BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. NBC is reteaming Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick on its NFL pregame shows, hoping that the two can re-create the on-air magic that made ESPN's "SportsCenter" a big deal back in the '90s.
So, how are they going to do that?
They don't know. They just will. After all, their new gig will be a lot like what they did on "SportsCenter" they'll be narrating the highlights of Sunday-day games before NBC's Sunday-night games.
"We don't know why it worked," said Patrick, who that disclaimer aside thinks he knows exactly why the two were so popular when they co-hosted "SportsCenter" from 1992-97. "I think what we did each night is we tried to entertain one another," he said, "because you are in Bristol, Connecticut, where, I mean, you are cordoned off from the rest of the world."
"We were in it for the entertainment," Olbermann said. (NBC's "Football Night in America" returns Sunday at 6 p.m. on Ch. 5, leading into the preseason Hall of Fame Game between the Redskins and the Colts.) You could argue (and I have) that "SportsCenter" has ruined sportscasting across the country because far too many people have tried to imitate Olbermann and Patrick only they don't have the wit or talent to pull it off.
But Olbermann and Patrick WERE good at what they did.
And they did have the proper balance of wit, charm, chemistry and genuine interest in sports to make it all work. And, unlike so many local and national sportscasters who take themselves far too seriously, Olbermann and Patrick did not. It's difficult to envision now, but when the two teamed up in 1992, ESPN was not the "worldwide sports leader" it has since become. It was still a bit of a low-budget, rogue operation.
"It was Keith, myself, a floor director and camera people, and that was our audience," Patrick said. "We never looked at ratings. We were never told ratings. We were never promoted, nothing. We just did it."
"We didn't even know if it was on," Olbermann joked. "It was there to kill time."
And, again, instead of taking it all too seriously, "We just had fun with one another," Patrick said.
Which is something sports on TV is missing more often than not a sense of fun. And a sense of spontaneity. According to Olbermann, there were no planning meetings before they went on the air.
"We didn't brief each other before shows and say, 'You do this, and then I'll do that.' It was always that element of surprise with the goal being to make the other one laugh uncontrollably on national television," he said, "and, hopefully, expel something from some part of the face either the eyes, the nose or the mouth."
The fact remains, however, that the two worked extremely well together. And that's not something you can fake, it's just something that sort of happens the indefinable "chemistry" that's instantly recognizable when you see it and impossible to force.
"I think we are opposite, but we respected each other when we got on the air," Patrick said. "And so when I watch Keith do his show on MSNBC now, it's a solo show, but people forget just how good he was as a teammate, and I think that's why it worked."
Olbermann recalled that they would "slip each other notes" with extra information or jokes to use during highlights the other person was narrating.
"We respected each other, helped each other, and tried to make each other laugh or question what we were talking about sometimes," Patrick said.
And maybe the rest of the "Football Night in America" team Bob Costas, Cris Collinsworth, Jerome Bettis and Tiki Barber ought to be a little worried that Patrick and Olbermann will go back to their old ways.
"We basically tried to get away with whatever we could because we didn't think, at 11:30 at night, our bosses were even watching," Patrick said.
"But that one day they would be watching, and we would both be finished forever," Olbermann said. "So let's get as much past the censors as we possibly can. That was the key."
"And we will try to do that to Costas as well," Patrick said, with his partner instantly voicing agreement.They were kidding. I think.