Bob Ley has come a long way since graduating from Seton Hall University in 1976.
A native of Bloomfield, N.J., and WSOU Hall of Famer, the ESPN on-air personality is set to host the network’s 25th anniversary special for its award-winning investigative sports news program, Outside the Lines.
“OTL’s longevity is a testament to the fact that there is both a qualitative and quantitative audience for thoughtful, probing, investigative and down-below-the-line journalism,” Ley said in an interview with The Setonian.
The special will air on ESPN on Tuesday, July 7 at 7 p.m. in the form of a one-hour event that includes a piece on former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice, an update on former Pop Warner star Donovan Hill – he suffered a paralyzing spinal fracture at age 13 after a head-first tackle – and segments regarding concussions in the NFL, race in sports and the show’s past coverage of sexual assaults.
“Looking back through 25 years of Outside the Lines has reminded us of the tenacity of our producers and correspondents in their efforts to report the stories that no one else in our industry was covering,” said ESPN Vice President of SportsCenter & News, Storytelling Units Craig Lazarus in a press release.
The special will also take a look at some of OTL’s most memorable moments, many of which include Ley.
Ley has hosted OTL since its start in 1990, reporting on the sports world’s most moving, controversial and impactful stories for a quarter of a century. A staple among ESPN programing, OTL has won 11 Sports Emmy Awards, three CableACE Awards for best Sports Information Series and various other awards for television journalism, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, Peabody recognition and a recent duPont honor. Still, despite so much success, Ley knows both he and OTL can improve.
“We’re always looking to improve ourselves,” Ley said. “There’s never a sense of complacency. There’s satisfaction temporarily… you celebrate a little bit, but then you know what? The next morning back [it’s] ‘What have you done for me today? You have another show to do, another deadline.’ That’s what the place is about.”
The OTL celebration comes just over a month after Ley signed a long-term contract extension with ESPN. Exact terms of the deal have not been made public, but the pact will keep the Worldwide Leader’s longest-tenured commentator at the network for the foreseeable future.
“I enjoy what I’m doing,” Ley said of his decision to re-up with the network. “I enjoy the work and the people and the challenge most of all. It’s new and it’s different every day. It’s not a job, it’s a challenge – two very different things. In that regard, that made it an easy call that we wanted to continue doing it.”
“I am thrilled that Bob Ley will continue at ESPN,” company president John Skipper added in a different release. “For the past 35 years he has set the standard for sports journalism and we and fans have been the beneficiary. At any significant news event we can count on Bob to be prepared, objective and keenly attuned to the issues and the search for informed truth… We are proud to keep him in the ESPN family.”
While Ley has hosted OTL from the time it started, he first joined ESPN on Sept. 9, 1979 – the network’s third day of operation – as a SportsCenter anchor at the age of 24. Since then he has remained a regular on ESPN’s most identifiable show in addition to being one of the leads on FIFA World Cup coverage since 1998. While soccer is Ley’s favorite sport to cover, the former Pirate has also provided the public with reporting on some of the most significant stories in sports, including Pete Rose’s ban from baseball, Magic Johnson’s AIDS announcement and the Boston Marathon bombings. With Ley as one of the men at the forefront, ESPN has become the industry leader, at least in the sports world.
“You hear athletes talk about this – dynasties and championship teams – staying on top is tougher than getting to the top,” Ley said of ESPN’s sustained success. “I would like to think that we are at the top of our profession.”
Looking back, it was never a sure thing Ley or his employer would make it to where they are today. Many, if not most, were skeptical when ESPN started, thinking that it would be difficult for a 24-hour all-sports network to maintain both financial and ratings success. While those critics were somewhat right in the beginning, Ley said he never thought about how long his gig would last, though admits that if he had he probably would have had concerns.
“You’re not thinking at that point, ‘Is this going to last?’” Ley explained. “You just think about, ‘Here’s today, what’s tomorrow?’ I can guarantee you, though, that everyone at the upper echelon of the company and in sports media were asking themselves, ‘Will this thing last?’ If we (Ley and his SportsCenter colleagues)… had taken the time to rationally think this thing through we might have been scared. We didn’t have time to be scared because we had another two shows to do that day.”
Obviously, things turned out alright for Ley, and he attributes much of his success to where he went to college. It was at Seton Hall and with WSOU that he was able to develop what he called a love affair for the medium of broadcast journalism.
“WSOU was the reason I went to Seton Hall,” he said. “WSOU was the beacon that brought me to the Hall.”
These days Ley still finds time to take an active part in the school’s community. He keeps tabs on SHU’s student media and athletics and while he lives in Connecticut, out of range of WSOU’s FM signal, he still listens to the station on iHeartRadio when he can.
Ley, who is married with two kids, also serves on the university’s Board of Regents, a role he calls humbling. Now on his second term, he is excited for what is to come at Seton Hall.
“It is a very consequential time in the life of the university,” he said. “With the establishment of the medical school, with the establishment of the College of Communication and the Arts, with the continuing increase in the quantity and the quality of the incoming classes, I think this is a renaissance in the life of the Hall.”
After everything he has accomplished, Ley believes his experiences at Seton Hall shaped him into who he is today and that any aspiring journalist should give the South Orange campus some thought, especially with where the university is heading. He did, and look at where it got him.
“Seton Hall prepared me for all of this,” Ley said. “I don’t stand where I am today – I have not been able to achieve professionally what I have achieved – without the grounding and the education and just the experience of being at Seton Hall. It starts there.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GPhillips2727.