Here's a dilemma: How do you describe Chet Coppock without insulting him?
He's been called loud, theatrical, and opinionated, and that was in a complimentary story in the Sun-Times. He's been fired from a plum TV job because he wouldn't obey directions and he alienated his crews by implying they were lazy. He was voted the least-liked sports personality in a magazine poll when he worked in Indianapolis. Ask for an opinion of him from just about any woman who's heard him, or half the men, and it's a good bet most of the answers won't be printable.
But golly, he's a nice enough guy--works for charities, doesn't mind saying out loud that he cried when George Halas died and Jack Brickhouse retired. He's always ready with a wink, a nod, and a pat on the back.
So what do you say about him without appearing to give him the slam?
Wait! No problem! Chet'll take you off the hook himself. He confides a secret little dream of his and it says all you need.
"If I told you what I'd like to do for a summer, you wouldn't believe it," he says, leaning close, uncharacteristically sotto voce. "I'd like to work the carnival. I'd like to be one of those guys on the midway who stands with four milk bottles and a softball and tries to con the suckers into winning a stuffed animal."
There you have it! He says it himself! Chester William Coppock is a carny! With teeth!
And gold pinkie rings, fur coats, big cars, and a salary approaching a quarter million a year. He's the biggest, flashiest thing in Chicago broadcasting, and even though you can't actually see the rings, the coats, and the cars while he's holding court on WLUP-AM's nightly Coppock on Sports, you can't help but knowing, just hearing his voice, that this man is 120 percent Cadillac.
Until just a couple weeks ago, the sports office at WLUP was stuck way back in a corner behind a small mountain of fan mail and contest entries. The air hung heavy in the unventilated room with hints of sweat, old newspapers, and flatulence. Now Coppock and his support staff have new, plusher quarters, but before they moved sometimes five guys would pack themselves into that little room, no bigger than an apartment bedroom, to work phones, clip newspapers, and bang away on rackety old typewriters. This physical closeness and Chet's own dominating presence have combined to ensnare his young staff into a sort of Coppock cult. They mouth the same cliches, bounce the same idioms and aphorisms off each other, and tease each other in that mean-loving way common to a hundred thousand high school and college locker rooms around the country.
That's why you'll look long and hard to find a woman who even tolerates Coppock and his show. Listen for just ten minutes and you know it's a boys' club. Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, hosts of the show that precedes Coppock on Sports, joke on air that it's really a "homo club," just another example of the latent homosexuality pervasive in groups of grown men who linger in the male-only world of sports. But irreverent humor and pedestrian psychology aside, women know immediately the Chet thing isn't for them.
Many male fans, though, have seen past the macho bluster and appreciate the man for what he is--a showman. "Basically, I love to perform," he says. "As dumb as it may sound, as Pollyannic as it may sound, I'm excited about going to the game tonight. I couldn't care who wins or loses. Chicago gets clocked, so what? It's the ambience. Tens of thousands of people, the roar, the lights, the pizzazz, that's what it's all about to me. I get as big a kick out of introducing Hulk Hogan before a packed house at the Horizon as I do introducing Michael Jordan. I'll never retire. I'll work till the day I die."
Chet's staff burns up the phone lines from late morning often until 6:59--one minute before airtime--setting up live guests for that night's show. Chet himself pumps iron under the watchful eye of his personal trainer at the East Bank Club (remember, 120 percent Cadillac) each morning. He remains at the club to catch a half-hour nap, then lunches in the grill, where he flashes a wave and a wink at the notables.
He arrives at the station, most days, at 2:30 PM. The room is littered with tape cartridges, reels, mikes, briefcases, old magazines, basketballs, pro-team media guides, and a battered nine-inch portable TV so the boys can monitor late-afternoon sportscasts.
The executive producer, gravel-voiced Dan McNeil, punches out a phone number furiously. He reaches a potential guest for tonight's show. "Hi Brian," he shouts, like Chet, into the phone. Before he can say another word, Chet hollers from across the room, "Hi Brian, you dickhead!" A woman down the hall has heard him. "Hey watch it!" she scolds. "Oops, sorry," Chet says, although he isn't.
"Dickhead" is the big word around here today. Chet, while writing "readers"--little blurbs of information he can use to fill time, kept at his side like a security blanket during the show--sometimes pushes himself away from the typewriter, stretches, rubs his eyes, and says, for no apparent reason, "George, you dickhead!"
