Book Review: Paul Finebaum’s Conference has Beaten Your Conference (Probably)

IMG-20140814-00138For someone who spends twenty hours a week on national airwaves as the host of an eponymous radio show, now simulcast on cable television, and makes regular television appearances on a major network, Paul Finebaum sure does manage to keep himself hidden.

I am not a longtime listener of Finebaum’s show by any means. I first remember hearing about him when I moved back to SEC country during the 2012 football season and he was still broadcasting on Birmingham’s WJOX. Due largely to my own preconceived misconceptions, I was surprised when I first heard the show following its move to ESPN Radio in 2013 to find that it was an extremely caller-driven show, to the point where Finebaum rarely asserted his own voice for purposes other than briefly sparring with or otherwise egging on his admittedly bombastic callers. At that time, the majority of those callers remained Alabama-based, and the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry served as nearly every item on the host’s go-to menu.

While a lot of this struck me as fairly standard cheap talk radio tactics, I remained intrigued by this person, who had risen to such prominence and reported influence, despite, I thought, hardly taking active steps to exert much in the way of influence. I therefore read the then-recent and still-surprising long feature on Finebaum in The New Yorker with great interest and anticipation. I found the piece to be more an introduction for Manhattanites to the other SEC and its attendant culture than a deep dive on Finebaum himself. Finebaum as access point, rather than Finebaum as subject. (A long Deadspin feature from the same year had a similar effect.) It’s a worthwhile read if you like college football. Still, I did not feel like I knew or understood this man, though, or why he was so widely regarded.

Fast forward (the lazy blogger wrote) to August 14, 2014. The SEC Network, an ESPN entity, launches (on Tim Tebow’s birthday, naturally), and Finebaum’s book, My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football, arrived in my mailbox.

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Why do you hate Johnny Manziel?

After Rice lost to Texas A&M on Saturday, Physguy put fingers to keyboard to write that he hates A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Why? It’s tough to tell, exactly. Physguy doesn’t like the on-field taunting and “trash talk to Rice players,” although he concedes that Rice players “were probably trash talking [Manziel] too but didn’t get flagged for it.” He also didn’t like it when Manziel asked his teammates to make room for him on the bench. (For completeness, I might as well add that Manziel apparently Tebowed too.)

When I saw the reigning Heisman Trophy winner make the gesture depicted above on Saturday, it reminded me of Gilbert Arenas’ guns-up pregame celebration following his suspension for presenting firearms in the Washington Wizards’ locker room. Probably not the smartest thing to do, given the context. But then again, guns and the people who use them kill people; autographs, given for a fee or otherwise, do not.

More on context though: 1) the “money” touchdown celebration isn’t a new one for Manziel or A&M; 2) as the USA Today article to which Physguy linked explains, Nick Elder, one of Rice’s own players, defended Manziel, tweeting that he was the player to whom Manziel was talking, and the message was, “what’s up nick, nice hit”; and 3) to state the obvious about football players, Manziel isn’t even the first quarterback to engage in attention-seeking celebrations.

For more on that third point, consider that Manziel’s celebrations are self-referential, and, as such, perhaps preferable. Former Boise State quarterback and probable Detroit Lions starter at some point this season Kellen Moore favored the “double-guns-shoot-your-coach” touchdown celebration. Nothing really wrong with that, but if we’re being hyper-sensitive to these things, there’s at least an element of violence there. It isn’t directed at the other team, like Tim Tebow’s gator chomp, or disrespecting a team’s stadium or symbols.

Maybe Physguy, a Rice fan, is sore because of Manziel’s success against the Owls– in about 1.25 quarters of play, Manziel had three TD passes and no interceptions, going 6/8 for ninety-four yards through the air and nineteen more on the ground– which is ok (Rice sometimes lets games slip away in the second half), but fans of a losing team can’t really quibble with celebrations that are a (showy, but non-offensive to the other team) variant of pointing to the scoreboard. At least Manziel was celebrating successful plays on the way to a win for his team. Over-celebrating when you’re losing is worthy of a critical blog post (e.g., Cam Newton last fall against the Giants); when you’re winning, such are the spoils of victory.

