Ten Good Years: Michael Wilbon Talks About "PTI" Reaching A Decade On The Air
Today marks the 10th anniversary episode of ESPN’s “PTI,” the net’s 30-minute weekday sports discussion and debate program hosted by Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser. The show made its official debut on Oct. 22, 2001, and has since become one of ESPN’s signature programs with its back-and-forth banter between Wilbon and Kornheiser. Through the years, the show has featured an all-star list of guests and, according to ESPN, has increased its ratings and viewership nearly every year since its inception. Wilbon recently spoke with Television Editor Paul Sanford about the show, his relationship with Kornheiser and whether they will last another 10 years.
Q: Did you ever think you would be talking about “PTI” 10 years later when you first started the show?
Wilbon: If I have any attribute that serves me well, it’s I don’t have a long-range plan in life. I have no idea. I just don’t look ahead, I really don’t. You know when people get out of college and they’re talking about their five-year plan. Five-year plan? I got a plan to get to Friday. I didn’t think about, “Wow, it’s going to be or it won’t be.” If anything, I probably had a little bit of an ego about it. I thought after we got started and people seemed to like it that it would last. But I didn’t have a time associated with that thought. Each of us signed a three-year deal and two of them were guaranteed. I said to Tony, “Look, the worst possible case scenario is we’re thrown off the air by Christmas and we have two years of guaranteed money.” Tony said, "That’s your worst-case scenario? That’s my best-case scenario." Ten years is a long time.
Q: How would you describe your on-air chemistry with Tony?
Wilbon: It’s the same as it is off the air. People will play golf with us in suburban DC and they’ll say, “This is just like being on the show.” The friendship existed long before “PTI” with much more (four-letter words) on the golf course. We joke all the time about the HBO version of the show.
Q: Who has been your favorite guest over the years?
Wilbon: I know there are a group of guests that are my favorite that differ from the producers and differ from Tony’s. One of my favorite guests is (former Rhodes scholar and Florida State S) Myron Rolle -- he's not just a favorite guest, he’s one of the favorite people I’ve met in 30 years of doing this. Charles Barkley was our very first guest because I asked him to be and he said yes because Charles believed in the show before I did. My favorite guests are Barkley, Michael Strahan -- he hasn’t been on in years because he went to Fox and he couldn’t be on. Oh my God, he was a great guest.
Q: What makes a good guest?
Wilbon: They’re conversational. I like guys who have a point of view. They don’t come on thinking they can’t say to me, “I heard what you said Thursday. You were out of your mind.” I want that. I want it to be conversational, just like we’re conversational. What makes a great guest is a person who can fit in to what we do, where it’s not an interview.
Q: Who is your favorite guest host and how does the dynamic differ with the guest host than when you do the show with Tony?
Wilbon: It changes because you don’t know the person as long or as well. Tony and I -- I know a lot of his positions. There are people who think I listen to (Dan) Le Batard more closely because I can’t predict all of his answers like I can predict a lot of Tony’s because I’ve known Dan well for 10 years and Tony well for 30. I’ll tell you an underrated guest host who was my favorite was Michele Tafoya. Le Batard and (Boston Globe columnist) Bob Ryan have been pillars of the show. I thought Michele Tafoya was our best guest host the first few years of the show. Le Batard has done it to the point where I think Danny and I do the show really well.
Q: How involved are you in the creative side of the show in developing the segments, such as “Heads on Sticks,” "Oddsmakers," etc?
Wilbon: I’m not involved in the creation of each device. In other words, I had no input into “Oddsmakers” or “Toss Up” or names of them or what day we do them. I don’t have any interest in being involved in that because the device is the same. Whatever it’s called that day, whether we play “Oddsmakers” or “Toss Up,” it’s essentially just a way to get us into a discussion. I’m intimately involved in the discussion in terms of what we're going to discuss.
Q: If you could have anyone in the history of sports as a guest, who would it be?
Wilbon: It’s got to be a great talker. Muhammad Ali in 1966, and that has to be Tony’s dream guest. I don’t know that Babe Ruth was boastful enough. There’s not enough sound of Babe Ruth to know, but Babe Ruth in 1927 would be second choice. Jim Brown in 1969 as he’s getting ready to retire at the top of his game.
Q: Who watches the show that would surprise us?
Wilbon: I know the President of the United States watches the show. I know the last two presidents of the United States watch the show and not just like once every four months. They watch the show. Here’s what surprised me and brought me greater joy than the president watching: Eva Longoria. I became friends with Eva Longoria. Not Evan Longoria, Eva Longoria because she watches, she’s into it. If you ask me who I care more about, some athlete or Eva Longoria, it’s Eva Longoria a hundred times out of a hundred. (Ed. note: Wilbon later noted Sen. John McCain and the late Tim Russert were also fans of the show).
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Wilbon: I go on the road with the show all the time. Tony only did during his “Monday Night Football” time. I love it when the weather’s bad and we’re sitting there ... because they know you’re somewhere where sports are going to be. I hate antiseptic crap. I don’t really love any studio. I like to be at the event. That’s how television should be done. Nobody at “PTI” agrees with me. I don’t care that they don’t agree with me.
Q: Have you ever said anything on-air during the show that you regretted saying and had to apologize for?
Wilbon: I’ve had a hundred of those, not apologize. I’ve come back and said, “What was I thinking?” I’ve never had one where I thought I said something offensive. It was more I thought it was wrong or the wrong take or I said the next day, “You know, that was really dumb.”
Q: Do people you talk about during the show ever call you to complain or comment about what you said about them?
Wilbon: Oh God yes, and when I really appreciate it is that they’re guys I covered and they don’t feel like they need to agree with me. They’ll call and say, “Have you lost your mind?” Or, “I love that. That made me really laugh or it brought me to tears.” … Assistant coaches and managers over all the sports who will call and say, “Hey, you missed that. What you didn’t know was this.” I appreciate all those people. They do it out of respect because they want you to know they’re paying attention and that the conversation matters.
Q: Is there anything that’s off-limits that you won’t discuss or address on the show?
Wilbon: No, not because of a generality. There are topics where we say, “No, that’s stupid. No, we’re not going to do that.” “SportsCenter” likes to talk about some stuff sometimes and in the culture we live in, everything is snap judgment. Every time somebody hits three home runs they think it’s the greatest performance by a baseball player ever and our response as 52 and 62-year-old men is to say, “Shut up. Shut up.” Nothing that happened today is the greatest thing ever.
Q: Are we going to be back here 10 years from now talking about the 20th anniversary of “PTI” with you and Tony still hosting the show?
Wilbon: It all depends on whether Tony decides to retire and make good on his threat -- and I’m quoting him -- “go and be with my people in Boca.” That is his constant threat. Some days I think he’s serious about it. I hope we do the show 10 more years. Is that realistic? I doubt it. If I’m Tony, at some point I say, “You know what, I’ve had enough of this.” … It depends on who the person is. It’s not “Crossfire,” where two guys were just paired up and they just started screaming at each other and took opposite opinions. People who don’t know we’re friends don’t really watch the show.