George O'Brien, an intern here (he's since moved on) and a student at Chet's alma mater, Columbia College, smiles uncomfortably. Probably because he is low man, George is the object of everyone's derision. When he runs into the office from the engineering studio and breathlessly announces he has finished dubbing a tape, as if he expects Chet to slap him on the back and say "fine job," coordinating producer Jim Modelski and associate producer Steve Anton look at each other and, smirking, shake their heads.
Today George's special task is to set up an interview with Steve McMichael, the Bears' star defensive lineman, who is having preseason contract difficulties with team management. First McMichael must be tracked down--he may be at his Texas saloon--then it must be determined if he is rational enough not to pepper the airwaves with expletives. "Mongo McMichael," Chet says, "is a tough interview."
Modelski, meanwhile, has reached the Cleveland Cavaliers' front office. The Cavs created a stir in the basketball world last night with a couple of trades. Modelski learns that general manager Wayne Embry will not come on the air. Chet is livid. "Wait till the next time he calls me for a favor!"
McNeil reaches Cubs manager Don Zimmer at home. "I'm eatin' dinner. Call me back later," Zim says.
At times like this, Chet becomes worried. "Get ahold of Jeff Torborg," he shouts.
"Don't panic," McNeil says. "We'll dig up McMichael."
Not two minutes later, Chet looks up from his readers and says "George, get John Johnson. Let's get Buster Douglas for tonight." Johnson, the world heavyweight boxing champ's manager, owes Chet a favor. Everybody owes Chet a favor.
The phone rings, it's for Chet. "Hey how are you buddy?" Pause. "You're looking for four for Janet Jackson?" Pause. "Don't worry, pal, I'll get you in the house one way or another." Pause. "Nothin' to it. Stop by one of these days and pick up a lunch." See? It's business. Minutes later, another guy calls and asks for Phil Collins tickets. Chet promises to do his best; hanging up, he marvels, "Phil's not in town for three months and they're calling for tickets already."
McNeil sits at another typewriter, licking his way through a pile of envelopes that contain free restaurant passes. "Now I won't have to stroke any Blackhawks for a while; they'll all be eating on us," he explains.
That done, McNeil punches out Don Zimmer's home phone number again. This time Zim's ready to talk, but he can't come on live tonight, he's busy. He agrees instead to be taped right now.
The boys hook up the phone to an ancient reel-to-reel tape machine. Chet preps Zimmer with his usual litany of "Buddy," "Pal," "How ya doin'," and so on. When the tape begins to run, Chet wants to talk about baseball labor relations. "Don, you hear the conciliatory rhetoric, what does it all mean?" While Zimmer fumbles through an answer--either he's the world's greatest fence sitter or he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about--McNeil presses the mute button and says to Chet, "First you have to define 'conciliatory rhetoric' for him." Chet nods sagely.
The Zimmer interview over, Chet finishes his readers, then goes back to the newspapers to prepare his questions for tonight's live guests. He doesn't start writing out his questions until 5:30. "Then they stay fresh. I like to work until the last minute," he says. Each time he finds inspiration for a new question, he turns back to the typewriter to hunt and peck. "All these years," he laughs, "and I still type with two fingers."
But one glance at those bejeweled fingers and one might get the impression that Chet could pay a typist's salary for a year for the value of all the baubles on his body. He wears a big gold ID bracelet on his right wrist, a big gold watch on his left, a big gold pinkie ring inscribed with his initials on his right hand, and a big gold ring with three diamonds on his left.
"I used to wear four rings," he beams. "I'm a showboat by nature. It's way overpriced but it's fun. Why do I get every shirt monogrammed? Maybe it's insecurity, maybe I'm trying to declare my own identity. It's the way I've always been. I was the only kid who had a monogrammed bathing suit. Over the years, I've had at least ten fur coats." He's also owned five Cadillacs, he says, though these days he drives a Mercedes and a Chevy Blazer.
"Everybody in this business--whether it's Dan Rather, Bill Kurtis, or Chet Coppock--is a gimmick. My flamboyance, my love for fur coats and Cadillacs, has paid a big dividend. People expect me to arrive with a flourish. Maybe it's my way of screaming for attention, I don't know. I'm not a psychiatrist."
The flashy giant (he's six-six, and by his own admission has a generously proportioned backside) sadly draws the line at one ornament. "I'd love to wear a gold earring but I'm not sure how the companies I'm a spokesman for would react to it," he says.
It was only natural that such a Beau Brummell would consider hair replacement when his thatch began to thin a while back. Eventually he decided not to call in the carpet-fitters, but even that was a statement of id. "Former Michigan Avenue stylist Paul Glick said 'Wear your hair back. Allow the receding to show because it says you are so confident that your hair means nothing.' Now I feel most comfortable combing my hair back and letting the bald spot show," Chet says.
