Skip Bayless prefaced his remarks by saying that Stephen A. Smith was like a “brother” to him, but proceeded to explain why he was “stung” and “blindsided” by comments the ESPN star recently made on JJ Redick’s podcast.
As The Post detailed last week, Smith told Reddick that in 2012, ESPN management was dissatisfied with the “ratings and revenue” of Bayless debating a rotating crew of opponents on what was then the “Cold Pizza” morning program on ESPN2.
Smith said that Bayless took him aside in the ESPN parking lot in Bristol.
“I know you’ve got your plans,” Bayless told him. “You love the NBA. You love being out on the road. You love being in the locker room. But I need you. I’ve done all that I could to take this as far as it can go. I need you, please. Just give me three years. I think we’ll knock it out of the park.”
“I thought about it. Those were clearly my best options,” Smith said. “They weren’t about to give me my own show or anything like that at the time. I thought about it for a couple days and said I’d do it. One month later, we were No. 1, and we’ve been No. 1 ever since.”
This recollection greatly differed from how Bayless recalls the situation. On his Fox Sports podcast, “The Skip Bayless Show,” Bayless spent over 40 minutes going into a clinical diagnosis of their relationship, which has spanned two-plus decades, and breaking down his own version of the “First Take” origin story.
“He has been more of a brother to me than my actual brother [celebrity chef Rick Bayless] ever was. I love the man, and no matter what happens from this point forward, I will always love the man,” Bayless said.
“But brothers do fight. We definitely have fought before and maybe we’re about to fight again. All I know for sure, at this point in time, is that Stephen A. Smith made some statements on JJ Redick’s podcasts last week that flat-out blindsided me, that stung me to the core, that ultimately made me angry and made my wife Ernestine even angrier.”
Bayless said several of his colleagues who he worked with at ESPN before Smith joined “First Take” were “just stunned at how so wrong what Stephen A. said was.”
Bayless took issue with Smith’s “suggesting that he saved and made ‘First Take.’”
“How can you save and make a show that was already as big a billion-to-one success story as ESPN had ever seen? The ratings and revenue were [already] impossibly great when Stephen A. joined me in 2012. With Stephen A. as my partner, ‘First Take’ would never touch the NFL Monday ratings that it hit in 2011, pre-Stephen A.”
This was the unforgettable stretch when Bayless forcefully debated all comers on behalf of Tim Tebow’s magical Broncos run.
“And I had taken ‘First Take’ as far as I could? Seriously?” an exasperated Bayless asked. “I was just getting started. The rocket had just launched in 2011. Stephen A., how could you?”
Bayless mentioned The Post’s story on Smith’s comments, and said that he could not bear for this “revisionist history” to become the prevailing narrative on how “First Take” was formed.
Bayless mentioned that he first met Smith briefly during the 1998 NBA Finals, and that they eventually forged a friendship. They participated in a pilot called “Sports in Black and White” for Fox Sports Net that was ultimately not picked up, Bayless said, because the top bosses at Fox Sports believed Smith would be too much to take on a daily basis. Bayless said he protested on Smith’s behalf to no avail. The duo also worked together as co-hosts filling in for Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on “Pardon the Interruption” for two weeks in 2004.
He continued to go through the pair’s respective history, mentioning that when ESPN programming boss Mark Shapiro, who had hired the two of them, departed the network in 2005 it spelled trouble.
Smith’s “Quite Frankly” program was canceled in early 2007, and he actually left the network in 2009. “Cold Pizza” stuck around, and Bayless said that in his “humble estimation” the debate part of the show was working and so the show kept kicking.
While Smith was hosting on Fox Sports Radio for a couple years, Bayless said, they spoke on the phone weekly.
“All I continued to hear from him was, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get back to the Worldwide Leader,’ and I said to him, ‘I’m going to get you back.’ Trust me, I wound up knocking on every door on the top floor of ESPN’s power building in Bristol, Conn. … I went to John Skipper’s office. I went to Norby Williamson’s office. I went to John Walsh’s office. I went to Mark Gross’ office. I said, ‘You’ve got to let him back.’ Again and again I heard, ‘I’m sorry, he’s just more trouble than he’s worth.’ I said that ‘He’s matured, he’s been humbled. He’ll be great when he comes back — he’s just too talented. He belongs here. You know it and I know it.’”
Bayless explained that the bosses finally relented, and that Smith was re-signed in early 2011.
“He was forced to repay some pretty serious dues,” Bayless said, noting that Smith’s work was mostly for ESPN Radio in New York and Los Angeles and the network’s local New York website. “This pained me to no end, because I kept saying to my then-girlfriend Ernestine that he was better than this and it was a low blow that he had to earn his way back up the ladder.”
Bayless explained that a “ratings guru” named Barry Blyn pointed out huge spikes in the “Cold Pizza” ratings, which were clearly attributable to the debate segments Bayless was doing.
Bayless credited eventual “First Take” producer Jamie Horowitz — who hired him at FS1, and is now an executive at WWE — with having the “guts and the vision to risk his career” by replacing all of the rest of “Cold Pizza” with a two-hour debate show centered around Bayless. Two “Cold Pizza” producers told Bayless this idea would be “career suicide” for both him and Horowitz.
The ratings went up exponentially. Airing on ESPN2, the “First Take” viewership “cannibalized” that of “SportsCenter,” the network’s flagship news and highlights program, Bayless said.
Eventually, Smith was granted permission to do a weekly segment on Wednesday debating Bayless on “First Take,” which by that point was its own segment inside of “Cold Pizza.”
“Yes, there were automatic fireworks. We had history together. I loved the man. I loved making him look sillier and sillier about Tim Tebow. But he still had to pay his dues. He still got one segment. We began to fudge it, giving him 15-20 minutes instead of 10. Maybe he could appear twice on the show,” Bayless recalled.
“After the season ended, Jamie Horowitz sat down with me and talked with me about what would be best for me for the future of ‘First Take’ … I said, ‘I want Stephen A. to be my permanent partner. I need a constant. I need someone I can trust to be that guy, that way, every day … But in the end, you gotta trust me on this, there was a big part of me that wanted to throw my brother Stephen A. a little bit of a lifeline. I wanted to get him back in the door in Bristol. No more local radio and web site. He belonged in Bristol.
“I was hoping to reel him back in, get him back in the graces of the big bosses, so he could rise and shine the way he was meant to do at ESPN. But, trust me on this, I did not plead with him to take the job. I did not need him to save ‘First Take’. It was [already] a billion-to-one runaway success story.”