CHARLOTTE — In many ways, the office at 11001 Rushmore Drive at Ballantyne Corporate Park in Charlotte is like any other.
Guests have to sign in at the front desk for two friendly security guards. Employees use company-issued key cards to open the door. Coworkers chitchat in the break room and engage in typical water-cooler talk: “Did you see the game last night?”
Most everyone works in a cubicle, and while each of them is a window into the inhabitant’s personality, an obvious theme — footballs, helmets, a cutout of LSU coach Ed Orgeron’s head blown up to 10 times its normal size — is on display. A group of half a dozen is gathered in the bullpen area at 10:30 a.m. to go over their plan for Tuesday.
Routine workplace accidents happen, too. Laura Rutledge just spilled her oatmeal on the floor. Some of it got on Paul Finebaum’s shoe.
Contrary to what you see in those commercials, players of various sports aren’t roaming the hallways in full uniform. Mascots aren’t sitting in on routine staff meetings. For the most part, the site of the SEC Network is archetypal Corporate America.
From the “SportsCenter”-like “SEC Now” hosted by Dari Nowkhah to the newly launched “Thinking Out Loud” co-hosted by former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy and one-time LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears, all the in-studio programming for DirecTV channel 611 and Dish Network channel 408 — cable subscribers, check your local listings — is filmed here.
I’ve been invited for a behind-the-scenes look at “The Paul Finebaum Show,” a radio-and-television simulcast that is essentially the soundtrack of the SEC.
From his humble beginnings in the 1980s on WAPI-AM in Birmingham, Finebaum now stars as maybe the most beloved radio host in the nation. Regional fame went coast-to-coast when he joined ESPN in 2014 and relocated to the Queen City.
Year after year, Finebaum’s presence at the Worldwide Leader has only expanded. Today alone, in addition to five hours of his own content — a four-hour radio/TV show on SEC Network is now preceded by a new 60-minute program of the same name on ESPN2 — he’s doing hits for “First Take” and “SportsCenter.” Any other day, it might be “Mike and Mike” and “Outside the Lines.”
In a room barely bigger than a walk-in closet, all of those appearances are done in front of a green screen here in Charlotte.
Back in the bullpen, co-producers John Hayes and Mark Kubiak spitball possible topics with their staff. Since Auburn is scheduled to visit LSU on Saturday, rehashing the famous “Earthquake Game” at Death Valley in 1988 seems apropos.
Other potential subjects: Are Florida’s alternate uniforms for its tilt with Texas A&M awesome or awful? Why is Brad Smith — he was a great QB, albeit back when Missouri was in the Big 12 — part of the SEC Football Legends class for 2017? What’s the nuttiest sound bite from Washington State coach Mike Leach’s 10-minute soliloquy on expanding the College Football Playoff?
Finebaum himself doesn’t participate much, though. He and Rutledge are both insisting on cleaning up the oatmeal currently on the carpet.
* * *
After his hit on “SportsCenter” but before he’s live on ESPN2, Finebaum has a small window of opportunity to take me to lunch.
Since Rutledge and I previously worked together for various arms of FOX Sports and are still friends, she comes with us. We pile into Finebaum’s Lexus RS 350 and fight uncommonly bad Ballantyne traffic. A road that didn’t require repaving is being repaved.
Because I’m his guest and we’ve been planning this a while, Finebaum is clearly a little embarrassed to admit that his usual lunch destination — even if his wife, Linda, has to bring it to him — is Smoothie King. Time is a factor, of course. He’s relieved to find out that I make a smoothie for breakfast every morning and wasn’t expecting steaks and cigars.
On the drive, I ask Finebaum to play word association: What’s the first thing that comes to mind for each fan base in the SEC?
