I'm working on a special project this year about a certain radio station, so I've been going back into my files and pulling out some old interviews with former Loop colleagues and pals. I'll feature one a week here on the blog. This week, it's the late great Chet Coppock. Chet was part of that great Loop AM 1000 lineup in the late 80s and early 90s, and helped launch the sports-talk station WMVP. I saw Chet every day for several years when I produced Steve & Garry. He was on right after us every night, and there was usually a bit of tension because Chet front-loaded his show with his best guests, and Steve & Garry backloaded their show with a bunch of commercials they hadn't gotten around to playing yet, and often ran late. At that time I was sure Chet didn't know my name. He called me Sport, Chief, or Champ. Later I interviewed him many times, and in the last year of his life, I got to know him quite well because I published his final book "Your Dime My Dance Floor". This interview excerpt below comes from 2009, on the eve of his first book's publication. That book ruffled a lot of feathers in the Chicago media community and made it difficult for Chet to find work.
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?
Chet: 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.
Chet: 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.
I later interviewed Chet for Illinois Entertainer, and for my podcast. His book "Your Dime, My Dance Floor" has a few good pictures from the Loop era including...this one with Kevin Matthews, Whitney Houston and Larry Wert, and the one below that from the Bulls championship.