Getting closer to airtime, his readers stacked neatly on the floor, sheets of questions for each guest next to them, Chet switches from his regular Diet Coke to caffeine-free. He holds up the last can of the charged stuff, looks at it lovingly, and confesses: "If I drink too much of this I go through the roof." The half dozen Diet Cokes he downed for lunch, the two six-packs he brought into the office himself, and the two he sent George out for an hour and a half later, that's where Chet draws the line. Of course he has turned his addiction into a paycheck. The Coca-Cola Company greases him to talk up the product. Every once in a while he interrupts a live interview to take a loud gulp and say "Nothin' like a Diet Coke."
Even with enough caffeine in his system to spur a horse on to a victory in the Kentucky Derby, Chet looks tired. He admits his busy schedule sometimes gets to him. "The best thing that's happened in my day so far is Miller Brewing Company canceled our recording session. I've got four sessions tomorrow."
He does 150 to 200 commercial voice-overs a year for Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Nutri-System, the aforementioned Miller, and others. Add to that the 125 personal appearances he makes yearly--for charities, auto shows, luncheons, sports panel discussions, and the like--and maybe he's not drinking enough caffeine. But hey, a guy has to make a living. Take the Nutri-System deal. The weight-loss company approached him to tout its program. Some might think it an insult to be considered fat enough for such a job. "They brought money," Chet says. "Money will cover a myriad of insults."
Chet takes a break. He stands to stretch, throwing his arms back and puffing out his chest like a bully. Perhaps only fortune and fine needlework keep his shirt buttons from shooting across the room. "I get all my shirts custom fitted but this one was fitted about four years ago," he says apologetically. "My chest is two inches bigger now." It is hard to tell whether his personal trainer has beefed up his chest or whether Nutri-System, the deal terminated some months ago, no longer keeps the padding off.
Time for sports on the little nine-inch. Chet, proud and expert, ridicules WLS TV's Brad Palmer for a lame interview with Blackhawk coach Mike Keenan, then praises the talents of the same channel's Tim Weigel. Soon the late-afternoon newscast segues into Wheel of Fortune. Chet smiles. "Pat Sajak, my old classmate at Columbia College. He walked in every day with peg pants, pointed black shoes, and a tight T-shirt--a classic greaser. We all figured he'd wind up as a chop-shop operator. Now he's making 75 grand a week!"
The late-60s Columbia College broadcasting class was remarkable for the big names it turned out: Sajak; WMAQ TV anchor Bob Sirott; Turner Network Television sports anchor Nick Charles; WGN radio's Chicago Eddie Schwartz; Kup's son Jerry, producer of Richard Simmons's fat-fest programs; and, of course, Chet. "The funny thing is it really wasn't a notable bunch at the time," Chet says.
Chet himself never earned a degree from Columbia, or from Bradley or Loyola universities, where he dropped in for a few semesters each. "I don't think about it," he says. "Getting a degree didn't rank up there with world hunger." Chet and WLUP general manager Larry Wert have inked a second consecutive two-year deal guaranteeing him an annual salary of at least $200,000. Not bad for a dropout.
None of that matters now, for the show's the thing. In a moment, Chet will head up one floor to the studio. He arranges his readers and question lists in neat piles. Anton comes down from the engineering studio to report that all the pretaped interviews are on cartridge and ready to go. George promises to keep trying McMichael's number; a bartender at his saloon said he left for home about 20 minutes ago.
Chet begins to clear his throat gently. He picks up his headphones, places them around his neck, and says, "Space helmet on, oh Captain Video!" The sheer inanity of this hulking man aping Ed Norton of The Honeymooners is lost on the staff, themselves busy gathering papers and running up to the studio.
On the way up, Chet continually checks to be sure he has all his script material and his caffeine-free Diet Coke. Then, a catastrophe: he has drawn a blank on the bio of Ralph Wiley, a guest tonight. "How the hell am I gonna introduce the guy?" he pleads.
Anton, Modelski, and O'Brien look at each other like sailors on a stricken ship whose captain has said all is lost. Isn't he the writer for Sports Illustrated? Anton volunteers. Wasn't he on NFL Live? Modelski adds.
"I know," intern O'Brien blurts eagerly. "He's the black guy who sits next to Bobby Beathard on the NBC pregame show!"
Chet stops in his tracks and stares at the kid, who looks like he's just let out a family secret.
"George," Chet hollers, "shut the fuck up!" O'Brien is stunned and embarrassed. The group begins to walk again. "Ladies and gentlemen," Chet announces, "with us tonight is the black guy next to Bobby Beathard . . ."
