I retired from the Auburn faculty a year ago. I anticipated writing a farewell column with all of the insufferable self-importance of 44 years of work, 29 of them on a college faculty.
But nothing emerged worth writing, so I wrote nothing–though I took the last look out the empty office window pic.
Now, however, I’m ready–thanks to Paul Finebaum.
Paul and I graduated from SEC schools and began our journalism career in 1978. For the last almost 20 years, after I returned to Auburn, we became friends. Not “stop by and see you” type friends, but also not Trump-level “I don’t know who that is” dismissal.
On Thursday night, I listened to Bryan Curtis’s interview with Paul on his podcast, “The Press Box.” It’s definitely worth the listen; Paul speaks candidly of his long career.
He provides particular detail to that whirlwind of late 2012-early 2013, where Paul broke through from regional sports talk radio to ESPN/SEC Network media personality and best-selling author. As he describes the events, you can tell that he still hasn’t caught his breath, even as he proved equal to the moment.
The catalyst was a December 2012 feature in the New Yorker, by Reeves Wiedeman. I read through the longform article looking for my quote(s). Then I remembered that even though I was interviewed for almost an hour, I was not quoted. Reeves told me that my quotes had ended up on the cutting room floor, but so had Terry Saban’s, so I was in elite company.
(My memory conflated the New Yorker article with Jack Dickey’s January 2012 feature on Paul in Deadspin. I had a single quote in that article, poorly phrased, that I’ve regretted since.)
Remembering that New Yorker article, 10 years later, caused me to lapse into a futile “what if?” mode. What if I had been quoted in the article? Would I have become more recognized as a sports media history expert? Would my academic career have been different–maybe not on the same trajectory as Paul, but with a little higher profile?
I’ll stop there, as I did Thursday night. That reflection is as regrettable as the Deadspin quote. I share it only for its relevance to this column, not for my own embarrassment.
I stopped there because, well, here comes the retirement jabbering: Of course, my career–both professional and academic–was blessed beyond what anyone could deserve. To finish it with 18 years at Auburn, retiring with two books (one written and one edited), at the rank of full professor, with the memories and experiences I’ve had all 44 years, is plenty.
But I’m not done with Paul. As I said, Paul has been a friend, and was always a wonderful help to me and my students. He would always respond to interview requests–so reliable that I would warn students, “Be ready, because he will do the interview.”
Perhaps the high point we shared was in September 2019, when Paul had lunch with my Sports Reporting class. SEC Nation was in town for the Mississippi State game. Here is a Twitter video from the event. On Friday, a busy broadcast day, Paul was extremely generous with his time. It was such a great experience for him and for our students, and his interview afterward reflected just how much it meant to him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun at one of these SEC trips than today, because the students were so curious, so interested and such great listeners,” he told Brandon Etheredge, a videographer from the College of Liberal Arts who created that excellent Twitter video. “They really wanted to learn, and that just totally blew me away and inspired me to want to continue to do things like this.”
I didn’t tell Paul this, but after that, I began toying with the idea of bringing him in for a spring semester as a visiting professional. I mentioned it in to our school director as something I wanted to work on. Yes, I recognize that it would have drawn criticism, but I think that where Paul was in his career and life would have made it an ideal opportunity, and I would have gladly defended it.
Unfortunately, soon after, Paul had the follow-up interview with Harvey Updyke that he references in the podcast. Everything went five times sideways where Auburn was concerned, and I had to shelve the idea temporarily. Then came COVID, and everything got shelved. (COVID also took so much out of me that by Spring of 2021, I was not interested in extending my academic career.)
Recalling Paul’s words in 2019, I can see that to many folks, Paul included, teaching college students is an enviable career on many levels. I would add that teaching sports journalism at an SEC school is even better.
And so I came away from the podcast with some unexpected reflections that ended up in a good place. First, the retirement stuff:
Do I miss being on the Auburn faculty? On the one hand, it’s a little sad to be on campus (I still teach adjunct) and know that I am not as involved as I used to be, with the fellow faculty and students I enjoyed so much. On the other hand, there was a lot about the job–some meetings, memos, e-mails, administrative stuff–that I don’t miss.
So I’m OK with stepping aside, especially in an ever-evolving profession like journalism. I started in a print world with hard copy, cold type, and sized photos. I retire from a print-digital world with social media, constant deadlines, and multiple outlets. Others who grew up in today’s world are better equipped to teach it.
On the other hand, Paul talked in the podcast about his distaste with the thought of retirement (and yo did he have some opinions about golf!). But he handled that 2012-13 ride quite well, and it’s great to see him do so well with the amazing opportunities presented. Why retire now?
Could my career have turned out differently? Could a single interview left in a major magazine feature have made my life better? Perhaps. But when we focus on what we lack, we forget those things we have that are literally desirable to others.
I can’t change the past; I can only reflect on how the past has changed me, for the better. And I’m good with moving on, having experienced the better.