As the shrieks and howls of Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and other talking heads populate the airwaves on ESPN, Fox Sports and other outlets, the recent announcement of the retirement of Bob Ley probably didn’t receive the attention from the viewing/listening public that it deserved.
Ley was one of the original anchors at ESPN. He joined up three days after they signed on in Bristol, Connecticut, working out of trailers in a field of mud.
Through the years, as the network slowly became the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in sports coverage, Ley settled into a role that had him anchoring fewer editions of “Sports Center” and more special projects. Eventually, those morphed into the regularly-scheduled program, “Outside the Lines,” an unparalleled exercise in sports journalism.
Ley was the primary voice, lending credibility and gravitas. That’s why, upon the announcement of his decision to step away and enjoy life, veteran sports media-types lined up to pay homage. Such was his reputation.
I bring it up these three weeks after the fact because I recently caught a July 2 podcast interview with him while I was binge-listening. He was talking to Richard Deitsch of The Athletic, one of the best reporters there is when it comes to covering sports media.
Ley explained that the decision was entirely his; that he just felt as though it was time to step down and enjoy life – reading books, attending concerts, doing things that weren’t possible when you were as immersed in a job as he was.
What made me sit up straight was his admission, during the interview, that one of his greatest regrets included his (and ESPN’s) handling of a story about UK’s search for a new head basketball coach, back in March of 1985. That, of course, was when Joe B. Hall surprised the college basketball world by announcing his retirement.
WKYT’S Rob Bromley broke the story, reporting from Denver, site of the NCAA Tournament regional where the Wildcats were playing. According to Bromley, after Kentucky’s final game, be it in Denver or during the upcoming Final Four in Lexington, Hall was going to end his tenure after 13 seasons.
On the day of Kentucky’s Sweet 16 game with St. John’s, Rob called the office and spoke with me about what he had learned. I was busy putting together a pre-game special and after Bromley explained what he had, naturally it became the focal point of the show.
As our staff members rushed about preparing background information and video on Joe B., one of us called the story in to the Associated Press, which promptly sent it out on the national sports wires, quoting WKYT.
Within an hour or so, the office phone rang and I answered. The voice on the other end was unmistakable and he identified himself. It was ESPN’s Bob Ley. He was calling to confirm that it was our station reporting the story on Hall. I assured him it was. After a pause, Ley told me that our story was wrong and that the announcement wasn’t going to happen.
I was editing video on deadline, so I had neither the time nor the inclination to argue with him. And as it turns out, we were right.
Despite Kenny Walker’s 23 points, the Wildcats that night lost to St. John’s. Surrounded by reporters and before a CBS Sports camera that was feeding video back to WKYT live via satellite, Hall read his announcement to Cawood Ledford and the fans listening on the UK Radio Network.
Thus began the next phase of the story: Who would be the next coach of the Wildcats? And this is where Ley – and nearly every sports media outlet in America – got it wrong.
UK fans who were around back then know that during the Final Four, the job was offered to Arizona’s Lute Olson. And he accepted. Word leaked out, as it often does, and soon TV and radio stations were buzzing with the news that Kentucky had its new head man. But there was one major detail that not many people knew yet.
He hadn’t signed a contract. And that’s why Ley, ESPN and everybody else got it wrong. Except for us.
WKYT had not yet announced Olson’s hiring when the office phone rang. On the other end was a booster well familiar with the job search and he warned us not to go with what was being reported – that Olson had changed his mind and backed out.
So as others reported that Olson was The Man, we simply stated that the process was ongoing. A few days later, of course, Eddie Sutton was hired to replace Hall.
During the podcast, Ley said that mistake irks him to this day and his admission says a lot about him as a journalist. Most people would simply file it away to the recesses of their memory and move on to the next story. Ley told Deitsch that he, and his network, should have known better than to report the hiring before a contract was in place.
My only personal interaction with Ley, in my four decades of broadcast journalism, was that hurried phone conversation on March 22, 1985. I’m certain he doesn’t even remember and I don’t feel any sort of vindication. Ley has proven himself as one of the tops in his field a thousand times over.
But the fact that he regrets an inaccurate story from 1985, about UK’s search for a new coach, says everything you need to know about why he became the face and voice of his craft at ESPN. There are still a lot of talented sports journalists at ESPN. But there was only one Bob Ley.