Bryant Gumbel was flying back from a South Carolina golfing weekend with his pal Matt Lauer last summer when the talk turned to whether Gumbel should agree to host a morning show for CBS.

"He was very much conflicted about it," says Lauer, the "Today" anchor who worked alongside Gumbel for years. "Did he really want to get up at 4 in the morning again? Did he need that? He was concerned about whether he'd have an impact. He doesn't need to prove anything."

Gumbel's decision to rejoin the breakfast-show wars, and for a network that has failed to field a competitive morning program for three decades, puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on his shoulders. Paired with Jane Clayson, a relative unknown plucked from a secret competition, Gumbel is taking on his former compatriots at "Today," along with the resurgent "Good Morning America," when CBS's "Early Show" debuts Nov. 1.

While skeptics might view his return to a grueling schedule as something of a comedown for the onetime king of morning television, Gumbel, 51, sees it differently.

"When I went to 'Today' in 1982, the show had been established for 30 years and I was the new kid on the block," he says in his West 57th Street office, its walls adorned with caricatures of him and a glass case of his favorite golf balls. "Now it's completely reversed. The show is the brand-new entity, and the only thing anyone knows is me. It's a remarkably different challenge."

As he plunges back into the big-bucks arena of morning TV, Gumbel must contend not just with the other networks but with his own image as well. Throughout his career, he has been dogged by stories depicting him as arrogant, a man who disses his co-stars and, in the view of Katie Couric and other prominent women, an unreconstructed chauvinist. Gumbel sees such criticism through the prism of a man who, when he got the "Today" job, had to read a spate of articles on whether white America was ready to accept a black anchor.

"Do I display any more arrogance than Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel?" he asks. "If everyone in this business has a big ego, why does the label accrue only to Bryant Gumbel? There are people in this world who are not comfortable with people of color who are self-confident and good at what they do and comfortable with themselves."

Nancy Gist, a childhood friend who grew up in the same Chicago apartment building, puts it this way: "People say, 'Oh my God, he's so arrogant, this fame has really gone to his head.' When Bryant was 14, he had exactly the same self-possessed confidence and ability to make people squirm with his intensity. He's a slightly more polished version--he dresses better--of the guy he was in high school."

Gumbel's strengths--his candor, his empathy, his emotional approach to television--may be the flip side of the qualities that some find rather off-putting. He can ooze with charm, but when he's in a bad mood on the air or thinks a guest is an airhead, he doesn't hide it.

"Most television people basically ask the audience to like them," says Steve Friedman, the "Early Show" executive producer who twice held that job at NBC's "Today" during the Gumbel era. "Bryant doesn't ask people to like him. He asks them to respect him."

The silky-smooth anchor in the Joseph Abboud suits freely admits he's not what he appears on the screen.

"I am a loner," he says. "I'm not good in big rooms. I'm a pretty shy person. Away from television, I'm somewhere between a hermit and a recluse. In restaurants, you always find me facing the wall. I'm very self-conscious."

There's more: Gumbel is constantly asked for autographs, but "to this day I'm not used to it. Signing an autograph in effect suggests you're someone special, and I don't think I am. You look like an [expletive] if you don't sign, so I self-consciously sign. But I feel like a schmuck."

Really? Bryant Gumbel, perhaps the most successful black anchor in television history, a man who's interviewed presidents and popes, is nothing special?

"Bill Clinton is special. Luciano Pavarotti is special. Muhammad Ali is special. I'm on television. That's what I do for a living."

A Chemistry Test

In a brightly lit conference room at Washington's WUSA-TV, Gumbel and Clayson are cheerfully fielding questions when the conversation comes to a halt.

Gumbel has just disclosed that Clayson was chosen for the job after a screen test at an undisclosed location in which they chatted before the cameras. He is asked whether any other finalists made it that far.

"Jane's looking at me like 'How many were there before me?' " Gumbel says, smiling. After a pregnant pause, he pleads the Fifth.

Clayson, 32, a former Salt Lake City anchor and ABC correspondent, figured she was a long shot to sit next to the man she admired on "Today" when she was in high school.

"I never thought in a million years, in my wildest dreams ever," she says. "It's completely overwhelming. I'd be lying to say it wasn't."

Now, of course, they must act like old pals on the air. "That comfort level--we call it chemistry--will develop," Clayson says. "It won't happen on the first day or the second week."