Alabama: “most loyal”
Auburn: “we are family”
Florida: “very demanding” *
Georgia: “mostly content”
Kentucky: “they want it”
Ole Miss: “fun”
Mississippi State: “reasonable”
South Carolina: “knowledgeable”
Tennessee: “incredible” **
Texas A&M: “spirited”
Vanderbilt: “brainy” ***
* Rutledge, a class of ’11 at Florida, contributed to and fully agreed with his response
** A class of ’78 at Tennessee, his answer was given with a sardonic grin since he’s been critical of his alma mater recently
*** Linda, a doctor of internal medicine, did her residency at Vanderbilt and practices in Charlotte
Finebaum and I both order medium-sized 32-ounce smoothies, while Rutledge opts for a small 24-ouncer. She once competed in the Miss America pageant but always claims to eat like an actual human being. I’m yet to actually witness it.
While the three of us sit in a largely empty room — trying to conduct a professional interview while taking turns sipping smoothies through our straws — I join the list of people who find it odd that a 61-year-old, 135-pound Jewish man from Memphis has the most influential voice in the country’s most celebrated conference for college football.
He admits that he’s not a “paint-by-numbers broadcaster,” but he can’t walk 10 yards at Media Days in Hoover without signing an autograph or posing for a photo.
“I take my job seriously,” Finebaum tells me, “but I don’t take myself seriously. I think it’s funny because I’ve been around real celebrity.” He rattles off names like Cam Newton and Tim Tebow.
Even if he refuses to acknowledge it to me on the record, Finebaum can single-handedly change the temperature of the league with a comment on his show or a guest appearance on someone else’s. If he says a coach is on the hot seat, then that coach is on the hot seat.
“I would seriously dispute that I have any real power,” he says, although Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin probably disagrees after what Aggies athletic director Scott Woodward said on Finebaum’s set at the SEC’s spring meetings in Destin.
Widely regarded as a legendary interviewer — be it in sports or any field — Finebaum credits his tenure as a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald as the foundation of his career. So many radio and TV hosts are nothing more than shock jocks with no real experience in the trenches, plus he’s quick to brush aside the “you never played!” critics.
“I would be nothing without the expert background I have as a reporter,” he says. “That’s a lazy, unsophisticated and intellectually insufficient argument.”
His phone is full of contact information for the conference’s true decision makers, and they call him just as often as he calls them.
Frustrated fans always want a struggling coach fired, even if it means eight figures of buyout money out the door. But the titans of industry who actually write those checks? They rub elbows with Finebaum, and many of them ask him for advice.
There are countless programs for hardcore analysis — including several on SEC Network — but Finebaum has never professed to be some sort of Xs-and-Os guru. He believes his job is “steering conversation” between his murderer’s-row guest list and his cartoon-character regular callers. Ex-players simply can’t do what he does.
We exit Smoothie King to the tune of George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around.” Rutledge sings the chorus for the entirety of the ride back to the production building.
* * *
Contrary to how it may look on television, Hayes and Kubiak aren’t “on the other side of the glass” like most producers.
As a matter of fact, it’s a long walk from the control room to the studio itself. While Finebaum and Rutledge are in the studio with a couple of camera operators, Hayes and Kubiak are in the control room with six or seven other people.
There’s a reason why Finebaum always seems so encyclopedic with his knowledge on the air, and it’s partially due to Hayes and Kubiak being in his ear with various facts. Whether it’s how many consecutive times LSU has defeated Auburn at home (eight) or coach Bret Bielema’s record at Arkansas in SEC play (10-24), any and all information is a Google search away.
Remember that pre-show meeting at 10:30? Throw it out the window. Breaking news of a quarterback change at Tennessee has hijacked the proceedings entirely.
Quinten Dormady is out and Jarrett Guarantano is in for the Volunteers, so that’s the direction Finebaum goes to start the show. He and Rutledge have little time to digest the announcement before needing to comment on it.
On the fly, the show’s first guest will now be former UT receiver Jayson Swain, who is becoming Finebaum’s go-to guy for reaction on the Vols. Unfortunately, Swain has a weak cell-phone signal and doesn’t sound as good as Hayes and Kubiak had hoped when the appearance was booked. They cut bait on the interview sooner than anticipated.
No matter. Finebaum and Rutledge capably fill the time until the next commercial break. The two of them have obvious chemistry.
It’s clear that Finebaum has taken an interest in Rutledge, who has now become a staple of the show and basically serves as co-host on days like this one. On more than one occasion, he tells me that she’s really going places.
