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Front row with Finebaum

(Full disclosure: I am a lifelong listener of The Paul Finebaum Show. I am a graduate of Auburn University and the University of Alabama. I love college football, NASCAR and professional wrestling. I hate the circus and clowns. But I guess, in a way, I love them too.)

The Wizard of JOX: Auburn journalism instructor Austin Phillips took his class behind the curtain on Friday.

“Got a machinehead, better than the rest.”

That is the opening line to the chorus of Bush’s 1994 hit song “Machinehead,” which has coincidentally been the opening song to The Paul Finebaum Show for more than a decade.

The lyrics couldn’t be more appropriate.

Finebaum is the machine and the head that moves sports talk radio in the state of Alabama, and now the Southeast and the rest of the nation.

As part of an Auburn journalism sports media class, I put in a request for our class to sit in on The Finebaum Show, which has grown from a dominant show in Birmingham to a nationally-syndicated network based from WJOX 94.5 FM and broadcast on Sirius/XM 91.

The request for June 1, 2012, was graciously accepted.

While the only significance of Friday, June 1, 2012, seemed to be the three-month mark until the start of the real Finebaum circus — the start of college football in Alabama — Friday turned out to be what could be one of the most historic days in the history of the show.

Finebaum’s ongoing legal battle with Citadel Broadcasting has become public in recent months and weeks, and it was ever present this week as Finebaum missed Wednesday’s show, which is now under Cumulus direction, due to legal obligations and a Birmingham News story surfaced Friday evening in which a Cox Media executive stated Finebaum was ready to make a move to the station’s Birmingham 97.3 FM affiliate. Finebaum’s attorney said the statement was premature.

Although Finebaum joked with callers at the notion that Friday could be his last day with JOX and begrudged several times that Friday’s show was moving slow and not the best, he did what he does best: had a conversation with you.

Contrary to his opinion, he seemed at his best. Candid, open and willing to discuss anything.

Maybe it was because Paul had an audience of myself and 10 journalism students, but he put on a show like I’ve never heard, or seen, before.

Friday’s show was noticeably missing famed callers such as Jim from Crestwood, Jim from Tuscaloosa, Phyllis from Mulga, Tammy, Rod the Mailman, Chris from Gulf Shores, Milo, Elmo and DJ KDub, but it didn’t matter.

The return of Tim Brando after a nine-month absence more than delivered with a guest appearance from former Mississippi State head coach Jackie Sherrill mixed in, and callers I-Man, Jeff from Chicago, Burton and Rick from Slidell brought the best out of Finebaum.

And he enjoyed every minute of it.

Yeah, maybe he was texting and emailing intermittently during the show, but his mind never wandered from the duty at hand. Besides, with pending litigation, everything he was doing was to ensure, as the old adage goes, “The show must go on.”

From a young political science major at the University of Tennessee who burst onto the Knoxville news scene to the famed talk show host who is known as one of the most influential people in the SEC, Finebaum has seen and done about all there is to do in the world of southern sports. The wisdom he imparted Friday on the AU JRNL 4970 Sports Media class is something I hope they will never forget.

His tales of Paul “Bear” Bryant, Pat Dye, Pat Summitt, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Gene Chizik and more were as large as the figures at hand, but it was the stories about the lessons he has learned along the way that I hope sticks with the students the most.

While the callers relished in the time on air, the class relished in the time Finebaum spoke candidly in-between commercial breaks about the back-stories of the show and his career.

Covering everything from the most famous callers to the most recent nationally-publicized Toomer’s trees poisoning incident, Finebaum let us in on the story behind the story of the most important events and people in the show’s history.

From Harvey Updyke to the his “brother-in-law” Shane from Center Point, Paul was candid and did not hold back when discussing the “stars of the show.”

But that’s what’s always made The Finebaum Show famous.

The callers ARE the stars.

Finebaum is just the ringmaster, and sometimes the lion tamer.

His days as the machinehead began in print in Shreveport, La., and surfaced in Alabama in The Birmingham Post-Herald in the early ‘80s.

His views on AU-UA sports (most importantly football) have gotten him numerous death threats, physical assaults and verbal abuse along the way, but he has turned that criticism into a public forum for decades.

And that forum, even when not at its “best” Friday, was still at its “best.”

Who knows where the machinehead will end up next, or how this legal saga will end up, but one thing is for sure: Paul is going to be there on the airwaves to entertain the masses for years to come.

Whether Friday was just another day on the Finebaum calendar or the day he made a historic move in his career, it will always be a historic day for 10 students and one instructor/listener.

After four hours, as the show was drawing to a close, Finebaum let us know that he had an obligation on WBRC Fox 6 Sports for the 6 p.m. television broadcast. He would be leaving immediately as the radio show went off the air, but made sure the students had his email address in case they ever needed anything.

As the show closed, as it has every day for more than a decade, Semisonic’s 1998 hit song “Closing Time” played, with the opening lyrics being:

“Closing time,
Open all the doors and let you out into the world.
Closing time,
Turn on all the lights on every boy and every girl.
Closing time,
One last call for alcohol so finish your whiskey or beer.
Closing time,
You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”

What better advice could he have given to a group of future graduates?

Austin Phillips is an adjunct journalism instructor at Auburn University. He can be reached at [email protected]


Related: First mention of Paul Finebaum in Alabama sports media was in 1977 Plainsman story on Toomer’s Corner.

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