On this night, the games have already started. He has South Carolina’s season opener on the big screen but will soon switch to the New England Patriots’ preseason finale — a final audition for quarterback Tim Tebow, one of Bayless’s favorite topics — and fire up the Vanderbilt game on his laptop, always watching two games simultaneously.
“Ryan Mallett is terrible,” he says at one point. “That was a terrible throw. Tim Tebow is going to be the backup quarterback for the New England Patriots before all of this is over.”
Bayless just may be the most polarizing figure in sports today. The co-host of ESPN’s “First Take,” Bayless epitomizes the superheated, highly lucrative world of sports-talk television. It is a nascent arena that rewards shock and awe more than considered judgment, and Bayless is perfectly suited for it.
He’s insistent on everything, no matter how contrarian or seemingly outlandish: Tebow is a winner (“the next Brett Favre”), LeBron James is a choker (“He’s Pippen more than he’s Jordan”) and everything is open to interpretation (Example: “I’m totally against taking America-born white players in the first round of the draft.”).
He’s helped make “First Take” ESPN2’s top-rated program, which last year averaged 350,000 viewers each weekday. Spurred by the show’s popularity, ESPN and other sports networks have made on-air debate a programming staple.
Bayless has an argument holstered for any sports topic, all rooted in carefully crafted Bayless-ian logic that has inspired vitriol from locker rooms, critics and so many sports fans. Last spring basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said, “If I could get Skip Bayless in a room, you’d need DNA to find out who it was.” Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, during an appearance on “First Take,” called him an “ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin.”
Responding to Bayless is easy. Understanding him isn’t – his rough childhood, regimented lifestyle, fixed principles and unwavering sense of confidence that underlies it all. He’s created a reality in which he’s always right, and his narrative is always gospel.
Bayless is stoic as he watches football and waits for Tebow to come in off the bench. He occasionally checks e-mail, but on this night he shuns Twitter. He has more than 1.1 million followers but mostly avoids reading the feedback there. On Twitter, the nice ones ask him to kill himself; the nasty ones say they’ll help him do it.
“It’s like the Wild West,” he says. “Every other response is a death threat.”
Those who know Bayless best say that it’s impossible to understand him based strictly on his animated, self-assured TV performances.
“He’s totally different in person,” says Craig Humphreys, a close friend for nearly 50 years.
“The Skip I know is a quiet guy,” says Perry Littlepage, who’s been friends with Bayless since second grade. “When we see him on TV, my wife says, ‘I can’t believe that’s Skip.’ ”
So what is real? That’s the question that seems to dog Bayless. He swears, “from the bottom of my soul and my heart,” that he’s not playing a character and he’s not arguing for the sake of arguing. “That would be against my constitution, against my religion, against who I am,” he says.
People don’t know who he is, Bayless concedes, and can’t fathom how much he’s sacrificed for this job, how he’s devoted every waking hour to winning made-for-TV sports debates. His daily routine is split between exercise — he’s 62 years old but has the body of a man half his age — and work.
He’s divorced and childless and sees his good friends only once or twice a year. “No regrets,” he says. “This is my calling. I was born to do this.”
Tebow enters the game. He takes a bad sack. Throws a bad pass. Most sports pundits believe Tebow will never make it as an NFL quarterback. Not Bayless. “They can’t block anyone,” he says.
Later Tebow leads the Patriots on a fourth-quarter comeback. Bayless scribbles some notes. This will surely play a prominent role in tomorrow’s show. “We’ll definitely do it,” he says. “We have to talk about whether he’ll make the roster. Have to.”
‘On my own from the start’
Bayless couldn’t sleep and hopped on the exercise bike around 5 a.m. He showed up early to the 7:30 planning meeting on ESPN’s sprawling campus, and he doesn’t sit down once. At about 7:45, Stephen A. Smith, Bayless’s counterpart on the program, breezes through the conference room and finds a chair. “ ’Sup, y’all?” he says.
“Okay, guys, we have a two-hour show today,” a producer says. “We have two guests, Eric Dickerson and Ethan Hawke. What do we want to talk about?”
They start blocking out the show on a dry-erase board, moving subjects around: Tebow, of course, but also concussions, Jadeveon Clowney, Aaron Hernandez. They don’t debate in the conference room. “I will not show my cards,” Bayless says. “I don’t want to lose the debate in the meeting.”
Bayless was named after his father, christened John Edward II, but was always called Skip. He was the oldest of three children and his parents owned a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City. Both of his parents, he says, were alcoholics, and his father was particularly rough with him. “My father was just an evil man,” he says.
Looking back, Bayless says a cold, distant upbringing might have been essential. “It was all meant to be. . . . I was on my own from the start,” he says. “You have to become self-sufficient and emotionally tough. I wouldn’t have been as good growing up under different circumstances.”
Bayless calls himself the black sheep in a family that was all-in on the restaurant business. Bayless’s brother has credited their father and their Hickory House restaurant with his own success. Three years younger, Rick Bayless stuck around food. He became a popular television chef on PBS, published nine books, opened some of Chicago’s best restaurants and is a favorite of the Obamas.
He declined to be interviewed for this story but has never publicly lamented his upbringing and has cited his father as his greatest influence. Among the most well-known siblings on television, Skip and Rick Bayless have virtually no relationship today.
Skip says they were never particularly close — “We had nothing in common except a mom” — and drifted further apart when Skip accepted a sportswriting scholarship to Vanderbilt and left his two siblings alone in a volatile home. “They resented my leaving them in a lurch,” he says.
After he moved away, Bayless says his brother and sister helped their mother find sobriety. His father died of cirrhosis of the liver while he was school. He returned to Oklahoma for the funeral but refused to help carry the casket. In the 1990s, Bayless legally changed his name to Skip, cutting off a final tie with his father.