That being said, the reaction from Finebaum’s regulars has been mixed. Many callers have also grown quite fond of Rutledge — in all fairness, some of the comments she gets about her appearance score high on the creepy scale — and love talking to her as much as him. But there are still some Neanderthals who don’t want her cheetah-print heels anywhere near their precious pigskin.
Because Finebaum enjoys putting Rutledge on the spot when there’s nowhere for her to hide, the conversation has shifted to her previous stint as a beauty queen.
Back in the control room, everyone follows Finebaum’s lead and is now detailing the finer points of “Miss Congeniality,” which quickly morphs into a debate about the best Sandra Bullock movies. “The Proposal” gets a vote. “The Blind Side,” ironically, does not.
On-air time tends to fly, especially in the studio, but four hours of live radio/television goes at a much slower pace in the control room. As the third hour crawls into the fourth, the staff begins to focus more on their fantasy teams than the 44 screens — it’s tough to count them all without losing track — in front of them. Kubiak munches on some Tostitos.
In typical millennial fashion, Rutledge checks her cell phone every two minutes, even when on the air. But thanks to the production crew, the TV audience never actually sees her do it.
* * *
I only host a couple of podcasts per week in addition to some radio hits, yet there are times when my vocal cords can’t take it anymore.
How Finebaum finds the energy to do five hours per day from Monday to Friday, not to mention the work he puts in on weekends during football season, is simply astounding to me. I’m not even counting all the extra appearances on ESPN’s family of networks.
During my time with him, Finebaum does a hit for “First Take” at 11:30, pre-records an interview for his SEC Network show with Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson at 12:00, does a spot with “SportsCenter” at 12:15, pre-records another interview for his ESPN2 program with play-by-plan man Joe Tessitore at 1:30, hosts his ESPN2 show from 2:00 to 3:00 and then hosts his SEC Network program from 3:00 to 7:00.
While he gets to take two mini breaks when the pre-recorded interviews run, even then Finebaum tends to be chatting it up off the air.
What’s really a pleasure to witness is the transition from ESPN2’s spin on “The Paul Finebaum Show” to SEC Network’s classic version of “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Keep in mind that one is ending just as the other is beginning, albeit on different channels.
In terms of the set, ESPN2’s show consists of little more than Finebaum and Rutledge sitting in tall chairs at a glass table, while SEC Network’s program features Finebaum behind his tchotchke-friendly desk — many of them gifts from his listeners — with Rutledge perched off to the side. However, everything is shot in the same room.
A symphony of furniture rearrangement and camera placement begins at 2:58 and is done, stress-free, by 2:59. It’s hypnotic to watch.
You don’t have to cruise the internet for very long to find alarming video of ESPN personalities like Chris Berman cussing out staffers throughout commercial breaks because they’re not performing their duties up to his impossibly high standards.
Finebaum, on the other hand, couldn’t be more of a gentleman from the moment I meet him in the morning to the time I walk him to his car at night. He enjoys making fun of himself — Hayes, Kubiak and Rutledge get their fair share of burns, too — and doesn’t appear to have an ounce of control freak in him. Like an elite coach, he delegates.
Even more amazing, for someone with a loyal legion of daily worshippers at his proverbial pulpit, Finebaum never displays any ego.
Instead, he defers to Rutledge. He defers to Hayes and Kubiak. He even defers to his callers, both frequent and first-time, no matter if they seem to know what they’re talking about or maybe managed to dial the phone through a psych ward-issued straightjacket.
The callers. Oh, those callers. In many ways, they’re the true stars of the show. Today, it’s Tyler from Oak Ridge. Connie from Chattanooga — her take on the Volunteers is that “they have a sucky defense,” drawing big laughs from the control room. Joe from Red Bay. Millie from Rolla, who toes a fine line between fan and stalker. She once sent a framed photo of herself to Finebaum. It’s now one of his whatnots.
Another fact I find fascinating: The show wraps up at 7:00, and its host is out the front door and driving home by 7:05.
* * *
Despite spending all day with them, a chance never presented itself to formally interview Hayes, Kubiak or Rutledge.
