Still trying to make sense of a world where people wear hats on their feet, hamburgers eat people, and Keith Olbermann is once again employed by ESPN? Good, so am I. The improbable return of Olbermann to ESPN to host a new late night program on ESPN2 shows that truly anything is possible in the world of television. Heck, if ESPN2 can bring Olbermann back maybe Rush Limbaugh isn't too far behind. After all, the debate format is such a hit at the network and those two could bring not only sports, but politics debate to ESPN! Maybe Craig Kilborn will be back hosting SportsCenter and Dennis Miller will be in the Monday Night Football booth again before we know it too.
But nobody, nobody, burns bridges like Keith Olbermann. In fact, Olbermann himself once said on David Letterman in the 90's that he didn't just burn bridges, he burned rivers. ESPN PR's Mike Soltys said of Olby that he "napalms" bridges. The tombstones of Fox, MSNBC, and Current TV are all currently in the Olbermann graveyard as a testament to that.
Given Olbermann's talent as a television personality and his infamous blowups, it's an immense shock to see him return to ESPN, a place where his departure is well publicized thanks to the best seller Those Guys Have All The Fun. In fact, there are quite a few pages dedicated to how executives and on-air talent truly felt about Olbermann – admiring his talent, but expressing their disdain for his antics. Or, as Bob Ley put it, "unrestrained f*cking joy" when he left ESPN the first time round. I'd love to be a fly on the wall the first time Olby and The General meet at the next company picnic.
Here now are some of the other best quotes from past and present ESPNers in the ESPN Book about Keith Olbermann's exit from Bristol and just how impossible his return is…
Herb Granath, ESPN exec – I was enraged by Olbermann. Guys like that just piss me off, you know, because there's no loyalty. It's just me, me, me. There was no choice but to get rid of him.
Bill Wolff – He didn't get along with management? He lived for that. That's who Keith is. Keith and authority don't get along – ever.
Howard Katz, ESPN exec – I finally came to the conclusion that despite his brilliance and talent, we would be better off without Keith. I didn't fire Keith; I just chose not to renew his contract. He was causing so much damage, it got to the point where nobody wanted to be around him. It was ugly. That was a very difficult decision for me to make, and when I ultimately made it, Keith did not respond to it well – although I'm sure it didn't come as a surprise.
Bob Ley – I saw Walsh in the hallway, and I said, "Our long national nightmare is over, huh?" We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained f*cking joy. And it may not be fair to him, because I don't know what his issues are. Some of what happened with him back then is romanticized, 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.
Rece Davis – There was a rumor a few years ago that maybe Keith would come back, 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."
Jim Miller's narration on Olbermann's brief return to ESPN radio with Dan Patrick in 2005 – Back in Bristol, Mike Soltys, vice president for communications, remarked, "Keith Olbermann doesn't burn bridges, he napalms them." Olbermann did come back to the wonderful world of ESPN, but ESPN executives were damned if they'd embrace him without caveats and qualifiers. Although Olbermann did return to the empire in 2005 via ESPN Radio… ESPN issued a warning that under no circumstances was Olbermann permitted to set foot on the Bristol campus. They didn't say security guards would shoot him on sight but came just short of that. For Olbermann, being banned from Bristol was probably not a devastating blow. He was never fond of the facility or the town in the first place.
Bill Simmons – I've heard about some of the struggles that Olbermann had with the company and now that I know Kornheiser, knowing some of the sh*t he's dealt with, it does seem like we're all certain types. Olbermann's much crazier than I am. But we're all kind of like the same mold – very impassioned almost to a fault, and we just can't believe ESPN works this way, and why can't it work better, and it's just like we're a bad match for a company like that, and I think that's why a lot of those people have left.
In addition to those quotes there are several that pay tribute to Olbermann's ability as a television personalitiy, which is ultimately why ESPN is taking a chance that he won't cross paths with some of those that may be displeased with his return. For everyone's sake, it's probably a very good thing Olbermann's ESPN2 show will originate from New York City and he stays as far away from the Bristol campus as possible, lest he have to visit the reception area. And who knows, he may still be banned anyways.
With more and more competition nipping at ESPN's heels perhaps that's why management has done the unthinkable and extended the olive branch to Olbermann. With Fox Sports 1 coming into being and ESPN's ratings going down, perhaps they are in a position to take a gamble where they haven't before. We'll see if it pays off for ESPN or whether Olbermann's return is bombastic and short lived.