And if it’s perceived snarkiness that concerns Physguy– he wrote that “my Rice Owls . . . stayed classy”– what does he have to say for his beloved Marching Owl Band, which played to the current controversy at least as much as Manziel by wearing Manziel-autograph t-shirts as their uniforms for the day?

Towards the end, Physguy writes: “But this story, despite the title, isn’t about Manziel. It’s first about the media coverage of him.” The frequency with which the ESPN announcers mentioned Manziel and the focus of its cameras on the temporarily suspended quarterback drew Physguy’s scorn. The controversial return to action of the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy is a hugely appropriate story for coverage, though. If Physguy is disappointed that the coverage of Manziel came at the expense of coverage of his team, he should consider that without Manziel on the other side of the ball, Rice isn’t playing on national television last weekend. Moreover, if he really wanted to take issue with the Worldwide Leader’s treatment of a young Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, he should have focused his critical eye on ESPN’s coverage of the New England Patriots’ decision to release Tim Tebow, which aired to the exclusion of an actually compelling human interest story surrounding NFL preseason roster cuts.

Rather than address Physguy’s final full paragraph, which finds him even further afield from the topic at hand, I’ll end by saying that I hope Johnny Manziel can keep it together on and off the field this season, because I want to see him play. While he almost certainly is headed to the NFL next year, I don’t think he has a lot of professional potential. Let’s enjoy Johnny (College) Football in his element as long as we can. No need to hate.

Jeff Driskel gator chomps the Commodores: Florida 31, Vanderbilt 17

ALDLAND was in Nashville last weekend (as if it isn’t always there) for the Florida-Vanderbilt game and sundry Music City revelry. I was at the game on Saturday night. Bdoyk could not take a break from forty-eight straight hours of honky tonking to attend. Magalan was supposed to be in the stadium too, sitting a row behind me, but I never did spot him on the inside, which likely was due to my inability to visually identify him in his Gator colors.

The Vanderbilt defense seemed to encounter the same challenge, demonstrating difficulty stopping the Florida run game in general, and mobile quarterback Jeff Driskel in particular. In my game preview, I suggested that the relevant analogy for this VU opponent was Georgia. Instead, the game probably was more similar to Vandy’s game earlier this season against Northwestern. While the Dores grabbed an early lead in this one, they were unable to maintain it. Still, the game was exciting throughout, the home team rarely beyond a one-score deficit until Driskel’s back-breaking touchdown run at the end of the game.

A bright spot for VU was wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who had eight catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. The spotlight also shone on Coach Franklin and his staff, though, and the Commodores’ inability to run plays quickly at the goal line late in the game was a little concerning. Still, in a game in which Driskel topped Tim Tebow’s school rushing record, the little things aren’t going to be outcome-determinative.

One last printable highlight of the weekend came before the game started, when top golfer and Vanderbilt alum Brandt Snedeker stopped by our tailgate for a chat with some of his old buddies on his way into the game.

Holmes’ Lament

The AP reports:

A person familiar with the situation says New York Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes has a Lisfranc injury to his left foot, meaning the team’s struggling offense probably will be without its top playmaker for the rest of the season.

Holmes went down on the first play of the fourth quarter of the Jets’ 34-0 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday after catching a pass. X-rays on the foot were negative, but subsequent MRI exam results were sent to a foot specialist in North Carolina. The Jets’ fears were then confirmed, according to the person who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity Tuesday night because the team had not announced the severity of the injury.

Holmes was the best player left on a team that had already lost its best player, Derrelle Revis. That leaves only Mark Sanchez, Antonio Cromartie, and Timothy Richard Tebow as active Jets anyone’s possibly heard of, and they haven’t necessarily heard of those guys for the best reasons.

There’s little argument that Holmes’ departure seals the fate of a team already showing signs of being dead in the water. With their current 2-2 record, the Jets can’t be historically bad, but there’s absolutely nothing keeping them from being epically bad, and they’ve taken more than a few bounding steps down that path. The problem is that the pump arguably was primed for that destiny before the season began, before Revis and Holmes got injured, before Sanchez and Tebow gave us evidence of their stunted development as professionals, before Cromartie donned 2011 Holmes’ locker-room-killing mantle. Now we’ll never know for sure whether this Jets team, fully healthy, still would have been capable of the type of losing they’re in for. Not only does Holmes’ season-ending injury leave us irretrievably in this alternate-1985 reality, though. The real lament is that history will note the injury as an explanation, a rationalization, even a partial justification of what is sure to be a disastrous Jets season when these Jets were capable of such beautiful losing all along.

