Skip Bayless, the Mad Monk of ESPN
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Hetherington
ESPN, once a bland supplier of, you know, sports, has gone, like MTV, into the drama business and stuffs its platform with canned debates. Each weekday, it mounts six or more hours of barbershop woofing, beginning at 10 a.m. with 'First Take' on ESPN2. That show runs two hours, re-airs at noon in its entirety, and then is chopped, sliced, and diced for a half-hour sampler. Right behind it come 'SportsNation', 'Around the Horn', and 'Pardon the Interruption', where the same five talking points chewed on 'First Take' are rolled out, remasticated, and served anew. The nonstop harangues over LeBron's postseason reading ("'The Hunger Games' is for eighth-grade girls! Winners read 'The Art of War!'"); his "failure to lead," i.e., match Michael Jordan in jumpers made and teammates punched; and his pretensions to greatness while still a high school kid ("Don't forget, he stole MJ's powder toss!") – it's almost enough to make you feel lousy for a man earning $53 million a year. Forget "The Decision"; it's the derision we can't take. Nine years in and a championship won: Can we finally change the subject and move on?

But 'First Take', which began life in 2003 as a sports-variety turkey called 'Cold Pizza', has done the near-miraculous since changing its format to full-time debate last summer: It has nearly doubled its audience and become a profit center as a midlife program made over. Some portion of the credit goes to Jamie Horowitz, the in-house producer brought on last year to reanimate the shopworn show. "We focus-grouped it to people and realized pretty quickly that viewers wanted debate," says Horowitz, who also oversees 'SportsNation' and 'Numbers Never Lie'. "In particular, they wanted to see Skip debate. As we say in the television business, he cuts through."

Agreed, though often with a broadax. Like very few others in this age of contention, Bayless is brilliant at picking up heat, spotting born stars in the nebula stage, and claiming early stakes in their stories. James, for instance, was a rookie with the Cavs when Bayless noted his tendency to flinch in fourth quarters and shun last shots and the free-throw line when games were late and close. It seemed absurd to say it then; the kid was 19 and entitled to fail as he learned. But Bayless was onto something, having seen the young Jordan hoist miss after miss without blinking. "LeBron's truly a good person, but he wants to please people, and MJ didn't care about that. The great ones are about winning and winning only. The rest of it is tied for last." The years going forward seemed to bear him out, as James went wobbly at critical moments in do-or-die games for two teams. But Bayless, having long since made his point, couldn't and wouldn't let up, turning this observation into a string of taunts – "LeBrick," "the Frozen One," "the Counterfeit MVP" – that seemed less about being right than about growing his brand.

So, too, with Tebow, though to very different ends. Bayless anointed him in his junior year of college as the God of Self-Made Success, a scrapper who'd strike it big not because he could throw but because he'd been told at every step that he couldn't.

"He 'can't hit an out route,' can't do this, can't do that," scoffs Bayless. "But I was at the BCS game in Miami when he destroyed my vastly superior Oklahoma Sooners by sheer force of will. He so amped his team at halftime that they came out and left tire tracks on a defense filled with high-round picks." Fair enough, and full marks to Bayless for seeing an NFL gamer in the kid. But when Tebow went on his modest run last fall, Bayless flogged the story like a tent-show healer, winding up acolytes and haters alike with his cultic sermons on "winning." "With Tebow, he's just gone way out there in space; in a word, I think he's crazy," says Stephen A. Smith, Bayless' longtime friend and debate foe on the program. "I love him like a brother, but he can't believe he's ever wrong, even if the facts disagree." "Skip's faith in Tebow is like Tebow's faith in God: It's so strong that it doesn't matter if he's real," says Woody Paige, Bayless' pal and opponent from 2004 to 2006 on 'Cold Pizza'. "He'll find evidence to back his case, whether it's victories over stats or Tebow's fourth-quarter numbers."

As much as it may gall friends, never mind viewers, to hear him bang the drum – "Skip's constant beating up on Russell Westbrook almost ended our 48-year friendship," says Craig Humphreys, the Thunder's pre- and postgame radio host and one of Bayless' childhood buddies – none of them doubt that he does so in earnest; he's been at it, and then some, since boyhood. As a latchkey kid in a chaotic household, he was saved by sports from the snares that tripped his parents. At breakfast, ignored by his hungover dad, he'd crib the sports section of 'The Oklahoman,' fold it just so on the floor of his kitchen, and commit the Cardinals' box score to memory. The names and stat lines, the stories on those pages – those became the bible of an avid mind, much the way church offered refuge to a boy who never felt safe at home. "I didn't have a curfew and always slept at friends' houses, but on Sundays, Mom dragged me to church," he says. "It was the best thing she did for me. I was moved just to be there and to feel God had a plan for me." Bayless thought about becoming a preacher but was playing three sports from middle school forward and reading every book he could get his hands on. By the age of 16, his calling was clear: He would write sports with the zeal and conviction he'd heard coming from the pulpit.

