Special to ESPN.com
Editor's Note: In Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, author Warren St. John hits the road for four and a half months in a beat-up 1978 motor home -- the Hawg -- as part of the RV convoy that follows the Alabama Crimson Tide, in an effort to figure out what makes fans tick. Here, he meets up with hated Birmingham talk-show host Paul Finebaum for a tense day in Tuscaloosa, as the Tide meets arch-rival Tennessee.
Excerpted from Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer by Warren St. John Copyrightę 2004 by Warren St. John. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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There are more RVs than usual in Tuscaloosa this weekend; the Tennessee game is the most anticipated home game of the year. Alabama's rivalry with Tennessee is as intense as any, even Auburn. This is the game that prompted a Birmingham couple named Freeman and Betty Reese skip their own daughter's wedding for football, and it usually prompts a day-long work stoppage across Alabama, along with numerous brawls across the South in the sports bars of the fan diaspora. The 1901 matchup set the tone of rivalry for the years to come. "The game was tied 6-6 when an official made a controversial ruling," the Birmingham News wrote of the game. "Fans from both sides rushed onto the playing field to voice objections. The contest was called off and 2,000 supporters engaged in fisticuffs until police restored order." Since then, things have gotten only marginally more civil. At least some of the animosity can be explained by a peculiar feature of the Alabama-Tennessee series: its streakiness. A team rarely wins just a single game in the series; instead, it dominates for years. Tennessee has won nine of the last ten games. Before that, Alabama won seven. Ill will toward a rival accrues exponentially with each consecutive loss, so there's plenty of ill will toward Tennessee on reserve among the Bama faithful.
Among the RV-ers, though, on the Thursday before the game, ill-will is directed foremost not at arriving Tennessee fans, but at University of Alabama officials, who after a chaotic parking situation at the Arkansas game two weeks back, have decided to institute new parking rules for RV-ers. The university is selling a limited number of parking permits for $25 each, and even for those with permits, they've made the lot off-limits to RVs until 8:00 a.m. Thursday morning.
Driving down Bryant Drive in the Hawg on Thursday morning, I see from a distance that the new parking policy isn't going over well; through the gauzy morning haze I can clearly make out a stroboscopic bouquet of red and blue lights in the distance at the lot entrance. The barricade of police cars gives the lot the appearance less of a tailgate party than of an accident scene. A line of motor homes stretches nearly a mile down Bryant Drive, from the Law Library lot all the way back to McFarland Boulevard. The system seems intentionally designed to provoke a riot; it requires that everyone seeking to obtain a parking pass line up in person at the lot, so anyone unfortunate enough to have parked a mile away has to walk or thumb a ride up to the lot to get in line, and then wait. I park the Hawg near the stately, beer-glazed mansions on fraternity row, walk over, and get in the line. A group of university officials sits at a card table at the front of the lot, outnumbered fifty to one by dyspeptic RV-ers; they've obviously called the cops to keep order. Tempers are already flaring.
"Y'all 'bout taken all the fun out of it," a man shouts at the officials.
"Shit, if this is the way it's gonna be, we might as well go on back to Legion Field," a man in a velour crimson jumpsuit chimes in. He takes a sip of coffee from a Styrofoam cup and glares at the university cop who's directing traffic.
"That guy's gonna look funny with a motor home up his ass," he mumbles to no one.
No one is happy about this new process, but there is one person who is unhappier than most: a bugle-throated RV-er named Skipper. He's at the front of the line, gesticulating before a beleaguered-looking university official wearing a red blazer and a world-weary expression: the wizard who came up with the idea of parking permits in the first place. As Skipper orates on the absurdity of the parking policy, the official stands impassively, his arms crossed and chin tucked deep into his neck, like a baseball umpire facing down an angry manager. Skipper doesn't get anywhere, so he does what any self-respecting Southerner would do when confronted by an authority he considers illegitimate: he secedes.
With a single furious gesture, Skipper motions to his gang, who loyally fall out of line and follow him toward their respective RVs.
"What's he doin'?" the man in front of me asks.
