COLUMBIA — Paul Finebaum isn't just a voice.
In the Southeastern Conference, he is "the" voice.
Wright Thompson, a senior writer for ESPN.com, thought Rick Bragg put it best. Bragg, a professor at the University of Alabama, told him there are two types of people in Alabama: The people who admit they listen to Finebaum and the liars.
Finebaum, 57, hosts "The Paul Finebaum Show", also known as "F-bomb," weekdays from 2 to 6 p.m. from Birmingham, Ala. As a guest on the show from time to time, Thompson learned that it was not a normal sports talk show. This one is heavily driven by callers.
On the show last week, an Alabama fan called in asking if Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron could win the Heisman Trophy. The show is still dominated by callers from Alabama, so the Crimson Tide's weak schedule, Auburn's coaching problems and a new top recruit for Alabama coach Nick Saban are all also topics of discussion.
As irrelevant as a topic might be, it can be heard on Finebaum's show. And there are some very irrelevant topics. At the end of one show, a 77-year-old man called in. Before he asked his question, the man alluded to a court case he was involved in for some reason. Finebaum inquired.
"He got into some conversation about some live-in girlfriend of his from 20 or 30 years ago who is still in civil court with him and has accused him of rape," Finebaum said over the phone.
Finebaum said strange conversations are typical, though he doesn't think he'll ever top the day that Harvey Updyke Jr. called in saying he had poisoned the two trees at Toomer's Corner on the Auburn campus.
"That's who we are," Finebaum said. "And as surprising or shocking as that may have been to someone, calls like that are what we're all about."
The heart of the show is still the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, but the show has expanded in recent years. The show is now carried by 18 radio affiliates in Alabama, two in Florida and one in Missouri after KFNS in St. Louis picked up the show in late September. The show is in its third year on Sirius XM radio, so it reaches listeners across the country and in Canada. Listeners can also tune in at Finebaum.com.
As the audience has grown, Finebaum's voice has become even more powerful. He says "The Voice of the SEC" title stuck after he was introduced with the moniker once on ESPN.
In 2009, an article in the Orlando Sentinel ranked Finebaum as the eighth most powerful person in the SEC. The article said Finebaum's "barbs can influence a coach's fate."
"I would be naive to think that it hasn't happened," Finebaum said, when asked if his influence has ever led to a coach's firing.
He says a radio show allows him to criticize coaches in a subtle way. Rather than repeatedly call for a coach to be fired, as a columnist might try, Finebaum just holds daily conversations on the radio, without making a proclamation.
"He has this army of listeners," Thompson said in a phone call. "If you're a head coach, you just want to make real sure that Paul Finebaum likes you."
Finebaum does have good relationships with some coaches. He and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier have a long friendship going. Finebaum says he also knows Saban well.
Finebaum's relationship with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, however, doesn't seem to be off to the best start. After Missouri joined the SEC, Pinkel went on Finebaum's show to talk about the move. But recently, Pinkel pretended to not know who Finebaum was after the host said Tigers' quarterback James Franklin needed to "man up."
The two shows after Pinkel's comments, Finebaum says he spent more time talking about Missouri than Alabama or Auburn. He had fun with it, promoting the show on Twitter and saying Pinkel declared "war" on him.
"It became an enormous topic. And it became an enormous topic because of Gary Pinkel," Finebaum said. "Had he reacted in a normal, intelligent fashion to the question in the St. Louis radio station, none of this would have happened. But he didn't. His reaction was petulant, and predictable, and he opened the door. And then he really opened the door by just getting waylaid by South Carolina. That was just an embarrassing performance from where I sat."
Finebaum, who says he embraced the addition of Missouri to the SEC and picked the Tigers to win against the Georgia Bulldogs, said he doesn't go out and seek to get coaches fired. But that doesn't mean he thinks Pinkel's job is safe.
"Gary Pinkel, his future at Missouri, is not going to be dictated by what's said on a radio station in Alabama," Finebaum said. "It's going to be dictated by what he does on the football field."
That could mean trouble for Pinkel. Finebaum said when he looked at Pinkel's resume, he only saw three "SEC-quality" years. So far, Finebaum said he is disappointed with Missouri's performance this season. Finebaum estimates Missouri won't be discussed much on his show for the rest of the year since Missouri had losses against Georgia and South Carolina.
What will be discussed? That's up to the callers.
"There are many, many shows in this country that are better, that have more knowledgeable hosts, that have a better guest lineups. I mean, we can't compete with ESPN and shows like that," Finebaum said. "But I will say that there is not a show in America that has a more fascinating group of callers than ours. I will boldly make that statement, and I think we back that up every day."