After college, Bayless got a job at the 'Miami Herald' and made the leap to columnist at the 'Dallas Morning News' in three years. Soon he was the object of a bidding war between the city's two major dailies, thrusting him into a new class of franchise writers who could name their own price and terms, including a country-club membership.

During the course of two lucrative decades in Dallas, he began to grow his portfolio, taking a local sports-radio slot in 1991. It was an effortless pivot for a talker enrolled by his mother in speech-coaching classes at age eight, who, by middle school, was winning oration contests in front of packed assemblies. "I loved sparring with callers and hardcore regulars, but even more so the on-air battles with coaches. Bobby Valentine and I would go at it for a solid hour," says Bayless. Indeed, he so incensed the then-manager of the Texas Rangers with a column that the two men had to be pulled apart during a pregame argument at the ballpark. These set-tos became something of a meme for Bayless. He was on the Cowboys' plane in 1991 when Mark Tuinei, a 320-pound Pro Bowl tackle, called him out by name over the PA system. Bayless, who stands 5-10 and weighs 170 pounds, marched back to where the players were sitting and went nose-to-nose with the drunken lineman, who was irked at something he'd written about Troy Aikman. As Aikman and a number of others circled to watch, Tuinei threw Bayless against the bathroom door and began bashing him in the chest and shoulders. "It was a near-death experience. He was mad enough to kill me, and I was fool enough to stand my ground," he says. Happily, the head coach, Jimmy Johnson, came charging up the aisle to intervene; otherwise, Bayless and his contrary views might have made an unplanned departure over Duluth.

So effective was Bayless at stirring things up that he co-founded a sports-talk station in Dallas and built it into a drive-time colossus. Soon he was all over ESPN, guest-hosting for Jim Rome, debating Smith on Sunday mornings, and doing the two-hour run-up to 'Monday Night Football'. "One night, Joe Theismann put me against a wall and screamed I was full of bleep," says Bayless, who doesn't curse, drink, or smoke, and whose idea of depravity is a shared slice of pizza with his fiancee, Ernestine Sclafani. "He thought I had blasphemed a heroic performance by Emmitt Smith, but I had contacts in that clubhouse that he didn't."

In 2004, Bayless got a call from Mark Shapiro, who was then chief of programming at ESPN, asking him to save the floundering 'Cold Pizza'. Bayless moved to New York and spent two years debating Paige; their 10-minute segments, staged at the top of each hour, put Bayless in front of a national crowd, where, dependably, his takedowns started rumbles. Tossing brickbats at show-pony jocks, Bayless struck a chord with disaffected fans who'd had it up to here with me-first divas. But more than a few African-Americans and media critics were appalled by the sight of a Southern-fried white man roasting black icons for their stunts. Deadspin assailed his "Negro baiting," FOX Sports likened him to Glenn Beck, and the 'Miami New Times' called him "the Rush Limbaugh of sports journalism."

Apart from a couple of line-crossing cracks over 40 or so years in the public square, however – Bayless recently acknowledged taking pride in the fact that Blake Griffin has a white mother – it's hard to give those charges any traction. Bayless has been a fierce, and often solitary, backer of embattled black stars through the years (see Barry Bonds, Vince Young, and Donovan McNabb). If he's biased about anything, it's for superstars with the rare but definable "clutch gene": Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kevin Durant, end of list. All others are judged against them and mercilessly found wanting, none more so, of course, than James. This infuriates critics as grossly unfair and leads them to their own indiscretions. Charles Barkley, no one's diplomat, says he wants to "kill" Bayless and "hates him more than any person" alive. Terrell Suggs appeared on 'First Take' and called Bayless a "douchebag" in a segment not sponsored by Massengill. "Athletes don't like him, and I'm being kind when I say that; I won't repeat the things they call him in private," says Smith, who became Bayless' full-time sparring partner when the format changed to straight debate. "But he's factual and fearless and more than does his homework, and anyone who attacks his character is dead wrong."