"He's leavin'," comes a voice from the front of the line.
The city has recently opened an empty lot to RVs on a bluff overlooking the river in downtown Tuscaloosa. No one much thought to take the city up on the offer-it's a good deal farther from the stadium than the Law Library lot, is surrounded on two sides by raucous bars, and is far removed from the communal atmosphere of the established RV lots around campus-but Skipper now does so in grand fashion. He casts a condemning look at those of us in line who are too weak to join his cause, then gets in his RV and leads his caravan into the lot, where they turn around theatrically, in a kind of victory lap, and roar past us, a cloud of dust and diesel smoke in their wake.
"God Almighty," an older man in line behind me says. "I haven't seen anything this screwed up since World War II."
I never thought it could happen, but I'm beginning to develop an animosity to the Alabama fight song. I managed to sleep soundly through the long freight trains that run just behind Law Library lot during the night, but at 7:00 a.m. on gameday, the sound of "Yea Alabama!" blared from the air horns of neighboring RVs causes me to jerk upright. It's beginning to grate, like an alarm clock with no off switch. I put some coffee on the Hawg's propane stove, and call Paul Finebaum - the most despised man in Alabama.
Finebaum-ubiquitous as a newspaper columnist, talk radio host, and evening sportscaster-is as obsessed with Alabama football as the most die-hard fan, but from the opposite perspective. He's an antifan, a tireless shit stirrer and controversy monger whose specialty is not X's and O's-you'll never hear him debating the finer points of a blocking scheme or talking about the pros and cons of man-to-man coverage over zone-but instead: firings, scandals, NCAA investigations, the impact of a bad season on the job security of university officials, the personality flaws of various coaches. The intro to his daily call-in radio show offers an only slightly hyperbolic boast of Finebaum's strange but ineluctable power over Alabama fans: against a background of raucous heavy-metal power chords, an announcer cheerily declares: "It's the Paul Finebaum Show: where legends are made, and most coaches are fired!"
Finebaum has made a career, quite simply, of offending Alabama fans. He stumbled into this role in the early 1980s when, in his first story as a sports reporter at the Birmingham Post-Herald, he exposed the illegal recruiting of a star Alabama athlete. He was sued (unsuccessfully) and denounced statewide for his scoop-his bosses quickly made him an opinion columnist "for liability reasons," he says-and from his editorial post he continued to offend the locals: "Welcome to the State of Alabama-Loserville, USA," began a typical early piece. He mocked Bear Bryant and Pat Dye, the Auburn coach, with abandon. He insulted players. He taunted fans. But a funny thing happened. The more egregiously Finebaum offended Alabamians, the more eager they were to buy the Post-Herald to read him. Finebaum got his own local television show, and the radio show-it started at two hours and now spans four-is by far the highest-rated talk show in Alabama.
On the air, Finebaum continued his assault on the Tide faithful. After Alabama head coach Ray Perkins's losing season in 1984, Finebaum broadcast a parody tune on his radio show called "Dig 'Im Up," in which he suggested that Alabama would be better off with the corpse of Bear Bryant on the sideline than with a living Ray Perkins. Finebaum is perhaps not the most likely Alabama sports shock jock. For one thing, his air is more that of a professor than a jarhead. He never yells on the air, and his delivery is low-key and caustically dry. In person, he's physically slight and distinctively bald. Finebaum is also Jewish, which in a Bible Belt football state might provoke more commentary were it not for another detail in Finebaum's background that went much further in defining him as an outsider than his ethnicity or religion: Finebaum is a graduate of the University of Tennessee. Even circumspect Tide fans harbor a suspicion that he has been sent here as part of a plot to undo us. Consequently, Finebaum, for all his commercial success, doesn't have an easy life in Birmingham. Fans carry anti-Finebaum banners to games- "Go to hell Finebaum" is a typical message. He's been heckled on the putting greens at charity golf tournaments and, once, chased through a parking lot by an enraged fan. When Finebaum spoke to a local high school assembly, a student released a live possum into the audience, causing panic. (It's a measure of Finebaum's unpopularity that instead of disciplining the student, the high school's administrators banned any future appearances by Paul Finebaum.) He is sued with regularity, most recently by a rival Birmingham sportscaster whose softball interview techniques Finebaum compared on the air to fellatio.