They say you can judge the character of a man by the company he keeps. But in this profession, you can judge the character of a man by how fast the company he keeps responds to requests for follow-up comments on a feature story.
Before I got on my late flight back to Tampa, I contacted Hayes, Kubiak and Rutledge separately by text message and asked them to e-mail me their impressions of being such integral parts of Finebaum’s life. Hayes and Kubiak sent me theirs the next morning. Rutledge — preparing for her own trip to Tuscaloosa — responded in less than an hour.
Many such requests go unanswered, by the way, even by fellow members of the media. Not this time. They couldn’t wait to oblige.
“When John Hayes approached me about spending extended time on Paul’s show, I was immediately interested and decided I would do whatever it takes to make it work,” Rutledge wrote. “I’m forever grateful to everyone in the Finebaum family for accepting me in their own way. Paul is one of my favorite people. He is extremely smart, hysterically funny and truly kind. He has taken an investment in my career, and we have become good friends.”
“Every day is something different,” Kubiak wrote. “Every day you can expect the unexpected. I learned early that I can work on a plan for the show, and within minutes it can change drastically. What you have to do is roll with it. That is what makes the show unique and different.”
“What you see and hear on Finebaum is the culmination of a lot hard work by our dedicated staff,” Hayes wrote. “We work as a team to try and serve college sports the best we can with a mixture of news and entertainment. I take pride in allowing fans to be a part of the conversation. Phone lines are always open.”
From the ridiculous to the absurd, I saw just about everything. I stood right outside the door when Finebaum continued his war of words with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on “First Take,” referring to him as the “champion of April.”
But I was also witness to the sublime, most notably the one-on-one interview Finebaum did with Gene Stallings. The former national title-winning coach at Alabama has been having health problems, but their decades-long friendship — each made sure to say hello to the other’s wife at one point — produced amazing conversation. Every subsequent caller was in awe.
Yes, Finebaum cuts off his guests. Sure, many of his callers are annoying. Still, sometimes it’s cathartic to just toss another log on the fire and marvel at the flames.
According to Kubiak, Alabama fans are the easiest to deal with on the show. Needless to say, when your school is in the middle of an unprecedented decade of dominance, there aren’t many reasons to buzz 866-765-7285 and go on a rant.
Florida fans, on the other hand, are the toughest to deal with in Kubiak’s opinion. The Gators have been to the SEC Championship Game two years in a row, but because their path to Atlanta wasn’t especially pretty — no offense, all defense — there’s still a lot of rebellion in Gainesville. Style points matter to some teams more than others.
It’s also the furthest thing from coincidence that news in the conference tends to break just as Finebaum is set to come on the air.
“What I love about Paul’s show is it’s the most incredible place to share stories, opinions and laughs,” Rutledge wrote. “It’s a gathering place that welcomes all kinds, and I find that beautiful. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and while every day on the show is an adventure, it’s one I never want to miss.”
“We are on for 20 hours a week, and when we walk out at seven o’clock, Paul, John and I have to come back the next morning and do it all over again,” Kubiak wrote. “It is a rush that I have grown to love.”
“Sports are supposed to be fun and sometimes serve as a distraction from a lot of horrible things that are happening in our country and around the world,” Hayes wrote. “If we can, for 25 hours a week, be a positive influence on people’s lives and give football fans something to look forward to, I think we’ve done our job well.”
Finebaum is surrounded by young people. His show has done a marvelous job since making the transition from Birmingham to Charlotte of staying true to its analog roots yet simultaneously embracing digital technology. Rutledge and Hayes are 29. Kubiak is 38.
Nevertheless, during those daily pre-show production meetings — when he’s not doing a segment for “Mike and Mike” or “Outside the Lines” — Finebaum sits beside them in the bullpen, not in some corner office. He’s won countless awards over the years, both as a reporter and a radio host. Not one of them is on his desk.
That space is reserved for the doodads, knickknacks and trinkets sent to him by the “Pawwwl” types. Say what you want about Finebaum, but he knows his target audience.
Photos: John Crist-Saturday Down South
John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South and also hosts the SDS podcast. He’s an award-winning member of the Football Writers Association of America and a voter for both the Heisman Trophy and Biletnikoff Award.