Anton picks it up. "Ralph, have you always been black?"
"I was just tryin' to help," George mutters.
In the studio, Chet places his papers just so within easy reach of his right hand. He drags a tall wastebasket over to his chair. He puts his Diet Cokes in a special place at the end of the desk where he won't even have to stretch to reach them.
"At this point, I feel like a heavyweight boxer," he says. His voice is different now, more modulated. "Even though I've got a great support staff and I'm totally prepared, it's just me out there. It's my ass on the line." He thumbs through his papers. "How many guys do you know who have 45 pages of prepared notes for one show?"
Finally he takes his seat opposite assistant production director John Bell, who points at Chet when the clock strikes seven. "How ya doin' everybody," and we're off on tonight's two-and-a-half-hour roller-coaster ride.
A metamorphosis overtakes Chet once the on-air light flashes. Usually bigger than life, punctuating his parlance with grandiose gestures and projecting his voice as if he's introducing Randy "Macho Man" Savage at the Horizon, Chet now is hunched over his mike, contained, compact. Unbelievably, he looks tiny. His brow is furrowed and his movements--pulling out another reader, delivering from it, crumpling it and tossing it into the big wastebasket--are economical. As he talks, his shoulders jerk, first the left one, then the right, jabbing like those of a fight manager urging his man on from the corner.
But though his physical presence has become understated, his rhetoric remains gargantuan. "Believe me," he says, "we are loaded with main-eventers from top to bottom. 7:09, the time in Chicago, the nation's number-one sports town. This is the nation's number-one sports talk show as chosen by USA Today. You know it, I know it, the competition knows it. Live from the Windy City, this is, absolutely, Coppock on Sports." Neither italics for emphasis nor exclamation points are necessary. Every word is emphasized, every sentence ends in an exclamation.
And the questions are usually longer than his guests' responses. Recently there was this query directed to former major-league baseball pitcher Jim Kaat: "Jim, I'd be far more delighted if Pete Rose were to do his time, pay his debt to society, come back out and tell the American public that right now, the Hall of Fame is not his principal priority. His greater priority is the re-establishment of his reputation, ensuring the health and welfare of his family, and that Pete Rose would like to regain the tremendous accolade factor that he enjoyed with baseball fans from coast to coast and for the time being, just cool the issue of the Hall of Fame. I really think, short-range and long-range, it might be in his best interests as regards possible entry into Cooperstown."
Somehow, Kaat knew that the inquiry was complete and it was his turn to speak. My writing hand, though, was numb from trying to keep up with Chet. I couldn't get Kaat's reply verbatim, but it was something on the order of "Whatever you say goes for me."
A half-hour into the show, a story breaks on the AP wire. The NFL has signed a big broadcast deal with Turner Network Television. Chet summons Anton into the studio. "Get me Nick Charles or Fred Hickman [TNT's sports anchors]. I don't care if we have Jesus Christ on, we'll put either of them right on!" Anton hustles out to the phones.
Not a minute later, Anton runs back in and says Hickman will come on in 15 minutes. Hickman, a lock to become TNT's play-by-play announcer for the new NFL games--surely the biggest break in his career--has chosen to speak with Chet before anyone else in the country. When Hickman took Anton's call, he had just heard about the deal himself.
Meanwhile, the show has been dragging. NBA star Kevin Duckworth, a south-suburban native, cannot be found after promising to appear in the show's first half-hour. The boys have reached White Sox manager Jeff Torborg to fill the empty time. And fill it he does. Torborg gives a five-minute response when asked how the weather is.
In the middle of some excruciatingly long monologue by Torborg extolling the merits of some anonymous White Sox pitching prospect who'll probably turn out to be a bust, Anton races in to announce that Steve McMichael is on the phone and ready to talk now.
Chet's jaw drops; he points to the studio monitor, from which pours the babbling voice of Torborg, and shrugs as if to say, How are we gonna stop this guy?
It's a good bet that Torborg eventually will run out of gas, so Chet discusses with John Bell which words McMichael might use that should be bleeped. Chet, certain he has a feel for when McMichael will launch into an expletive-filled tirade, assures Bell he'll give a signal when danger is imminent.
Finally, Torborg shuts up long enough for Chet to break in, hand him his hat, and push him out the window.
