June 09, 2009
In the long lean months of summer, from the bloggers to the beat writers, no one itching for content is immune from a little easy offseason squirrel bait. Equal parts non-story, laziness and hot-button rabble-rousing, it's the refuge of even the best of us at one time or another.
Then there are veteran Mad Libbers like columnist/hobgoblin Paul Finebaum who, while actual Alabama news is breaking, can shake the 8-ball, open the inbox, blame Tommy Tuberville for the last three years of Iron Bowl backbiting in one swoop and be on the first tee by two:
In the wake of this war between the two fan bases, the question must be asked: Who started the fire? Did Auburn fans simply come up with these allegations? Or did someone higher up start making allegations privately, thus tangentially encouraging fans to start spreading the word on Saban?
Well, there is simple answer to that complex question.
Within weeks of Saban's arrival, Tuberville was making claims the new Alabama coach was breaking rules of every kind. He told this to his staff, certain media members and boosters.
The objective here is twofold: a) To remind the audience that Paul Finebaum is a Certain Media Member, and to b) rile up his core audience of baiters, haters and conspiracy theorists. Note how he expertly invokes the two topics guaranteed to draw blood from the Crimson Tide faithful: Auburn and Phillip Fulmer (briefly mentioned in a cunning aside for his alleged snitchin' on Tide recruiting malfeasance earlier this decade).
He paints by the belligerent numbers so skillfully that you hardly bother to notice that ... there's nothing there. Nothing to such a degree that we honestly wonder what Finebaum's doing putting this much effort into his word count. He could write the headline, "Is Tuberville at the heart of the rumor mill?" followed by an entire column consisting solely of the words, "Probably not," and gin up precisely the same level of traffic and righteous indignation on the Alabama boards.
The more we reread this piece, the more we admire its diabolical simplicity, the craft of it. It's not only a two-page gossip column about nothing of any verifiable substance whatsoever -- it cops straightaway to its vacuousness:
To date, there hasn't been a single allegation publicly made, but it hasn't stopped a barrage of charges to surface all over the Internet and in the mailboxes of major media members throughout the state.
Again, notice he's perfectly on message: Paul Finebaum is a Major Player who receives Major Allegations, and there's nothing to these allegations ... unless there is! We're reasonably sure he knows something about his sources and all, but it ain't in this story. He just says "Yeah, Tuberville, I heard about that," but he doesn't come close to backing it up even with second- or third-hand heresay. No, Finebaum carefully skirts even the barest hint of actual sourcing:
People have heard him make allegations about Saban and Alabama's recruiting in a public place with several ears trained on his voice.
Heady stuff. They heard 'im! It's sort of genius, in its way -- he's maximizing Alabama's dudgeon potential and will receive minimal pushback from Auburn fans, since Tuberville's not their problem anymore, which will just lend it additional credence. Until tomorrow, that is, when they're presented with their next shiny object. (Our money's on Lache Seastrunk being spirited around in an Escalade ... driven by the costumed Auburn mascot. Unless ... j'accuse! Lache Seastrunk is the Auburn mascot!)
The only bit of the whole operation that conveys a fact-like substance -- and the only part that suggests Finebaum has ever communicated with anyone in possession of actual information -- is a 25-year-old anecdote meant to convey the columnist's intimate knowledge of How These Things Work:
I'll never forget Pat Dye screaming over the phone one night to me about the man from Georgia Tech (then-Alabama coach Bill Curry), using every curse word in the book and some I had never heard. He was less concerned about the allegations (the NCAA ultimately cleared Auburn) than the fact Curry never bothered to call first.
"We had a deal," Dye said. "I did with Coach Bryant and Ray (Perkins), and I had the same arrangement."
Simpler times. When men were men, mice were mice, and sweetheart deals could be protected from the Internet. (Unrelated: Any remembered quote from Pat Dye should end, "Now where are my pants?" "We had a deal! Now where are my pants?" Carry on.)
Yes, as paint-by-numbers gossip pieces go, this is a masterstroke. A ton of smoke coming out of the windows, and no fire. And Paul Finebaum's tossing the smokebombs. But here's what we can't figure out: Finebaum's ears have to be filled with this kind of chatter, day in and day out, for years on end. Why is he lending credence to this age-old spat now?
Well, there is simple answer to that complex question. Tommy Tuberville. (See? The system works!)