Why you should care

It was irreverent, clever and idiosyncratic – the Aaron Sorkin of sports news shows before Aaron Sorkin wrote a show about sports news.

For a while in the world of sports broadcasting, you couldn’t stop them; you couldn’t even hope to contain them. Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, co-anchors of ESPN’s flagship 11 p.m. SportsCenter broadcast, were the high priests of a daily ritual during the mid-1990s that helped spur ESPN and sports fandom to new heights of devotion.

For many of us, Olbermann’s recent and much-hyped return to ESPN2 and sports journalism — in the eponymous and appropriately titled Olbermann show — both opens up some old wounds and reawakens all that we loved about what Olbermann and Patrick called “the Big Show.” And in case you needed any help on this front, there is a segment in Olbermann called “This Week in Keith History” that is devoted to showing clips of the younger, mustached star anchor during his former television lives, including opposite Patrick.

Olbermann was a force of nature, a sports encyclopedia and prodigious talent who stepped on toes as soon as he walked in the door at ESPN.

Olbermann and Patrick, who now anchors his own national radio sports-talk show, were perfectly matched to preside over an era of clever catchphrases, ironic asides and well-cut highlight reels. Before joining ESPN in 1992, Olbermann, a 6-foot-3-inch native of New York who entered Cornell University at age 16, had held a number of sports anchor positions with local radio and television in Boston and Los Angeles. A native of Ohio, Dan Patrick Pugh earned a basketball scholarship to Eastern Kentucky University before turning to sports journalism, first on CNN (1983-89) and then on ESPN from 1989.

In the early 1990s, ESPN, based in “bucolic Bristol, Connecticut,” was still somewhat of a media backwater. If legendary anchor Chris Berman put ESPN and Bristol on the map, it was Olbermann and Patrick who would convert ESPN into the Mecca of the sporting universe. Patrick, now 57, played the wry but straight everyman to Olbermann’s cunning (and cutting) color commentary. He had a family and a mortgage to pay and tended to avoid straying over the company line. Olbermann, on the other hand, now 54, was a force of nature, a sports encyclopedia and prodigious talent who stepped on toes as soon as he walked in the door at ESPN. As ESPN anchor Karl Ravech marveled in Those Guys Have All the Fun , a 2011 oral history of ESPN , “I’ve never seen anybody do SportsCenter as well as Olbermann. Nobody. It hasn’t even been close.”

Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick in The Big Show

For the next six years, interrupted only by Olbermann’s brief (and disastrous) stint on ESPN2’s Sports Night , the hosts of the Big Show built a massive following, particularly among the under 30s. The duo’s own highlight reel included such classics as Patrick’s “en fuego” (on fire) line to describe performers with a hot hand and Olbermann’s repeated, gratuitous references to NASCAR’s unfortunately named Dick Trickle.

Both performers were expert wordsmiths who wrote all their own copy, often hastily and typically over 10,000 words per week. The two never rehearsed the comedy, preferring to improvise, and, yes, they even applied their own makeup (as famously captured in a memorable SportsCenter spot). As Olbermann reminisced on the 20th anniversary of the Big Show , they were “two kids having fun, trying to make the other one laugh.”

But behind the scenes, as they like to say on VH1’s Behind the Music , things were not so fun. Despite the tag team’s successes, ESPN rarely promoted its dynamic duo, often reined them in and paid them a pittance compared to anchors on other networks. The network even forced them to refrain from referring to the Big Show and to use the more mundane “This is SportsCenter ,” opening, which would end up being the network’s signature slogan. As Patrick would later reflect on his former ESPN bosses , “They mentally beat you up…[they were] controlling the air you breathe. It [was] the Truman Show.”

Add to this strained dynamic Olbermann’s preternatural ability to lose friends and irritate people, and the show’s glory days were soon over, with Olbermann being the first to leave in 1997. “We felt not so much relief when Keith left,” anchor Bob Ley would later recall, “as unrestrained fucking joy.”

But after 16 years away, he’s back. “As I was saying,” Olbermann quipped at the start of his new sports show’s first episode last month. But one does not feel a sense of continuity between the Big Show and Olbermann’s latest offering. Only a sense of loss at what might have been. Sometimes you just can’t put the genie back in the bottle or the biscuit back in the basket.

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