Saturday, September 26, 2009

Chet Coppock

Chet Coppock has been working in radio and television in Chicago for the better part of 40 years. He's currently working at WLS Radio, covering Notre Dame football and basketball. His first book "Fat Men Shouldn't Be Dancing at Halftime" is now available.

Rick: Let’s start off with a fastball down the middle. Why a book? Your dime, your dance floor.

Chet: I was first approached about writing a book 18 years ago, and I decided then that I didn’t have that much to say, but then I was approached again by Triumph Books last October. The original idea was ‘100 sports things that every Chicago fan should know or do.’ I thought that was too limiting, so I took it upon myself to take it in a different direction. Each chapter is basically based on a premise. For instance, the 12 worst sportscasters in the past 25 years, give up the addiction to the 85 bears, etc. There are people I jab, there are some I put the dagger to pretty good, Crane Kenney (of the Chicago Cubs), among them. If the Ricketts family is crazy enough to keep Kenney on the payroll, his greatest days of buffoonery are still down the road.

But I gotta tell you, once I signed the contract, I was scared to death. Geez, you mean, now I really have to write it?

Rick: Did they give you a word limit?

Chet: Yeah, they basically said we want about 500 words per chapter. Well anyone who knows me knows that I can barely say my name in less than 2000. So, I remember going home that night and writing a chapter about Neil Funk. And the essence of that chapter is I don’t know how you can broadcast for 5 championship teams in the 3rd largest market in America, playing to sell out crowds every night, and have a profile as low as Neil Funk. I just don’t get it. So I gave it to the publisher and they liked it, but I could tell by their reaction that they didn’t quite get where this 275 pound Bohemian nutcase was going with this.

But I started getting into a rhythmic groove after that. It’s basically bang, bang, bang, one liner. Pretty soon I was on a roll. It was gratifying as all hell.

Rick: How long did it take you to write it?

Chet: 98 days. 98 straight days. I wrote on Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Years Eve. New Years day. I had written before, for NFL game day, a chapter for Bert Sugar’s book-- a really lousy book called “Why I hate the Dallas Cowboys” that sold maybe nine copies, and I was a columnist for the Sun-Times for about a year, but that was kind of a hustle because I was just taking quotes from my radio show and throwing it together with a few one-liners. That column could have been written by some guy sitting in Cook County Jail. So, I was really a rookie writer.

Rick: Were you nervous?

Chet: Not drowning myself in Johnnie Walker nervous, but hell yeah. I mean I gave up drinking 25 years ago. I never got the shakes or anything like that, didn’t wake up in the morning and have a shot of vodka, but Johnnie Walker and I were getting a little too close back then. There’s nothing I like better than a seedy little shot and a beer joint, with good conversation, and a juke box playing the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, if you want to get contemporary, U2—but once I started drinking, it was Katy bar the door. I mean, I can’t have just one beer. Who the hell has just one beer, anyway? So, when my wife got pregnant, now my ex-wife, who remains a drain on the ol’ salary cap by the way, I was talking to my waiter, a fella named Guido, who always brought out a Red Label on the rocks and a Budweiser chaser for me. I said Guido, take ‘em away. I’m done drinking. I thought ‘well that’s gonna last about 15 minutes’, but I haven’t had a drink since.

Rick: So you’ve never been in the program or anything?

Chet: No. Never took the 12 step program because I figured I’d probably fail. (laughs)

Rick: Do you write about stuff like that in the book?

Chet: No, that’s going to be the follow up. The follow up is going to be more auto-biographical, a critical look at my career. I’m not at all displeased at my career, but when I look back I realize that if I had been willing to play the game a little bit more with the upper echelon, I’d be a multi-millionaire today. There’s not a doubt in my mind.

But you know, I had too much too soon. You gotta remember, at the age of 20, I was working for WFLD-TV. At 21, I was doing the Bucks, who won the NBA title. At 22, I waltzed into Channel 44 and talked them into letting me do a talk show. At 23, I’m back at WFLD as a staff announcer, and I’m the national TV voice of the roller derby (photo). I go to Indianapolis at 25 to do sports with Jane Pauley. I remember Channel 5 came down to Indy to scout me, and took one look at me, and said, “Why we do want that slob? Let’s hire Pauley.” But I had so much success so early in life.

Conversely, some things didn’t go as well. I specifically remember tag-teaming with Norm Van Lier, who I still dearly miss by the way, at Fox Sports Net, and if I had just been a good boy and done what I was told...if I just understood what their position was...that they’ve got to be protecting the franchise. Got to keep Bill and Jerry happy. But I just couldn’t play that game. That cost me a lot of money over the years.

