there were a couple of assistant coaches who were trying to get out. He was losing a couple of recruits and I remember after that article came out – it was very close to recruiting, and during or around the time… I can’t remember, about a week or two….I’m not sure if Bo had made his decision yet. This was in the Birmingham Post-Herald. It was a big story and there was a picture of Bryant that was magnified where you could kind of see the crease in his head like craters in the moon. He just looked terribly old. I happened to be covering Auburn at the time. I was at Auburn the night before and I remember that one of Pat Dye’s assistants told me that they had gone out and gotten that newspaper… now, just think about this, this would have been ’81, I guess… I mean it’s not like today where you just email it or post it on Facebook, but one of the assistant coaches told me they got the newspaper and figured out a way to deliver it on the doorstep to every recruit they were after down the final stretch to kind of give them an idea of how things were coming undone. This is the article in which Bo’s mom was quoted. And then it all just kind of spun out of control. But that’s my best recollection of that specific incident. But you do know that in the Top 12 lists that the newspaper usually came out with in Alabama, he was not the number one player. A guy named Allen Evans was, and he also went to Auburn. He was a running back. I think Bo was second or third. So he wasn’t even [laughs]… I mean we’re talking about one of the greatest players in football history and he wasn’t even the No. 1 ranked player in the state.
I’ve got your “Finebaum Says” book, and in a column you wrote in ’95, you talk about that, I think. You called the guy who ranked them a dummy or a dolt or something.
Yeah, I’ll see if I can find that. Yeah, I was covering Auburn and Alabama and Ruben Grant was the high school guy and he ranked the players. I was kind of making fun of him since he was a good friend of mine.
So you say he started picking up steam in his sophomore year and…
Well, I remember going to a practice, an early practice or an early scrimmage and you knew the first time you saw him on the field what was going on. I mean, he just made and impact from Day One. There was great excitement about seeing him play. This is once he got there, I mean. The moment everyone saw him, it was all they could talk about. So the first game, which was Wake Forest or whatever, and you were already going to the game to see what Bo was going to do.
So as his star rose, how did Bama fans perceive him? Was he a player they were afraid of?
They were acting pretty badly if I remember, because this was a time… the transition was on. This would have been Coach Bryant’s final year, so things began to change that year. That year Alabama was No. 1 in the country until Tennessee and then it all fell apart. They were either No. 1 or No. 2. And the other thing, too, was that Herschel Walker was the running back everybody talked about, so it was like Bo vs. Herschel. And then, finally the first time… not to get off the subject of Alabama, but the first Bo vs. Herschel game was huge. Herschel would have been… a junior when Bo was a freshman, I think, and that was a huge game at Auburn. It was one of the bigger games I could remember. By this point, Alabama was falling apart. They had lost to Tennessee and LSU and uh… Alabama lost the same day as the Georgia game, too, to Southern Miss, so the buildup to that game… I mean, things were changing, but Auburn hadn’t beaten Alabama in so long but there was still that… [laughs]… idea that we may not be the better team, but we can win the game. And then Bo Over The Top was so important.
So what do you remember about that game specifically? I swear I saw something one time on an ESPN “Where Are They Now” thing, and Bo was talking about the ’82 game and about how at the end he went up and pointed at Bryant or something.
I don’t remember that, but my own personal experience with that game, was on the sidelines, at the end… and it was like being at a South American soccer game when it ended… [laughs]… people just started running out on the field. And it was really scary, and being the young reporter that I was, I wasn’t going to watch it from a distance, I felt like I had to be in the middle of it. I almost got my head knocked off about 20 times. And after that, Bo was already the star, but the star suddenly became Bo and everyone else. It was no longer any debate who the star of college football was. Herschel was leaving, Bo was on the ascent. The game was on. Now there were some pretty ugly moments along the way. He got hurt in ’84, I think that was the season. The ’83 season.. I’m trying to remember. Yeah, ’83 was the great season. But they did lose to Texas early in the season. And ’84 was a real disappointment. Pre-season No. 1 and the Bo was hurt early in that year, I think. Bo became somewhat unpopular. There was the big controversy… let’s say if I can dig it up here real quick…. where it looked like he had pulled himself out of the game. I think it was at Tennessee. Yeah, it was, I remember. But before that year, I interviewed Bo for a Heisman interview, and yeah, he was always pretty good about it, but it was a tough year, though, and I don’t know if anyone else criticized him. I know I did. [Laughs] Let’s see if I can look it up real quick. He pulled himself out of that game and it looked like he… I think there was a Florida game, too, where there was an issue. I remember that maybe Bo was over on the sidelines working on his Heisman speech.
