Bob Ley’s cosmic journey to ESPN

On the third floor of Walsh Library, there is a large glass display case tucked into a bare strip of wall that has not been occupied by shelves of books between the cubicles and bathroom. Inside it there are nine distinct soccer trophies, a golden boot, a two-page magazine story and the cover of the May 22, 1980 edition of Sports Illustrated. The cover of the magazine reads, “Soccer’s Super Scorer,” and below that, “Giorgio Chinaglia of the New York Cosmos.”

It is true that, for a brief moment, the Cosmos and the top-heavy, star-studded North American Soccer League captured the imagination of a nation. Now, a small yet significant piece of its remains rests in a vague corner of the four-story library on the corner of Seton Drive and Madison Avenue.

One person who became permanently enamored with the sport through the Cosmos of the 1970s and 80s is one of the most distinguished graduates of Seton Hall University, sports broadcasting icon Bob Ley.

Seton Hall alum  (’76)  and ESPN broadcaster Bob Ley. Photo via ESPN Media Zone.

A season ticket holder for the Cosmos from 1977 to 1978 and then a public-address announcer for the club in 1979, Ley is in the third week of a six-month sabbatical from ESPN, where he has worked since Sept. 9, 1979.

The 63-year-old has stepped back from his daily role hosting the investigative reporting show Outside The Lines – for which he won an Emmy Award in May – but his schedule in the interim is not short of public appearances.

On Oct. 20, he will appear at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, where he will, appropriately, emcee the opening of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

One week ago, he gave the introduction at the Team Walker Evening of Dreams, an annual gala hosted by former Seton Hall basketball standout Jerry Walker. Inside a lavish restaurant overlooking Liberty State Park, the graduate of Bloomfield High kicked off a night that serves as a springboard in helping Walker, a native of Jersey City, keep children of the area off the streets.

On what was a rainy Thursday afternoon, Ley drove down from Bristol, Conn., to Jersey City, the same route that had gotten him to uncharted television territory in September of 1979.

It was Sept. 8, 1979, and Ley’s bags were packed in the parking lot of the old Giants Stadium. The Cosmos had already been eliminated by the Vancouver Whitecaps in one of the most memorable games in NASL history, but Ley was still scheduled to PA for the 1979 Soccer Bowl, in the Meadowlands, between the Whitecaps and Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Vancouver prevailed, 2-1, and once the laps of honor ended, Ley hopped in his car and made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Bristol – his new job at ESPN started the next day.

Ley (left) and fellow Seton Hall alum Dick Vitale (right), on the set of NCAA Tonight in 1984. Photo via ESPN.

In the nearly four decades since, ESPN has become rooted in American society, with sports fans innately reverting to the company’s channels for highlights and analysis, and bars displaying their happy hour talk shows and primetime live events.

“I think the thing I’m proudest of, what we’ve done over the last 39 years or so, is that we’re a part of the culture,” Ley said in an interview last week. “We’re not just sports news, we’re not just events, we’re part of the culture; we helped create the culture of sports entertainment as an industry, and we’re ingrained.”

It may be hard to fathom “The General,” as Ley is called by longtime peers, anywhere else, but ESPN was one of two job offers in that fateful summer of 1979, both comparable to one another at the time.

In his third year working for Suburban Cable, Ley read a Sports Illustrated article, not on Chinaglia’s sporting prowess, but on a start-up project in Bristol. Despite being brand new, ESPN had savvy pioneers like the two late men who hired Ley, Scotty Connal and Chet Simmons, both of whom were from NBC Sports.

Ley received a job offer from ESPN on a Friday, but one day later received a second offer from New Jersey Public Television.

“With the New Jersey Public Television job, I would not have to relocate,” Ley said. “I’d be the assistant sports director, I’d be reporting three days a week, I’d be anchoring two days a week on the weekends, be seen on [Channel] 13 in New York and [Channel] 12 in Philly, at the age of 24.”