They have embarked on an 18-city tour to get CBS affiliates charged up about the show (a problem area because a third of the stations don't plan to carry the program's second hour). And the early line on the "Early Show" is that there is no shortage of frothy features. Former MTV veejay Martha Quinn and "Official Preppy Handbook" author Lisa Birnbach will contribute a segment called "Yikes, I've Grown Up." Martha Stewart will keep doing her better-homemaker thing. "The Barb Wire" (Barbara Alvarez) and "The Hib List" (Laurie Hibberd) will focus on personalities and pop culture.

But the show will rise or fall with Gumbel, whose face adorns a huge blue sign outside the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue, where a $30 million street-level studio is emerging from the rumble of hammering, sawing and welding.

This is his second much-publicized debut since leaving NBC for a $5 million-a-year contract with CBS. The first--the prime-time newsmagazine "Public Eye"--was a total flop.

"I don't want to insult anyone, and I don't want to cop a plea," Gumbel says. "Whatever happened at 'Public Eye,' I'm very much to blame. But having said that, it's a classic example of how you can't just take a star quarterback and put him with an 0-16 team and expect it to go to the Super Bowl."

He describes the newsmagazine process this way: "Zillions of people argue about doing a story. You shoot it over the course of several months. Fifteen people work on it. Twenty people sit in an edit room. By the time you put it on the air it's something you don't even recognize. . . .

"The only thing I resent about it is this view that it was this horrid disaster and Bryant Gumbel should be on suicide watch. Hey, it was television. It wasn't terribly good television. But it was not a horrible disaster. . . . It just wasn't for me. I'm a live-TV animal."

As such, he can be a temperamental beast. After a "Today" interview with LaToya Jackson, Gumbel said to Couric: "She's pathetic, isn't she?" Gumbel recalls an interview with Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger's ex, by saying: "It was like talking out a window. She wasn't very good." And he doesn't take guff from guests: "If someone's lying, I'm prone to say they're lying."

Says Lauer: "He's extremely opinionated. Bryant doesn't have any gray areas. He loves things and severely dislikes things. If you come on and say you dislike something, half the people are going to be aggravated. It's a wonderful thing but it's not always the politically correct thing, and sometimes has gotten him in trouble."

Friedman, who's had his share of knock-down fights with Gumbel, says his star has "no patience" with mediocre performers. "He wants everyone to work as hard as he does and be as good as he is."

Gumbel often draws flak from the right because he makes no secret of his liberal leanings. But here, too, the private Gumbel might surprise people. He became friendly with Richard Nixon during his twilight years, interviewing him at NBC and dining at his New Jersey home. George Bush helped get him into Bethesda's exclusive Burning Tree Club. Gumbel is also pals with Fox News President Roger Ailes, who appeared on a weekly "Today" segment when he was a Republican strategist.

"He does start to twitch a little when he hears Ronald Reagan's name," Ailes says. But he adds: "People warned me that Bryant won't agree with you politically and he'll be very tough on you. Exactly the opposite took place. Bryant was friendly, always fair and never took a cheap shot."

If Gumbel has an ideologically diverse group of friends, he's also carried on public feuds with people ranging from David Letterman to Connie Chung. And he's taken some hits from high-profile women. Jane Pauley, his first "Today" co-host, once called his views "Neanderthal." Couric, his last "Today" co-host, said in 1992: "On some issues, Bryant can be in the Dark Ages. . . . I think he can be sexist." (Gumbel believes Couric was a bit too eager to see him leave "Today," friends say, and there's no love lost between the two.)

Nancy Gist, now a Justice Department official, says her old friend "takes a great deal of pleasure in saying obnoxious and outrageous things and seeing how people react. He's very much a guy--a locker-room, smoke-a-cigar, look-women-up-and-down kind of person. There's a little bit of acting out going on there. In his heart of hearts he is not the Neanderthal he likes to pretend he is. . . .

"He's never suffered fools very well. He has a terrible temper and always has. He is known to raise his voice. He has such a sharp tongue, and it can't be pleasant to be on the receiving end."

Gumbel, for his part, says he's an equal-opportunity taskmaster with women: "If they do something wrong, I call them in and tell them. I don't expect any less of them than someone else."

And some of those colleagues adore him. "The greatest unknown secret about Bryant Gumbel is that underneath it all he's a big softie," says "Today" correspondent Jamie Gangel. "He's one of the most sentimental, loyal friends out there. A lot of people might initially be scared of him and his gruff demeanor. There's this whole intimidating persona. As soon as you call his bluff, he's yours for life."