Rick: My old boss Steve Dahl used to say “the pioneer is never appreciated.” You’re a pioneer yourself. In many ways, you’re the father of sports talk radio in this town. What are your thoughts about those early days of sports talk radio and were there opportunities missed in that area too?

Chet: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. There were. Remember, Coppock on Sports was created only because I got waxed from Channel 5, so they farmed my contract out to WMAQ radio as part of the settlement. I was sitting there doing 3:20, 4:20, 5:20 reports, which is about as inspiring as watching a couple of goats f***, and I said, listen, your 6:00 hour is a bore. I have an idea for sports show. They told me ‘Nah, we don’t want one of those shows where Johnny calls in from Naperville and bitches up and down,’ and I said, no that’s not my idea. It’s going to be 60 Minutes comes to sports. We’ll have three or four live local and national guests and me. And we’re not going to take calls. It was the Howard Cosell principle. The intent was to make news. That was always the intent.

Rick: And the mistakes?

Chet: I made a couple of mistakes. The Score talked to me before they went on the air.

Rick: If I remember correctly, you were the first person they talked to.

Chet: I was. But we went back and forth, and I’ll be honest, one of the things that turned me off was that Seth, the fella that pitched me, took me out to breakfast at the Golden Nugget on Diversey. Not exactly Gibson’s. All I could think about was, boy, if I give this guy a ten dollar expense account from a game in Milwaukee, I’ll be going through red tape for years.

But to be honest I was loyal to the Loop. Think about what we had in those days. We had Brandmeier and Buzz Kilman, Kevin Matthews, Jim Shorts, and Shemp and those guys, Steve & Garry and you and that crew, and Coppock on Sports after that, with our incredible boy-quarium. I really believe for a four or five year period there we had the best radio station in Chicago radio history.

We were cutting edge. Every day was a thrill. We were treated like royalty. It breaks my heart to see the way the business is going when you look back at how it was then. Now we’re chewing up our young and spitting them out. We’ve got these producers who are working their asses off for maybe nine bucks an hour. I mean, who can live on nine bucks an hour?

When I hired Dan McNeil as my executive producer, I was desperate. We were going to go on the air on Monday, and I needed somebody, so I pitched de Castro and Solk and said, look, “hire this guy, and within a year he’ll be able to fill in on the weekends and knock people’s socks off.” I didn’t actually know whether or not it was true, but I knew he was going to bust his hump, that he had a great desire to succeed. It turned out to be true. But you know, we hired him at $18 grand a year, and that was 20-plus years ago. These guys today aren’t even making that, and that’s a crime.

Rick: I think a lot of people don’t realize how deep your roots in Chicago sports go. Talk about your Jack Brickhouse connection.

Chet: Well, Jack was my dad’s best friend. They were regular gin rummy partners. My dad traveled with Brick and Rosenberg. I would sit in Jack’s den and listen to him tell stories about sports for hours, in this den surrounded by plaques and trophies, and all these great mementos, and think to myself--look at the life this guy has lived! When I got hired by Channel 5, he was one of the first people that called to congratulate me. (Photo: Jack Brickhouse, a young Chet Coppock, and Ernie Banks in 1959)

Rick: Did he ever give you advice?

Chet: I had never done commercial work in my life, and he said “Why not?” Now I know this is going to sound ridiculous coming from me, but I said, “I just don’t think a sportscaster should be doing that sort of thing, it’s not appropriate for the role,” and Jack said “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” (laughs)

Rick: I’ve always thought that the sportscaster’s degree of difficulty isn’t appreciated. Athletes are notoriously bad interview subjects. I know that part of the reason you used to do those three minute long questions was because the guy on the other end of the phone was likely to give you nothing in return. Who are some of the athletes you’ve interviewed over the years that didn’t fit that stereotype—the really good interview subjects?

Chet: Guys who were a romp in the park—just too easy, you could do the interview in coma, were guys like Kevin Butler, because you knew somewhere along the way he was going to bitch about the lack of dough. Mongo McMichael. Once you got him going, look out. Mike Ditka. Dan Hampton. Pete Rose. Denny McLain (photo). By the way, Denny McLain and I did a podcast demo together called Two Angry Men. I’m telling you Rick, this is going to be a smash. We talk about Obama, we talk about Iraq, Sarah Palin, and occasionally we talk about sports. It’s just two guys who have been friends for a long time—in and out of the joint. (laughs)

Ditka was something special. I did his radio show with him for three years. The great thing about Mike was all you had to do was find the hot button. That would take no more than 3 minutes. I remember the day after we won the Super Bowl, we were both back in Chicago. My first question to him was “You scored 46 points. In the second half you basically just ran the ball. Did you call off the dogs?” And I remember him saying “You know, I never liked those guys to begin with—I would have scored 60 on ‘em.” I mean who else says that? Nobody does.

