With just a week before Little Brown’s release of James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ warts-and-all oral history of ESPN, it’s becoming clear that former SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann is this story’s Chevy Chase. Recall that Miller and Shales collaborated on Live From New York, a most-excellent uncensored history of SNL that described the clash of egos when Chase, the show’s first star, went on to bigger, if not necessarily better, things. In Olbermann’s case, he wasn’t the network’s first breakout star — that would be Chris Berman — but his on-air brilliance was unrivaled, according to the first excerpts of Those Guys Have All the Fun in GQ. “The guy who made ESPN a household word, the guy who made ESPN mean something in the market to everyone, was Keith Olbermann,” said ESPN producer, Bill Wolff. “God, he was a genius. He just reinvented sportscasting by being the smartest guy who ever did it. And watching him in the mid-’90s was a pleasure. It was appointment viewing: What was Olbermann going to say that night?”
When Olbermann and SportsCenter co-pilot Dan Patrick inevitably ran into trouble with authority from ESPN’s corporate overlords, Olbermann, who thought the on-air talent was woefully underpaid, did not come to heel. “We got a tongue-lashing, pounding on the desk, the whole thing,” Patrick said. “[ESPN exec John] Walsh was pissed. I walked out of that meeting — at the time I had two children, maybe three — and I remember saying, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to get fired.’ We’re three steps out of the conference room, and I ask Keith, ‘What do you think?’ and he says, ‘F— them!’ I said, ‘What?’ And he looks at me and says, ‘F— them.’ And I said, ‘All right.’”
Olbermann ultimately left for bigger riches, signing with Fox Sports in 1998 after his contract with ESPN was not renewed. “Some of what happened with him back then is romanticized,” longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley said, “but there are still people there who remember how people were treated, spoken to, referred to, and no amount of subsequent gentle behavior is going to erase that.”
Though he’s since evolved into a political television personality, Olbermann still dabbles in sports and his on-air style was copied by numerous SportsCenter anchors — often to their detriment. He remains both a revered and despised figure around ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. “There was a rumor a few years ago that maybe Keith would come back,” current anchor Rece Davis said. “And one of our coordinating producers said, ‘I think it would be a good idea but with one caveat. He first has to stand in the reception area, and everybody who wants to gets to come up and punch him in the stomach.’”
“This is SportsCenter” was great, but Those Guys Have All the Fun promises to be even better. Have you already ordered your copy?