That’s what you said in the column? That he brought himself out to work on his Heisman speech?
Yeah [laughs]… maybe he was over on the sidelines working on his Heisman speech. I’ll look it up… oh [laughs] here it is. This article I’m reading now is about the ’84 Iron Bowl. I must have used that line before.
This was ‘Wrong way, Bo’?
Yeah, I say ‘Dye called the 56 Combo, a sweep to the right. Jackson thought it was a 57 Combo which went the other way,’ and my next line was ‘while Bo spent another off-season working on his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, maybe he could take a moment or two to learn the playbook.’
So yeah, that was a pretty good shot at the star of college football. But that was an unbelievable game, as you can imagine.
Yeah, I remember the first time as a kid, realizing that that was something… that ‘Wrong Way, Bo’ was a catchphrase or something, and having to come to grips with that – that Bo made a mistake – and rationalize the implications.
Yeah, there were so many jokes. I think it was ‘how do you get to the Liberty Bowl?’ ‘You go the wrong way’ or something. It was terrible. I’ve never really quite seen a game like that one. It was a tough season. And Bo — the reason why the Heisman race became so close is because Bo just seemed to… he became… even a little polarizing to an extent because he just didn’t seem… it’s hard to say now, but he just really didn’t seem that committed.
Seemed like Rick Reilly almost had a vendetta against him.
Well listen… Bo… I remember sitting with him that year before the season and Bo had just… I’ve become friends with Bo since then, but he was pretty arrogant to deal with.
There’s a story Allen Barra wrote in the Village Voice that year… I knew Allen growing up… and he quoted you as suggesting that Bo had been spoiled by the publicity and that ‘most of this could have avoided.’ But are you sure he wasn’t just wasn’t bristling against you personally?
Well, there was another thing, too. I was on at the time with two DJs with called Mark and Brian and they had done a song on Bo called…
“My Bo,” yeah. I had an affiliation with them and no, we did not have a good relationship. And I became fairly outspoken about Bo during ’85. I mean, it wasn’t terrible. I did question his manhood once or twice I’m pretty sure [laughs]. It was just a bad season.
But yeah, that “My Bo” song – was it, like, to “My Girl”?
But it wasn’t complimentary?
Well, there may have been a “Wrong Way, Bo” thrown in there somewhere or something.
You know, my first memory of you was listening to TC and John Ed make fun of you, I used to call in to their show as a kid.
[Laughs] Yeah, that was the thing. Bo obviously… after that I was kind of locked in to Bo. I covered a lot of his baseball exploits. I spent a lot of time with him. But even then, I remember being at his first game in Memphis, his first game in baseball, and he just didn’t really seem to care about anyone. Again, he became a national star. It took a long time before Bo began to kind of embrace the media again. And I mean, I kept up with him. I was friends with his agent, Richard Woods, from South Alabama. And Bo was a franchise. I’m talking about post-Auburn. Bo just wasn’t someone who won the Heisman Trophy. There was Alabama, Auburn, and Bo Jackson. He was a college team, he was a pro franchise all wrapped up in one. He was that important. It’s almost hard to imagine what we would be saying about Bo today when you consider the media. I mean, Mark Ingram is a speck on the globe compared to Bo Jackson in terms of his importance and the conversation he generated. And he won the Heisman.
Yeah, I’m trying to kind of focus on his impact on Auburn…
I tell you a guy that you need to talk to, the athletic director at Jacksonville State, Oval Jaynes. He was Dye’s athletic director. Well, Dye was AD but this guy really ran the show. They did an addition, they did boxes. I remember was talking about going to Wall Street to get bonds for stadium expansion based on Bo Jackson. I think they called them something like “Bo bonds.” No player has ever moved a program more in terms of a financial reward then Bo Jackson. He saved the Auburn program. And so many people being in Birmingham became Auburn fans back then because of Bo. And this was also the time when Alabama football.. it was post-Bryant, and things were up for grabs. And you had a lot of young people who just… I mean, Bryant just wasn’t a factor, and they gravitated toward Bo. I mean, it’s been 25 years since I interviewed him, but I remember the interview, he was talking about going to Wall Street to get ponds to pay for stadium expansion based on Bo Jackson. Yeah, I remember the title of the article – ‘Bo Bonds’.
