Tammy must be in mourning. Tammy is the lunatic Auburn fan (and no, that's not redundant) who called into the Paul Finebaum radio show almost every day, gloating over every Tiger victory and defending the team after every loss. She was on the air more than Howard Stern. But it'll never be the same again. Paul Finebaum (or Pawwwwwwl, in caller-speak) is leaving Alabama.
ESPN made it official Thursday that Finebaum's show is moving to the Charlotte* studios of the new SEC Network. His radio show will re-launch in August under the ESPN banner, and a simulcast will air on the SEC Network when it starts up next year.
*Charlotte, my town, is fast becoming Bristol South. ESPNU is already here -- the SEC Network will be attached to its operation. And Fox Sports 1, Rupert Murdoch's attempt to go head-to-head with ESPN, is taking space here in the old Speed Network studios. Our city slogan -- "Like Atlanta, But Less Traffic" -- is finally kicking in.
This makes perfect sense. Finebaum gets a wider audience and (I assume) more money. ESPN gets an innings-eater to fill weekday afternoons on its new network. There's only so many old Egg Bowls you can show.
But there's one clear loser in all this, and that's the state of Alabama.
Many of us who grew up in the South, especially in Alabama or near it, have tried to capture what college football means there. It just means more than it does anywhere else, for reasons that have to do with culture and geography and chance. The state of Alabama has won the last FOUR national championships (Alabama three, Auburn one). Outside Alabama, this is an astonishing achievement. Inside Alabama, this is the world finally falling into its natural order.
There's no such thing as the offseason when it comes to Alabama college football. It's a never-ending movie. And for the past 20 years, the Finebaum show was the soundtrack. The show had an entire cast of regular callers who are as well-known in Alabama (at least by their voices) as the governor. Sometimes the show sounded like the audio version of comments on YouTube. Sometimes (as with Harvey Updyke) the show made news. Occasionally it found its way through the heat into the light. It was always compelling.
But what made the show compelling was the Alabama-ness of it. Finebaum sometimes steered into the larger sports world, especially after satellite radio syndicated the show, but it always found its way back to Auburn vs. Alabama. Finebaum has lived that rivalry as a radio host, and a sportswriter before that, for more than three decades. He does a radio show on college football in Alabama better than anyone else in the world. When he went off the air in January after his contract ran out, I just assumed he'd end up on a competing station. Birmingham felt like where he belonged.
Finebaum is a smart guy. Of course he can talk about other topics. I suspect he'll mostly be talking about SEC football on his new show, and the fans in Athens and Knoxville and Baton Rouge have a lot in common with the fans in Auburn and Tuscaloosa. I'm just not sure that the specific genius of that show in Alabama can scale.
Down here in the Carolinas, you can make a map of our region based on barbecue sauce. In the western part of the state, where I live, it's built around tomatoes and brown sugar. In the eastern part of the state, it's mostly vinegar and pepper flakes. In parts of South Carolina, they do a mustard-based sauce. They're all great. But they're all particular to their place. If you have vinegar sauce outside eastern North Carolina, even if it's the exact same recipe, somehow it doesn't taste as good.
I wonder if Paul Finebaum's sauce will taste as good to people all over the South. And I worry about Tammy and Legend and all those Alabama folks who are losing the special thing that was theirs. I'm sure Alabama radio stations are trying to find the next Finebaum as we speak. But I doubt they'll ever be Pawwwwwwl.
* * *