Upset Monday

As hoped for here on this site, Robert Griffin III became Baylor University’s first Heisman Trophy winner on Saturday night. Griffin was the clear choice for the award, in my mind, and the voters agreed.

No sooner had the Kentucky Wildcats become the top team in the basketball land then they went into Bloomington and fell to the unranked Hoosiers on a last-second three pointer. Unranked Michigan State went out west and beat a ranked Gonzaga team at their place, and unranked Murray State took down #20 Memphis on the road to go to 10-0 on the road.

In the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, and Denver Tebows held serve this weekend, doing what they’ve been doing the way they’ve been doing it all year. Despite a defense stripped by injuries and a suspension, the Lions held on to go to 2-0 on the year against division foe  Minnesota, a game Detroit had to have.

In the nascent NBA, the nixed Chris Paul trade still is on hold despite early reports that the Hornets, Lakers, and Rockets had reworked the deal. As I write this, the latest from ESPN’s “sources” is that the Los Angeles Clippers have moved onto Paul’s shortlist of acceptable destinations behind the Lakers and New York Knickerbockers.

The emerging offseason baseball story is NL MVP Ryan Braun’s positive PED test, but fans should be aware that Manny Ramirez, who I assumed was totally dunzo, may be back in baseball in the upcoming season.

The sum total of these and other stories lead me to believe that December is mere prelude to 2012’s sportspocalypse.

Programming note: ALDLAND’s live coverage of the biggest events in sports will continue in the coming weeks with NHL hockey and college football bowl games. Related, a recap of Michigan’s win over Ohio State in Ann Arbor will not run because I only got one good picture and it was a couple weeks ago and everybody knows what happened, and my only real insights on the experience were that there were more Nebraska fans in the Big House the week before than OSU fans that day and that people still have and are drinking Four Loko. Here’s the picture:

Big Monday

Today really isn’t a big day, and most of the weekend’s football games were duds, but there were a couple notable exceptions.

Saturday day was pretty slow around the college football world, but things picked up Saturday night, when two unbeaten teams, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, put their perfect records to the test and failed to preserve them. In East Lansing, Michigan State made it two in a row against the Badgers. Wisconsin dominated early, but the Spartans seized the momentum and the lead, which they held for most of the game. In typical MSU fashion, though, their attention lapsed and Wisconsin was able to tie the game at 31. With no time on the clock, QB Kirk Cousins threw a Hail Mary (or “Rocket” pass in Dantonio terminology– we always seem to learn the names of his game-winning plays) to the endzone that bounced off B.J. Cunningham’s face and into the waiting hands of Keith Nichol, who muscled it across the goal line for the walk-off score:

That game finished in time to watch Texas Tech complete its victory over Oklahoma, a game the Red Raiders mostly dominated, although the Sooners threatened to make it interesting late, after most of their fans had left. (Vanderbilt wrapped up a homecoming win against Army before both of these games.)

All of which caused me to miss a dominant performance by Albert Pujols in Game 3 of the World Series.

On Sunday, the Lions dropped their second straight game and looked a lot like their old selves. Speaking of which, I saw former Lion QB Dan Orlovsky on the sidelines in Indianapolis during their loss in New Orleans, which made me think that, of the three defeated NFL teams– Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Miami– the Colts may actually be trying to lose all their games. Orlovsky has to be a better option than Curtis Painter. He certainly was a serviceable player for the Lions last year, and Painter is not that. The Rams are suffering from critical injuries at QB and RB, and the Dolphins, who need Andrew Luck most of these three, really just are that bad. But Jim Caldwell’s decision to go with Painter over Orlovsky supports the notion that Indy is tanking this, although they really are pretty bad all on their own too. On the topic of rookie quarterbacks, Cam Newton turned his record-breaking stat parade into a win for Carolina, and Tim Tebow did what Tim Tebow now does, apparently, in his first start for Denver, coming from behind to beat the aforementioned and still hapless Dolphins in Miami.

In hockey, the Washington Capitals dealt the Detroit Red Wings their first loss of the year in a 7-1 Capitals home win.