Finebaum also gets death threats. He says he doesn't take them seriously, but he lives in a gated community with a full-time security guard, just in case. In the introduction to a collection of his columns, a friend wrote, "If Finebaum were found dead facedown in a Birmingham drainage ditch, the list of prime suspects would immediately be reduced to 200,000."
This is my companion for gameday in Tuscaloosa.
At mid-morning, I'm standing in front of the Hawg when I see Finebaum scurrying toward me in the lot, head down, shuffling along cautiously like someone dodging sniper fire. His bald dome instantly identifies him, and fans in the crowd begin to shout his name.
"Hey Paul," a Tide fan yells as Finebaum approaches. "People in Alabama hate you, man!"
Finebaum follows me into the Hawg, and we close the door. Outside, a group of fans gather and point at my RV, which makes us both nervous-Finebaum is worried about his physical safety, and I'm worried about how the hardcores will react toward me when they learn I've harbored the enemy. We decide to make a dash out of the lot and toward the stadium before things get out of hand. I have an invitation to stop by a tailgate party hosted by executives of a local trucking company, and figuring they'll be a more buttoned-down crowd and therefore more likely to tolerate him, Finebaum agrees to come along. On the way to the stadium Finebaum comes in for a steady barrage of taunts-"Who's gonna win today, Paul?" "Hey, Paul-how's Tuscaloosa treatin' you?" "Hey, Paul-thought you'd be in the Tennessee locker room by now." The sphere of Alabama football is so close-knit that even Finebaum's enemies consider themselves to be on a first-name basis with him. Finebaum himself finds all the attention unsettling, so halfway up Bryant Drive, he insists we stop at a souvenir stand, where he buys a red Alabama cap. He hands the woman at the stand a wad of money and doffs the cap, pulling the brim low over his eyes to shield his face and that distinctive bald head from passersby.
"This is an $18 investment in my own security," he says.
A block from the stadium, we come across a massive Prevost motor home, decked in orange and attended by a small pack of photographers. The governor of Tennessee is on board, one of them says. Finebaum may be afraid of the masses, but he's fearless toward celebrities and the well known-people for whom the price of whacking him upside the head is prohibitively high. A moment later, the governor steps outside and Finebaum introduces himself. After a few minutes of small talk, Finebaum has managed to talk the puzzled governor into letting us have a tour of the million-dollar RV, which is owned by one of the governor's supporters.
"I've got one like this at home," Finebaum tells the owner's wife.
"You do?" the woman says, taken by the coincidence.
"Yeah," Finebaum deadpans. "I call it my house."
Neither the hostess nor the governor find the remark at all humorous, so we're out of there. We walk across the street to the trucking company reception, in an apartment complex adjacent to Bryant-Denny on Wallace Wade Avenue. The trucking company is Welborn Transport, which runs a fleet of eighteen-wheelers that supply grocery stores around the South. Executives at the company own several apartments in the shadow of the stadium and rent them out to students on the condition that the company can throw parties there on game days. They've run the students out and set up a bar inside and a buffet on the porch, with baskets of corn chips, platters of red sticky barbecue, and piles of white bread and hamburger buns. The guests are well-to-do locals-women with fixed, topiary-like hairdos and bright red lipstick, just so, who wear large knit purses at their sides and permasmiles. The men are in oxfords, ironed blue jeans, Rockports, and blue baseball caps with the company logo above the brim. I stand in line for a barbecue sandwich and lose Finebaum for a few minutes. When I find him again he's standing in a corner with his hands in his pockets, his eyes wide but flat and black, like someone having a flash-back.
"I gotta get outta here," he says. "I'm getting looks."