“The money was virtually identical,” Ley added. “So, now it seems like it was a no brainer of a decision. But, in 1979, it was a tough decision to make. Talking about something that was brand-new, untested, relocate, or stay put.

“But, I had just come out of the situation at Suburban, where we had gone from nothing, from the blueprints, to a vibrant local operation that won a number of national awards in the course of just three years. And I think there was an attraction to being on the ground floor, because there were no rules. It’s like Buffalo Wild Wings, no rules.”

Ley began working at ESPN on the network’s third day of operation, a manner he jokingly described as, “rather biblical,” on The Rich Eisen Show in May. “The General” started out behind the highlight-laden desk of SportsCenter, but in 1990 embarked on his current show OTL, which looks at topics beyond the field of play. In the early 2000s, Ley and OTL were ahead of the curve, reporting on the devastating impact of brain injuries in sports, particularly in the NFL.

But over his 39 years at ESPN, some of the most challenging and rewarding experiences took place on the 2010 World Cup set in Johannesburg, South Africa and the 2014 World Cup set in Copacabana, Brazil, around the very sport that captured his imagination with the galactic Cosmos of the late-70s.

Left to right: Steve McManaman, Alexi Lalas and Ley, in Studio G on the Bristol campus of ESPN, during coverage of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. Photo via ESPN Media Zone.

The tournaments were more than one-month pressure cookers for Ley and company, but year-long investments that involved traveling months in advance to scout the foreign host nation and identify storylines. Using a hint of his OTL treatment, ESPN’s coverage for those two tournaments went beyond analysis of teams and stars, immersing viewers in the cultural bedrocks of South Africa and Brazil.

When ESPN failed to outbid FOX, and therefore lost broadcast rights to the 2018, 2022 and 2026 World Cups, the news sparked a thread of consoling messages among members who had worked on the 2010 and 2014 productions. Unlikely to still be behind a desk in 2030, Ley faced the bittersweet reality that he had likely worked his last World Cup.

“There was a stretch where I think five out of seven years I was overseas for July 4th, which is nice,” Ley said. “But to do a World Cup, in a principal role, in front of the camera, behind the camera, it’s at least a year of your life.”

“When I’m standing at the Stone Pony outdoors at the stage watching The Jukes in early July, on a nice long weekend with my wife down at the shore, when you’re overseas for six weeks you can’t do that,” Ley went on to say. “So, life’s full of trade-offs.”

Ley may be in the midst of a sabbatical, but the leading voice for investigative journalism at ESPN still has a twinkle in his eye when discussing OTL. On his rainy afternoon drive from Connecticut to New Jersey last week, he listened to the audio version of his show, as host Ryan Smith led discussions on Jimmy Butler’s deteriorated relationship with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the federal trial for scandal in college basketball.

Inside a vibrant new studio in Bristol for OTL, Studio Z, the thought of running for U.S. Soccer Federation President was presented tongue-in-cheek to the longtime broadcaster in October of 2017. Ley gave the idea five seconds of consideration, but never came close to running.

“The thing is, that’s like a real job,” Ley joked. “That’s real work, and I have the best job in the world.”

When Ley drove from Giants Stadium to Bristol on the night of Sept. 8, 1979, he had no idea the infant company he was joining would become ‘The Worldwide Leader in Sports.’ All he knew was that he had a vision, and bosses who believed in him.

“You want to see God smile, make plans,” Ley said. “That saying is true, I’ve seen it so many times. I’m fortunate to be where I am, I really am.”

James Justice can be reached at james.justice@student.shu.edu or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.

Author: James Justice

James Justice is the Assistant Sports Editor at The Setonian, a role he took over in May of 2018. He previously served as the Sports Copy Editor in the 2017-18 year, following his time as a staff writer. Outside of The Setonian, James is a match-day correspondent for the New York Red Bulls' SB Nation website Once A Metro, in addition to being a news and sportscaster for 89.5 WSOU FM.

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