A sober approach, usually
The only time Bayless says he got drunk was with Joe Namath.
In 1977, as a 25-year old sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, Bayless had the exclusive that the legendary quarterback was retiring. Namath agreed to meet at a bar, but Bayless didn’t drink. He ordered red wine to be social and politely sipped his way through two glasses while Namath told old stories and welcomed new friends.
“I looked at my watch and realized I had to leave,” Bayless says. “I got up, planted to turn and completely lost my equilibrium and crashed into a man at the next table, falling on the floor. I looked up and Joe was leaning over me and said in an Alabama accent, ‘Son, you’re drunk.’ ”
It’s one of the few professional missteps Bayless recalls taking. He’s still a teetotaler today.
He caught the opinion bug early. At Vanderbilt, Bayless wrote features for the Miami Herald and then the Los Angeles Times before becoming one of the youngest columnists in the country, accepting a job with the Dallas Morning News when he was just 26. He made an immediate splash, skewering Texas sacred cows such as Tom Landry, the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach, and Tex Schramm, the team’s general manager.
“Skip was not well-liked. . . . He had an ego like nobody else in the world, and he was very reclusive,” says Dave Smith, the former sports editor of the Morning News. The editor and columnist overlapped for only nine months in 1981 before Bayless left for the rival Dallas Times Herald.
When the Times Herald folded in 1991, Bayless began a fax service, sending his column electronically to subscribers. He also authored a trilogy of books on the Dallas Cowboys, which perhaps most famously questioned Troy Aikman’s sexuality and reported the quarterback used a racial slur after a black receiver ran the wrong route.
Aikman has denied the assertions. He told a Dallas radio station in 2011, “I still kind of wonder what I might do to [Bayless] when I do see him.”
Says Bayless today: “I regret nothing. I’m proud of those books.”
Two decades later, Bayless’s authenticity is the subject of much debate.
Stephen A. Smith, Bayless’s daily foil, briefly had questions himself. Long before they were paired together on “First Take” they did an ESPN “SportsCenter” segment on which Bayless suggested with a straight face that athletes should have an 11 p.m. curfew. Smith started laughing on air, and Bayless approached him once the red light went off. “Listen,” Bayless told him, “I. Am. Serious.”
“I think he’s insane — and he knows that — with half the things that come out of his mouth, particularly Tim Tebow,” Smith says. “But I know he means it. He means everything he says.”
Bayless keeps a quote on his refrigerator door from former Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter that reads: “Anybody who is any good is different from anybody else.”
‘A heart of gold’
A producer counts down and four cameras begin to dance around the set. In an instant, Bayless, soft-spoken and shy off camera, lights up.
“Good morning, America. . . . It’s ‘First Take,’ I’m Cari Champion. That is Skip Bayless,” says the effervescent studio host, turning to her left. “Good morning, curmudgeon.”
“It’s not a good morning,” he says.
After moving on from Dallas to column-writing gigs in Chicago and San Jose, Bayless jumped to ESPN in 2004 to help save the struggling “Cold Pizza,” the network’s lighthearted morning show. That’s where he met Ernestine Sclafani, a 95-pound firecracker from Long Island who works in public relations and brought “Entourage” actor Kevin Dillon to the studios. She exchanged pleasantries and business cards with Bayless. Over dinner later, Bayless didn’t mince words — “You will never be more important than my job,” he told her — and the two bonded over “I Love Lucy,” Woody Allen and 1960s music.
“He’s got a heart of gold,” she says. “He’s funny, shy, respectful, caring. He’s just a good guy.”
She lives in Manhattan, and he’s mostly in Connecticut. They reunite on weekends, and on Fridays, they’ll watch a week’s worth of “Jeopardy” episodes — “He competes with me,” Sclafani says — before catching a movie.
Even though “Cold Pizza” didn’t last long, Bayless did.
Bayless likes to compare being a television personality to being a vampire. “You get bitten and you turn into a vampire. I don’t want to turn into a vampire,” he says. “I’ve worked with some people and they turn, they become that image on TV and they’re lost in it, lost in who they are. It scares me. I want to stay me, preserve my soul.”
Those who work closely with Bayless don’t fully understand the animosity. They’ve never seen a more tireless worker, someone who takes his job as seriously, someone more invested in winning an argument.
Guests can be in for a rude awakening, too. The hip-hop star T.I. has been on the show a couple of times. To him, Bayless always seemed too eager to scold T.I.’s favorite players and teams (Michael Vick, Atlanta Falcons). “It wasn’t until I met him that I saw how much work he puts into it,” T.I. says.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs is as outspoken as anyone in the NFL. He once called Bayless an unflattering name for a jerk on air. Suggs has since been on the show several more times. “He knows more about sports and people than he leads on,” Suggs says. “He kind of has to play that person on TV — ‘I have to be the villain.’ But actually, he’s a pretty awesome person.”
The “First Take” studio is kept around 66 degrees and Bayless wears a sharp three-piece gray suit with no tie. When the Tebow topic is finally introduced, he remains calm.
“God bless him, he’s awful,” Smith says, baiting his hook. “He’s just awful.”
Bayless quietly waits for his turn.
“I told you yesterday that what he did last night would have little to no impact on whether he would make the final 53-man roster,” Bayless says. “I believe Tim Tebow — I don’t believe it, I know — Tim Tebow will be a Patriot for this entire football season.”
A few days later, the Patriots cut Tebow. When the show’s red light lit up again, Bayless would say he was “stunned” and “was dead wrong about him making this football team.”
He wasn’t deterred, though. He can’t remember ever changing his mind on a topic and he’s comfortable with his line of reasoning, with his opinions, with his routine and with who he is — both on camera and off. To him, they’re the same, even if they’re different.