Love him or hate him. When Paul Finebaum talks SEC football, people listen.
For evidence of that fact, look no further than his ultra-successful radio and television program on the equally successful SEC Network. Finebaum’s work covering the SEC goes back to his days on the print side of journalism as a columnist for the now-defunct Birmingham Post-Herald in the early 1980s.
That lengthy resume, in addition to his on-air personality, has earned him the nickname as the ‘Mouth of the South,’ and deservedly so.
As the 2019 college football season approaches, Finebaum spoke with the Daily Beacon about Tennessee, their prospects under second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, the state of the program and the outlook of the SEC as a whole.
Finebaum’s history with the Vols football program dates back to his own days as Beacon sports editor, covering the teams in the late 1970s under former head coach Bill Battle. He’s covered Tennessee at the pinnacle of college football and at the lowest, too.
Despite a drought that has now exceeded a decade, Finebaum is of the mind that the Vols best years are not behind them, even with the past struggles.
“I think Tennessee can become a national championship contender again,” Finebaum said. “I believe in this university, I believe in (Director of Athletics) Fulmer. Georgia, Florida have nothing on Tennessee when it comes to tradition and infrastructure.”
What the Vols have in structure and storied tradition has simply been overshadowed by a mirage of bad choices according to the ESPN personality.
“The only thing that’s happened to Tennessee the last 10-15 years have been a series of terrible decisions.”
As for the 2019 version of Tennessee, Finebaum likes the direction that Pruitt seemingly has the program heading. While he guided the Vols to an underwhelming 5-7 finish in 2018, including their third-straight loss to rival Vanderbilt, there were positives.
Those positives included a road win against a then-ranked Auburn team and a domination of a Kentucky team that would go on to finish with ten wins and a top-15 billing.
With the combined leadership of former head coach and now-athletic director Phillip Fulmer and Pruitt, Finebaum thinks the legitimate rebuild of Tennessee is happening now.
“I think it’s time to get this program back on track,” Finebaum said. “I think Jeremy Pruitt is well on his way in doing that. For the first time in a long time, I see and feel signs that Tennessee is coming out of hibernation. This seems like the real deal.”
As Tennessee attempts to awaken from its decade-long hibernation, the aura surrounding the team certainly has shifted in the past 24 months. From the debacle that was the end of the Butch Jones era to the uncertainty-filled year that was Jeremy Pruitt’s first season with the Vols, Finebaum has witnessed his alma mater undergo a complete identity change.
With the present staff in place, however, Finebaum believes Tennessee is on the precipice of building a new culture — one that rivals that of what fans in Knoxville call the “glory days.”
“It’s inconceivable to me as a Tennessee alum that this program has been down as long as it has,” Finebaum said. “I fully understand that it looked like it was coming back under Butch Jones, but that seemed artificial.”
Indeed the program looked like it was on the upward trend under Jones as the Vols got off to a 5-0 start in 2016 and seemed well on their way to winning the SEC East. Then UT dropped the next three games, which seemed to mark the beginning of the end for that era.
For Finebaum, having Pruitt at the helm of Tennessee football is a breath of fresh air, something Jones and his staff could not provide. That credit ultimately goes back to Fulmer, who has made tremendous strides in his time as athletic director.
“Every time I comment on this, I believe even more that Phillip Fulmer saved this athletic department and especially the football program,” Finebaum said. “He understands what it takes, and he has been there and done it.”
Had the department remained former AD John Currie’s leadership, however, Finebaum believes it would be a totally different story today.
“Had Phillip not been hired, I think this would be unsalvageable.”