For a moment, I think Finebaum is joking, but seeing his eyes scan the room as though he were watching a ping-pong match, I realize he's serious. I flip my barbecue sandwich into a garbage can and follow him out the door and across the street into the stadium and to the only place in Tuscaloosa where he might possibly feel comfortable: the press box.
The place is crowded with dozens of newspaper reporters and local newscasters, all of whom seem to recognize Finebaum, even if he doesn't recognize them. They greet him with bemused smiles that suggest they understand the act of courage it took for Finebaum to come to Tuscaloosa-either that or the irony of his wearing an Alabama cap. Finebaum seems taken aback by the friendly reception.
"Maybe they think I have cancer or something," he says.
The view from inside the press box is new to me, and not altogether pleasant. Looking down into the stadium, effervescing with color and sound-the crowd, the bands, strains of "Sweet Home, Alabama" ricocheting off the bleachers from the cheerleaders' PA system-is like sitting on the rim of a champagne glass and not being allowed to sip. An announcer repeatedly warns us over a loudspeaker that cheering in the press box is prohibited. This ought to be interesting, I tell myself; I've never not cheered at an Alabama game. Cheering in the press box is considered rude, because others are writing or broadcasting live. And anyway, the esprit de corps among sports reporters demands they deny that sports have any power over them, the way soldiers deny fear; they're quite above all the silliness outside. I, on the other hand, am one with that silliness.
My first test comes when Alabama runs onto the field, the band chugging away at the fight song, which is no longer annoying, but rather inspiring and life affirming. I have an urge to sing. But I resist, and instead nod clinically, so as not to give away the feeling that I'm witnessing a near-religious experience. For the first five minutes of the game, I manage to keep my cool. A few routine running plays make the effort more bearable. But then: a holding call against Alabama, which reflexively causes me to bark "bullshit" at the top of my lungs. Finebaum gives me a disapproving look, as though I've belched at the dinner table, as do a few of the reporters scribbling dutifully at their desks below. I collect myself; staying quiet is harder than I'd imagined. The Tide starts its second drive on its own one-yard line and then scraps its way across midfield. A quick pass from Zow to Milons and we're on the Tennessee twenty-five. Then Zow drops back and flips a short pass underneath to Alexander, who pauses, as if waiting to be hit, before realizing the Tennessee defenders are nowhere in sight. Alexander lowers his head and starts galloping downfield, and with each step the decibel level rises. When Alexander powers over a lone defensive back at the goal line and tumbles in for the score, the place explodes. I explode with them, letting out a terrific howl of pleasure. Finebaum has slinked away, so that no one knows we're together, and a few seconds later, a white-haired gentleman in a crimson blazer asks me-not rudely and not unsympathetically-to leave. I'm actually relieved; I've got an excuse now to ditch Finebaum and the other clinicians in the press box. I track him down and tell him I'll catch up with him after the game, then head down the elevator to the stands, where I belong.
Later in the second quarter Alabama can't capitalize on its momentum: a penalty on a jumping lineman wrecks a drive, and on the next play, the Vols' quarterback, Tee Martin, blasts up the middle for twenty yards-the beginning of a steady, disturbingly professional drive that ends in the Alabama end zone. The Vols are experienced and calm, alarmingly so, and their poise seems almost to erase Alabama's home-field advantage. The teams play rope-a-dope for the rest of the second quarter, and things settle down. Then just before the half, Zow is hit hard and comes up hopping awkwardly on one leg. Through his face mask, I can see him wincing. The effect of Zow's injury on the crowd is like the music being shut off in the middle of a party. Our backup, Watts, is a freshman, and lacks the experience we'll need to hang with the Vols. We need Zow badly. But at the half, he hops off the field as though he has a thorn in his foot.
