Love him or hate him, there are few figures in all of sports more polarizing than Skip Bayless. The former ‘Dallas Morning News’ columnist has risen to infamy during his time on ESPN2’s daytime debate show ‘First Take’. He’s one of the biggest personalities at ESPN, and he’s also one of, if not the hardest worker at the company.
While Bayless is mostly seen in clips and quotes ripping the most popular athletes in sports, he is rarely seen taking a break. The 63 year old is a workaholic, spending weeknights in Bristol and weekends in Manhattan with his wife Ernestine Sclafani. He is a man of faith, a man of routine, and a man who had more than his share of struggle growing up in Oklahoma City.
Here’s everything you need to know:
1. Bayless Considers Himself the ‘Black Sheep’ of a Food-Oriented Family
If the name Bayless sounds familiar to avid television watchers, it’s no surprise. His brother, Rick Bayless, has been a staple in the cooking show world for over 30 years. But the relationship between the two has broken down, as Skip bailed on the family food business and pursued his calling.
The Bayless family was a food family, and Skip, named John after his father, was the eldest of three siblings. All were required to help with the family business, a barbecue restaurant called Hickory House in Oklahoma City. John Bayless the father was an alcoholic, and today Bayless the son describes him as an ‘evil man’.
In 2012, Bayless described the last major conversation he had with his father:
“This was the turning-point moment for me and my father, the summer I said, ‘I have to get out.’ I was working at Hickory House, his barbecue place, filling a truck with big cookers of ribs. Dad was drunker than usual and abusing me in front of the staff, throwing these scalding-hot cookers at me so I’d burn my hands. ‘What’re you doing? You want to fight me?’ I said, and he goes, ‘Yeah. Let’s see what you got.’ So we go to a back storeroom, and he takes his stance, comes at me with a big old roundhouse. I casually half-ducked it and creamed him with a right, knocked him into a vat of potato salad. He got up spitting fury and said, ‘Go home to your mother!’ Screamed me out the door yelling that. He died five years later, during my first year out of college. That was the last time we really talked.”
Bayless’ mother wasn’t much better, but was also instrumental in his success. She also struggled with alcoholism, but gave Bayless two lifelong gifts in his early childhood. First, she forced him to attend Methodist church every Sunday. Bayless originally aspired to become a pastor, but his experiences in sports drove him to pursue journalism. The second gift from his mother was a strange one. She forced Bayless to take speech lessons in his early years, from about age “8 until 12.” When years later Bayless asked why, she told him “Well, my mother did it for me and I thought it would be good for you.”
2. He’s Man of Routine Who is Obsessed With Healthy Living
Most people would be bored of Bayless’ routine. But it’s the love of the process, and the commitment to his craft, that makes Bayless successful in his endeavors. He wakes up at 5 a.m. to exercise, he eats the same lunch and dinners during the week, and he is always watching sports in the evening.
Bayless is a fitness maniac. Every morning begins with an hour of cardio, either running or on a stationery bike. On the weekends, Bayless runs as much as 8 miles around his apartment in New York City. Impressive for a man who has had three arthroscopic surgeries on his knees.
Bayless started lifting weights in 1992, and still does three days a week after his show. After two hours of debate on First Take, Bayless says he “lifts out his frustration”.
Originally, Bayless was eating the same exact dinner every night. He was ordering steamed chicken and broccoli (no sauce) form his favorite Chinese restaurant five nights a week, but is now using a healthier option. This year he discovered a healthy food delivery company, and has been using it ever since. His cheat night is Fridays, when he and his wife share a slice of Ray’s pizza.
3. He Told His Wife ‘You’ll Never be More Important Than My Job’ on Their First Date
For a man that comes off on television as cold and bitter, it’s hard to imagine Bayless involved in a loving relationship. He’s actually been involved in several, most recently with Manhattan-based publicist Ernestine Sclafani.
Sclafani, described as a “95-pound firecracker from Long Island”, met Bayless when she brought actor Kevin Dillon to the First Take set. The two had dinner that night, where they bonded over classic television shows and 60’s music.
“He’s got a heart of gold,” said Sclafani. “He’s funny, shy, respectful, caring. He’s just a good guy.”
Despite Bayless laying down the law early, the pair have thrived in their unique situation. Bayless spends weeknights in a cramped Bristol hotel room, but Friday night is date night with Sclafani. The two share pizza, watch a week’s worth of Jeopardy, and watch movies.
As strange as this may seem to the casual Bayless viewer, he’s had his experiences with love. Bayless has stated he’s been in four long-term relationships in his life, including marrying his junior high school sweetheart shortly after graduating from Vanderbilt. Comparing Sclafani with previous experiences, Bayless said that “She’s the strongest-willed and can elbow her way into my life better than the others.”
4. He Made ‘First Take’ Into ESPN2’s Most Successful Show
Bayless may have gotten his start in print and radio, but the man was made for television. Bayless gained notoriety during his time in Dallas, and slowly crept his way into ESPN programming. He never got regular airtime until 2004, when he was brought in to inject life into a struggling program called “Cold Pizza.”
For two years he debated Denver Post columnist Woody Paige on the show, who described Bayless as a competitor who lived on “Red Bull, broccoli, and Ambien”. The pair bantered at the top of every hour, and it quickly became the show’s sticking point.
Jamie Horowitz, the producer tasked with revitalizing First Take, noticed that viewers took notice whenever Skip Bayless was in a fierce debate. Since switching to full-time debate in 2011, the show’s ratings have nearly doubled.
The show works, in part, because of Bayless’ intensity in his daily debates. He prepares harder than anybody, watching multiple games simultaneously at night and poring over box scores in the morning. He insists he has never lost a debate on the show, but says “I’d be happy if our audience thinks Stephen won a day’s debate.”
ESPN has made sure to take care of Bayless for all his contributions to the network. TheRichest.com estimates his net worth at $4 million, with an annual salary of $500,000.
5. His Early Success Came From Being Critical of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty
Bayless has stated, “What drove me the most into this profession was extreme athletic frustration.” Bayless describes himself as “very good” at baseball and basketball until he was 14 or 15, even catching for his high school varsity baseball team.
In his final year at Northwest Classen high school in Oklahoma City Bayless, who was also writing for his school’s paper, published a detailed account of his bullying baseball coach. The story earned Bayless the Grantland Rice scholarship and a full ride to Vanderbilt University, granting Bayless his escape from a crumbling household.
While in college, Bayless wrote features for the Miami Herald and Dallas Morning News. When it was time to go pro, Bayless started a bidding war between the two publications. Shortly after graduation, Bayless became one one of the youngest columnists in the country with a position in Dallas at only 26 years old.
In Dallas, Bayless’ fearless yet reclusive nature made an immediate impact in the sports scene. He was unafraid in taking on established Texas football legends like Tom Landry, often drawing the ire of Cowboys players.
His biggest splash came when Bayless penned a trilogy of books on the Dallas Cowboys dynasties of the 1990s. In his 1996 book, Hell-Bent: The Crazy Truth About the “Win or Else” Dallas Cowboys, Bayless made accusations that Cowboys QB Troy Aikman is gay.
The claims, which were unsupported, ruffled feathers with Aikman and the rest of the Cowboys. Several years ago, Aikman said in an interview that he’s never gotten over it. “I’ve not physically seen Skip Bayless since that time. That was in ’95. And I still kind of wonder what I might do to him when I do see him,” he said. In an interview before the most recent Super Bowl, Aikman told SI.com he was still “upset about it.”