- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

Believe it or not, ESPN has been struggling for ways to keep celebrating its 25th anniversary — an occasion that already has been beaten into the consciousness of American sports fans.

Looking to fill the August dead zone on the sports calendar, the network this week will have an “Old School” series of “SportsCenter” shows, bringing back former anchors Craig Kilborn, George Grande, Gayle Gardner, Greg Gumbel and Charley Steiner.

The concept, while no doubt gimmicky, is a feel-good exercise that covers some of the same nostalgic ground as “where are they now” pieces done by Sports Illustrated and others. And by temporarily bringing back the considerable talents of this group, particularly Kilborn, the move also recalls the trailblazing glory days of “SportsCenter,” now one of the most copied programs in TV history.

“We’re not just celebrating our lore but more importantly the sports world,” said Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president. “As we were brainstorming different ideas and initiatives, how we could keep the celebration going, and how to relive those magical moments and magical days, we realized it wouldn’t be complete unless we were able to bring back some of those individuals. Some of those anchors not only broke news on a daily basis but brought style, brought substance, really set the table and connected with viewers. They are an important piece of our history.”

But even before “Old School” week starts, the effort has been defined by what it doesn’t have: outspoken former anchor Keith Olbermann. One of several key figures who injected irreverence and pop culture smarts into the endless string of highlights, Olbermann parted badly with ESPN in 1997 and continued for years blasting his former employer at nearly every opportunity.

More recently Olbermann has apologized for most of his comments, with the notable exception of his tirade against ABC’s ultimately disastrous hiring of Lisa Guerrero for “Monday Night Football.” But Shapiro said bringing Olbermann back for “Old School” week never was considered.

“As a result of the history of repeated criticism, we didn’t want to bring him into the workplace,” Shapiro said. “The damage he could cause in one day in our newsroom could put us in damage control for two years.”

That stance predictably bewilders Olbermann, particularly considering that ESPN plans to include him in a retrospective book and DVD.

“I would have said yes. There would have been some logistics to work out because of my job [at MSNBC], but certainly I would have been interested if I was asked,” Olbermann said. “I understand the sort of dilemma they’re in. But it’s important to remember that at least two of the five [anchors] they’re bringing back have said things about ESPN that put me to shame.”

Olbermann did not elaborate, but even during the celebratory conference call last week to announce the “Old School” venture, Gumbel recalled the “idiots who used to run the place.”

Meanwhile, Olbermann is planning a retrospective of his own on MSNBC this week, recalling the greatest hits of his “Countdown” show since it began 16 months ago.

“It’s roughly 100 percent related to what’s happening on ESPN,” Olbermann said. “It’s a classic piggyback job. I just couldn’t let the week pass without doing this.”

Kilborn made his own mea culpa for the disturbing rash of catch phrase-obsessed, smart-alecky sports anchors polluting the airwaves. Now the host of CBS’ “Late, Late Show,” Kilborn arguably worked harder than any of his colleagues to pepper his copy with one-liners and esoteric references.

“I do apologize if I’ve influenced any of these young guys wrongly,” he said. “I’m going to try and correct things [today]. No catch phrases when I’m hosting with Dan Patrick. I’m just giving scores and highlights.”

Steiner’s one word response to Kilborn’s apology: “Jumanji!”

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