The Vols get the ball at the the beginning of the third quarter, and go straight for Alabama's weakness, its secondary. Four minutes in, Martin heaves a pass down the left sideline to a diving receiver: touchdown. The Vols lead 14-7. When Alabama comes back on the field on offense, the question of Zow's status is answered when Watts enters as quarterback. Zow must be too injured to play. The earthmovers on the Tennessee defensive line quickly set to work on Watts, picking him up, dropping him, and smearing him into the ground repeatedly, like a clump of wet clay. Watts is so ineffective that the coaches put the injured Zow back in, but Zow can't plant his weight properly, and his throws are all arm, and all over the place-into the dirt, several stories above the receivers' hands, off toward the benches. With Alabama unable to pass, the Vols now defend the run; their linebackers shoot up the middle every time Alexander gets the ball, shutting down the lanes. Our offense is frozen. Then with eight minutes to go, the Vols' quarterback rolls out on an undefended bootleg and sees nothing but green. He jogs into the end zone untouched, and Tennessee leads by two touchdowns.
As the game wears on, it takes on a pathetic quality; watching Zow pass feels like watching a kid at the fair trying to throw impossibly small rings on impossibly large Coke bottles. The futility is soul rending. On a fourth down with a minute and a half to go, down by two touchdowns, Zow drops back for a final chance, and overthrows his receiver. Tennessee runs out the clock; they've won five in a row. The streak continues, but the misery feels as fresh as ever.
I walk down the stadium steps to the fence next to the field where Finebaum will be doing a live feed for the evening newscast. I quickly locate him; he's abandoned his Alabama cap and his bald head is easily visible among the helmets of the players exiting the field. A woman in the stands is heckling him-"Smile Paul! Smile Paul! Smile Paul!" as he awaits his cue, but Finebaum doesn't seem the least bit intimidated. In fact, he's smirking-a delighted little sore winner's smirk. When the camera goes live, Finebaum picks up on an old theme: "University of Alabama president Andrew Sorensen walked out on the field late in the game and fans started chanting 'We need a new coach!' 'We need a new coach!' " he tells his viewing audience. I'd missed that particular chant, but Finebaum, with his acute ear for scandal, not only heard it but leads with it. After the live feed ends, Finebaum walks over to the fence to say hello. Up close he seems frazzled; perhaps a day's worth of taunting and heckling has taken its toll on his nerves.
"What'd I say?" he asks me. "I feel like I'm in a trance."
To tell the truth, I want to throttle him. The reporter in me-the part of me that can appreciate his ironic distance from the game and Finebaum's role as court jester of the state of Alabama-has been utterly subdued by the fan in me, which has no appreciation whatsoever for irony and can't conceive of detachment. Truth be told, there's not a joke in the world that could make me laugh now, and worse than that, with the fan in control, I feel mocked, alongside DuBose and the rest of the Alabama team. Knowing Finebaum's secret delight as a
Tennessee grad only intensifies the hostility. This isn't funny, I have an urge to scream-this is football!
I'm not alone. Perhaps a dozen Alabama fans are now taunting Finebaum, who, fortunately for himself, is at a safe remove, separated from the pack by a chain-link fence. I wish Finebaum luck getting out of Tuscaloosa with his limbs intact, and suddenly he's the one incapable of ironic detachment; instead of smiling, he winces. Perhaps with tens of thousands of frustrated Alabama fans running around, a good many of them depressively drunk, Finebaum's safety is no laughing matter. We shake and go our separate ways, in our separate moods.
Later in the evening, I tune in the local news for the game recap, entertaining the faintest of hopes that perhaps the replay will show a different result and prove the day just an unpleasant hallucination. I have no such luck; there it is: 21-7 Tennessee. The local station had a reporter at the stadium to gauge fan reaction after the game, and he approaches a glassy-eyed Alabama fan with long hair and a blond mustache who looks as though he walked off the cover of a Lynyrd Skynyrd album. He's obviously drunk, hanging flaccidly on his date's shoulder like a worn trench coat.
"Sir, what's your reaction to the game?" the reporter asks.
The man halts, and tucks his chin into his neck, as if he's about to belch; the drunkard's look of contemplation. He says nothing.
"What about Mike DuBose?" the reporter tries. The man jerks to.
"Oh we just love head coach Mike Du-bose," the man says gently. A sinister smile creeps across his face and he leans into the camera.
"Yeah -- RIGHT!" he barks.