If he had gone to Alabama, would this be the same conversation? Would he have had the same opportunity to flourish and go on to be what he was?
I think he would have been big, but I just don’t think that Alabama at the time really would have… well, again, with Ray Perkins it might have been a little different, because Perkins was kind of a pro-style offense. How would he have been featured? Yeah, I mean he probably would have caught the ball a couple of times out of the backfield [laughs], I’ll tell you that.
I’ve heard the recording of the press conference where he announced he was playing for the Raiders. I’m pretty sure I heard your voice on there.
Yeah, I was there.
I guess I didn’t realize, until I started going back through all this, because we only look at it in retrospect as this great achievement – playing two sports. But at the time, it almost seemed like people resented him for it.
Well, I mean, he would be Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan wrapped into one. But again, Bo was surly. And maybe it was the speech impediment, maybe it was just the way Bo looked at you. I mean, he could kill you with a look. It took me a long time to see the other side of Bo. There was a roast for me a year ago, and Bo was one of the speakers and the guy was just hilarious. And finally years later, you got to see the other side. But even today, Bo can be tough. He takes nothing off of anyone. And that was something different, particularly in dealing with a college athlete, but when he got to the NFL and to the Major League Baseball, he was still … you weren’t ambivalent about Bo Jackson. You got a strong opinion, positively or negatively.
Describe his handshake.
It’s pretty much shattering. We had him on the program back ten years ago or so, and somebody asks him what he thinks of me, and he said ‘I could break Paul Finebaum in half like a twig.’
Hah… he said that on the air?
Yeah, someone asked ‘I thought you guys didn’t like each other.’ And he said, ‘oh, I like Paul, but if he makes me mad, I could breaking him half like a twig.”
So what did he say at the roast?
He did some funny stuff. He said we were both married to doctors named Linda. And he did a take on that, which was very funny. What struck me was just how humorous he could be. He was up there with Joe Nammath and some pretty well known people and he kind of stole the show.
Is there something particular you saw, in terms of his athleticism, that was the most impressive to you?
I’m trying to remember whether it was against Georgia or Georgia Tech. I can’t remember. Obviously it was a game that everyone talks about because ESPN was there. But you were just waiting for that play. When he just… Boom, he was gone. I’ve been covering football for a long time, but I’ve never gone to a game to see just one player. But with Bo, you did. And that’s what I think was just so remarkable. It wasn’t about the team, it was about Bo. I’m just kind of droning on here. He’s misunderstood, but he was also bigger than the game. You think to yourself, if you could go back, that you wish it might have been a little different. But it doesn’t matter now. It’s just the way he was. And really, unlike Barkley who has become a national celebrity / punch line, I have kind admired Bo. He goes away, he comes back now and then, gives us an opinion, and then he laves. He doesn’t linger. I think he just manages himself very, very well. I think those of us who knew him or covered him, took really great pride 21 or 22 years ago or whatever it was. I mean, he was the most important athlete in the world. Not for long, but for a brief stretch, when the Just Do It campaign came out, and the Bo Knows Campaign, he was it… eventually to be replaced by Michael Jordan, eventually to be replaced by Tiger Woods, eventually to be replaced by LeBron. For a brief, or not so brief moment, Bo Jackson was the most important athlete in the world. And it’s always been kind of fun to think back on that, as one of those who knew him, saw him, were around him from high school.
So at the time, during that stretch, can you recall the mentality of Auburn fans? 1989 was when that campaign began, and we’ve had a four year stretch of wins in the Iron Bowl, and Bama is coming to Auburn for the first time, and four in a row, and I would imagine that, only being four years removed from having the most important athlete in the world, the opinion Auburn fans had of themselves was probably as high as it’s ever been.
It was remarkable… when you consider the history, and when you consider how down Auburn fans were. Bo saved the franchise, so to speak. He saved the university. You can go on about ‘who was it really – was it Pat Dye, was it Bo, was it a combination’… but Bo was the lightning rod. And even though he was gone in ’85, he helped recruit a lot of those players who were still winning for Auburn in ’89. The dynamics had changed so dramatically… and then it all changed back again… as you well know.
Well, thanks again, I really appreciate it.
Well, no problem, I really wish I could remember more. I’m starting to sound like Gene Stallings… of course, I didn’t coach in these games like he did.
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