For Bayless, the defense never rests

Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 10:36pm
Skip Bayless on the set of ESPN2's 'First Take' 

Skip Bayless does not need help to form an opinion. He never has.

What he does require is a significant amount of time and energy. These days, those two things are increasingly precious to him.

As the so-called “designated-hitter,” the ever-present face and voice on a two-sided debate show, ESPN2s First Take, he must form, preview and then ultimately present his opinions on 10 different topics culled from the sports world. And he must do so five days a week against the objections and counter arguments from a second panelist, either a media member who specializes in the sport du jour or an athlete who plays it.

“The TV show that I’m doing right now is all-consuming,” he said. “It is incredibly draining and time-taking. The preparation for it is just …it’s a voracious, bottomless beast.”

It is Bayless’ unfailing ability to deliver opinions, regardless of the format, that has distinguished him throughout a 35-year career since he graduated from Vanderbilt University. As the way people receive their sports news has evolved, he has moved from newspaper columnist to sports talk radio host to his current position in television.

His offerings are at once intelligent, informative, infuriating, sometimes inconceivable but never indecisive.

“Me, just by nature, I’ve always been very opinionated,” Bayless said. “Some people aren’t, but I like that. I see a side and I take a side.”

That ability to establish a firm position on an issue and — more importantly — to defend it, regardless of the medium, led to his selection as an inaugural member of the Vanderbilt Student Media Hall of Fame, which was created earlier this year and which formally will induct its initial five-person class Friday as part of the university’s homecoming festivities.

The group's honorees were chosen because they made significant contributions as members of student media at Vanderbilt and after graduation distinguished themselves in their respective fields. Joining Bayess are:

Lamar Alexander — Alexander, a U.S. senator, was a reporter on the student newspaper in college who has had a long, distinguished career in politics.

Roy Blount Jr. — The author and humorist Blount worked with Alexander on the student newspaper. He has written 21 books.

Mary Elson — Elson, a managing editor for Tribune Media Services, was the first female editor of The Hustler, Vanderbilt’s student newspaper. At the Chicago Tribune she edited a Pulitzer Prize winning series.

Sam Feist — Now a vice president with CNN, Feist volunteered for The Hustler his first day on campus and later worked in a variety of roles at CNN.

A permanent Student Media Hall of Fame exhibit will be established in the student center.


A different view

The quote hangs on the wall in Bayless’ home. It is from Felix Frankfurter, a United States secretary of war in the early 1900s, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and eventually a Supreme Court justice.

It’s there to be seen when he rises each weekday morning at 5 a.m. and begins to read as much as he can about the previous night’s events. It guides him for the 60 minutes he spends on the treadmill from 5:30-6:30 a.m. as he watches SportsCenter and begins to formulate his opinions. It buffets him at 7:30 a.m. when he meets with the First Take staff and production crew and, for the first time, makes his notions known.

It says: “Anyone who’s good is different from anyone else.”

“I’ve always thought I was different because I believed what I believed,” Bayless said. “You can call me crazy or smart or — I don’t know what I am — but I always saw things a little differently than other people saw them. And I would like to think I saw them with some more insight than other people saw.”

That’s an important point.

Bayless does not wait to see where public opinion falls and then step to the other side. As First Take host Jay Crawford notes, “He really does believe every word he utters.” Rather, he looks straight beyond the superficial aspects of a contest or an athlete or a team, immerses himself in what he sees and then makes up his mind.

It just so happens that when it’s time to take a stand, he’s often already the first in line for the minority point of view.

“I never take the contrarian view just to take it,” he said. “I always back it up. My sensibilities and my principles are always consistent. I’m never all over the map with what I believe or I don’t believe, and I don’t flip-flop once I take a stand.

“Even when I go down in flames, I’ll stand by it. I am definitely not afraid to take what I know will be an unpopular stance.”

Obsessive opinions

To offer an unpopular opinion is one thing. To defend it is another.

Bayless’ defense typically is an aggressive offense. Armed with statistics and trends and particular words or phrases he has written and attempted to memorize he fights to establish his position as proper, one at which everyone should have arrived on his or her own.

“I think the beauty of Skip Bayless is his opinions aren’t conventional wisdom,” Crawford said. “They oftentimes fly in the face of conventional wisdom. But if you listen carefully as he makes his case, he does a terrific job of doing what no one can do to him — and that’s to change people’s minds.”

The degree of preparation he uses for the television show is no different than when he wrote his columns in Dallas, San Jose and Chicago. It’s the same as it was when he hosted his own sports talk radio shows or when he wrote any of the three books he had published.

As an example, as he worked on his first book, God’s Coach: The Hymns, Hype and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry’s Cowboys, his employer at the time, The Dallas Times Herald, allowed him four months of paid leave, with the exception of one column per week, which appeared in the Sunday sports section. Bayless said he “slept very little” during those four months.

“I tend to obsess with whatever I’m doing,” he said. “So the problem is now I obsess with the show because it’s of the more immediate importance.”

Vanderbilt called

A native of Oklahoma City, Bayless applied to, and was accepted by both the University of Oklahoma and Southern Methodist University. He was prepared to make his college choice between the two when in early May of his senior year in high school, he came home from a baseball game and was told by his mother that someone from Vanderbilt University had phoned and needed a prompt return call.

He understood immediately what it was. With his blessing, his journalism teacher had submitted on his behalf an application for the prestigious Grantland Rice Sportswriting Scholarship at Vanderbilt.

The call was to inform him he was chosen the winner.

“I barely knew who Grantland Rice was at that point,” Bayless said. “But I bought his book called The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sports and I began to read about his career. He was a Vanderbilt man who made his way all the way to New York and really became the first great syndicated sports columnist in America.”

The business has changed but a case can be made that Bayless is this generation’s equivalent of Rice. Demographic studies show he is particularly popular with college age adults, and the immediate feedback he gets through Twitter (@realskipbayless) at times emboldens him.

“Some people love what I say and believe in it and respect it and honor it and sort of cherish that I don’t back down to any of the athletes and I don’t pull any punches and I don’t have any sacred cows,” Bayless said. “I don’t protect anybody, I don’t have any friends who play or coach or manage or own teams. Because of that, I take strong stands because I don’t believe in ‘I feel strongly both ways.’”

Whether they agree with him or not, people want to hear what Bayless has to say just as they once wanted to read what Rice wrote.

Of course, Bayless himself might just argue against that point.


2 Comments on this post:

By: courier37027 on 10/12/09 at 12:17

You tell them, Cobra. Skip, keep pimp slapping Jay Crawford and pulling him back to earth every time he thinks something is the "best ever" or "greatest ever".

By: jps13pat on 10/12/09 at 10:36

Skip Bayless is money in the bank. I love him, even when he's wrong.