On the personal front, Gumbel has a new woman in his life. He recently began living with a blond brokerage executive, Hilary Quinlan, who had been in Chicago. They wrote each other letters for a year before they started dating. Now he takes her to such events as the Bryant Gumbel/Walt Disney World Celebrity Golf Tournament, which has raised millions for the United Negro College Fund.

The relationship follows Gumbel's divorce from his wife, June, whom he met in college. They have a 21-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, both of whom are outstanding athletes.

"I got married when I was young," Gumbel says. "I'm not the first guy to have his marriage run aground after a quarter-century."

A Rise to Top Seed

While growing up on Chicago's South Side, Gumbel was in awe of his father, Judge Richard Gumbel, a World War II veteran who drilled his four children on proper manners and was never satisfied with anything less than straight A's. Bryant felt he never quite measured up. Gist says he was somewhat overshadowed by his older brother Greg, now a CBS sportscaster, who would dance at parties and was usually surrounded by girls.

After graduating from Bates College in Maine, Gumbel sold cardboard boxes in Manhattan, then wrote for a magazine called Black Sports. Shortly after his father died, Gumbel tried out as a weekend sports anchor for KNBC in Los Angeles.

"I wasn't dying to be on television," Gumbel says, but the salary--$21,000--was 2 1/2 times what he was making. He was so dazzling at the station that he quickly rocketed to success at NBC Sports.

In 1982, while doing regular sports segments for "Today," Gumbel was tapped as the co-anchor--a move deemed bold at the time because he lacked a hard-news background. That skepticism faded as Gumbel and Pauley pushed the program to No. 1. Gumbel continued to scribble notes for each interview--even writing down the names of his colleagues on the set--in elaborate preparation rituals that impressed everyone around him.

Friedman recalls Gumbel interviewing a septuagenarian woman who said that people don't like to touch the elderly--and getting up to give her a hug. "On the same day, he can hammer some Newt Gingrich-type character unmercifully," Friedman says.

But Gumbel could also be as subtle as a punch in the nose. He roiled the program in a leaked 1989 memo to his producer, accusing weatherman Willard Scott of "holding the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste," and saying that movie critic Gene Shalit was "often late and his interviews aren't very good." Gumbel never apologized.

During the same period, a Sports Illustrated story suggested that Gumbel had turned his back on his mother, Rhea, who was described as living in reduced circumstances in Chicago. Gumbel calls the story "a blatant lie," saying he pays for his mother's apartment and furniture and that the reason she doesn't have a car, as emphasized by the article, is that she doesn't drive.

"I'm a big boy," Gumbel says. "I've taken my shots and I'm fair game. But it's really sad when someone goes to a guy's mother, who doesn't understand the game, a frail woman, and takes advantage of her."

In the early '90s "Today" was overtaken by "Good Morning America," then regained the top spot under Gumbel and Couric. But he did not seem to mellow with success. In 1995, when NBC News President Andrew Lack excluded Gumbel from an interview with the just-acquitted O.J. Simpson because the two had been golfing buddies, Gumbel left "Today" for three days.

"I could either sit there and happily promote the interview, which would have been phony," Gumbel says, "or I could have basically [urinated] all over it, which would have been unprofessional."

Despite such incidents, Gumbel's long reign at "Today" and his hosting of HBO's "Real Sports" placed him firmly atop the media heap. But he grew restless, feeling that the morning show was "just cruising." He left "Today" after 15 years, feeling he had accomplished everything he could, determined to spend quality time with his 2,000 golf clubs. And then CBS came calling with the big money.

Let the Ratings War Begin

Last year, when the brass threw a birthday party for Gumbel at CBS, much of the "Today" cast showed up--the very folks with whom he will soon be engaged in a ratings war.

"It's weird when your best friend suddenly becomes your competitor," Lauer says.

While Gumbel is careful not to bad-mouth "Today," Friedman is not quite as restrained. It was Friedman who built the "Today" ground-floor studio--the very innovation that the "Early Show" is now copying--when he was drafted for a second tour as producer. He says he quit after NBC reneged on a promise that he could move on once he restored the program to top-rated status.

"I want to kill the other guys," Friedman says. "Would victory over 'Today' be sweet? Sure."

For now, though, victory for Gumbel and Clayson is a distant twinkle on the horizon. "Today" has more than twice the audience of the current CBS morning show, 5.6 million viewers to 2.7 million. And that means Gumbel faces the arduous task of winning back some of his old fans to a new network.

Gumbel insists he never gets nervous, but he doesn't underestimate the difficulty of putting together 10 hours a week of live television.

"There's no preseason game," he says. "You bring it out and you test it in front of the whole world." And, he says, "I want so badly for it to work."