Stop and think about this. Here it is twenty five years later. If Lovie Smith was walking down Michigan Avenue on one side of the street, and Mike Ditka was walking down on the other side of the street, and there were a hundred other people there, 99 of them would go up to Ditka, and the other one would go up to Lovie and say, “Look over there. Isn’t that Mike Ditka?”

Rick: What about the interview subjects that were really difficult, that were like pulling teeth?

Major Harris, the quarterback of West Virginia. He got me so mad one night, I just couldn’t’ stand him. Willie Mays. He was a living breathing son-of-bitch. Miserable guy. Good Lord. I’d put Willie Mays one notch lower than Osama Bin Laden.

Rick: Wow.

You know, I would also rather interview Hulk Hogan than Michael Jordan.

Rick: Was Jordan a bad interview?

Chet: No, he was just predictable. But Hulk Hogan was fantastic. He was like a human volcano, full of fire. That guy was unbelievable. Wind him up and let him go. He was a showman.

You mentioned the Hollywood intros I used to do, well, one of the reasons I did that, is that I always thought of myself as sort of a carnival barker, the guy who tells you to knock down the five pins. You can never knock those things down. Let’s face it. But he makes it sound exciting.

I always wanted to do that, by the way. Take a summer off and be the guy who encourages people to come on in, pay a buck and go see the freak show, or the guy who convinces you to knock over the bowling pins for a stuffed animal. That would be so much fun.

Rick: Chet, why aren’t you on the air five days a week anymore?

Chet: I should be on the air, I know that. I don’t really have a great explanation for why I’m not. I think certain people have blackballed me. Certain people that could have swung the bat for me, haven’t over the years. I think I frighten some people. But no complaints. I still make a good living doing Notre Dame football and basketball and my commercial work, and I’m having a ball.

Rick: What about that Webbio thing. What in the world happened there?

Chet: (Exhales) I don’t know. I feel bad for Mike and Beebe. I feel bad for my producer. We went into this as virgins, and we were treated like Michael Vick’s dogs. I still have my bounced checks.

Rick: Was that the first time that’s ever happened to you in broadcasting?

Chet: Oh God no. If you’re a broadcaster and you haven’t had a least a half dozen bounced, then you aren’t doing it right. (laughs)

I still think the concept itself was good. It’s the future. I have seen the future! I’m 61 years old, but with the Botox and the work I’ve had done on my eyes, I don’t look a day over 50 (laughs). I know the future when I see it.

I love going on Facebook. I love Twitter. I love podcasting. Even if I go in a nursing home and have to use a plastic spoon, I’ll never retire, and with all these new possibilities I won’t have to. I love where the media is right now. I love the ability to convey thought in all these new ways. I check out Larz’ Chicagoland Radio and Media site. I check out your stuff. I’m not sitting on the sidelines while this all goes on. I’m doing podcasts. I’m going to start writing for Chicago Now. I think with all these great new things going on, radio as we know it now is on its last legs, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s sad, but there is so much more stuff out there. I want to do it all.

Rick: Including write a book.

Chet: By the time you write it, then do a rewrite, send it through legal, promote it, tell everyone you know, get on your on hands and knees begging people to buy it, if you’re lucky, really lucky, you’ll make about 34 cents an hour. (laughs) But the tangibility of it. To hold this thing in your hands. It’s been incredibly satisfying. In the last year I’ve done a book and a cameo in a major motion picture with Dennis Quaid. How many sportscasters can say that?

Rick: I can’t wait to read the book.

Chet: It’s outrageous. It’s going to make people laugh. People are going to want to bang me over the head with a frying pan. Crane Kenney gets whapped until the referee stops the fight. I dish out a fare share of praise. But I will say this. Because I’m Chet Coppock, and my style is so far off the charts, it’s somewhere between Jupiter and Pluto, it’s without question the most original book ever written about Chicago sports. I’m not saying it’s a great book. I ain’t Capote. I ain’t Hemingway. I didn’t live in Baltimore—I ain’t Edgar Allen Poe. But people are going to look at this book and say one of two things. This son-of-a-bitch is a misunderstood genius, or this guy is a son-of-bitch (laughs).