McMichael gets on and is loaded for bear. Pardon the pun, but he's out to blast Bears boss Michael McCaskey. McCaskey is cheap, McMichael says. He's disloyal, dishonorable, and lucky he hasn't been throttled by any of the other serfs who line up at Soldier Field. McMichael--young, talented, and accustomed to shoving people around to get at what he wants--sounds helpless and frustrated. All he wants is to be paid comparably to other star linemen in the league. He sounds exhausted and near tears. He vows never to play another down for the Bears. At last Chet asks him how much he wants a year. "Oh, seven-fifty, eight hundred thousand," McMichael answers. "I'm not askin' for the moon." With that Chet raises his eyes toward heaven, even though he personally thinks McMichael should get what he asks for.
The rest of the show goes fairly smoothly. The tape of Don Zimmer is run. Live interviews are conducted with White Sox pitcher Bobby Thigpen, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, NBC's Marv Albert, NBA announcer Tom Heinsohn, Fred Hickman, and a dozen other sports names. With 10 minutes left in the show, Chet opens the listener phone lines. One caller calls him the king of cliches. Chet thanks him.
At last it's over. Chet raises his huge frame and again becomes larger than life. A thin film of sweat covers his ample forehead. His arms hang limply at his sides.
Like kids rushing out of Sunday mass, the boys gather their papers, toss their pop cans, run upstairs, pick up their belongings, and blow out of the WLUP offices, the glass door slamming behind them.
Chet strolls out to his big Chevy Blazer more leisurely. "It takes me two hours to come down from a show," he says as he guns the engine. "I don't fall asleep, I glide."
The ride from the John Hancock Center to his home in northwest suburban Glenview takes about 45 minutes, too long for Chet to waste simply watching billboards and the car ahead. He works the cellular phone, calling first for the weather, then for jeweler Howard Kaplan, a friend and sometime sponsor of the show; Chet updates him on baseball events and suggests, laughing, that Kaplan give him a deal on a new Rolex. Then he calls home to let wife Anna Marie know his ETA.
Still hyper after tonight's performance, he is now only too willing to talk about life. His.
Chet met Anna Marie Busalacchi ("a little Sicilian girl," he calls her) in Milwaukee in 1970 when he was a producer for the NBA Bucks' radio network. He recounts the joys of that period as only Chet Coppock can. "Here I was this 21-, 22-year-old kid hobnobbing with "The Big O'--Oscar Robertson--and a young Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor [who hadn't yet become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar]. The ball club went 10 and 0 during the exhibition season, won 66 of 82 regular-season games, and went 12 and 0 in the playoffs. You talk about great timing, they won the NBA championship on my birthday!" Chet gushes. What a courtship!
Anna Marie finally succumbed to his charms and married him in 1975. They had a daughter, Lyndsey, six years ago and a son, Tyler, a year and a half ago.
Chet's childhood family set the stage for the man he is now. "My mother and father were both rounders, happy-go-lucky types, drinkers, hell-raisers," he says. The Coppocks lived in north-suburban Northfield; Chet remembers the town as being "disgustingly normal, a rather vanillalike existence." He also remembers being an only child. He learned the truth years later, during the most traumatic time of his life.
In his innocent years, though, Chet was surrounded by sportsmen. Coppock pere, a dabbler in several businesses and an accomplished horseplayer, was a poker pal with some of the biggest names in Chicago sports. "I have vivid memories of sitting in my house and seeing Sid Luckman in this corner, George Halas in that corner, Luke Johnsos [onetime Bears coach] here, a half dozen ball players over there," Chet says. Jack Brickhouse, another pal of Coppock's old man, is now little Lyndsey's godfather.
"That planted the seed," Chet says.
He credits those early acquaintances with his success now. "I have been building contacts in this profession since I was a kid," he says. "I don't think there's a sportscaster in this town who has as many contacts as I have, not Johnny Morris, not Tim Weigel, not anybody."
Cashing in those contacts for a career, Chet started out as a lowly sports production assistant at WFLD TV, Channel 32. After earning a promotion to writer and reporter, he jumped to the Bucks' radio network, then returned to Chicago to work for WSNS TV, Channel 44, and then for WFLD again. He also found time to announce roller derby telecasts worldwide and promote small-time boxing cards. WISH TV in Indianapolis hired him as sports director and anchor in 1974. There he was named the least-liked sports personality in a magazine poll. Chet, loving the irony, is quick to point out that the same poll also named him the most-liked sports personality. "To me, that's very, very good. It's reaction," Chet observes. "Ultimately, we're entertainment."
WMAQ TV, Channel Five, snatched the big showman from Indiana and made him its number-one sports anchor in 1980. There, his huge personality made enemies. "Whenever you do what I do, dare to be controversial, be a little bit cocky, be a little bit arrogant--hey, much of what I do is an act, it's a Ted Baxter-like parody--a lot of people are not going to like you," Chet concedes.
According to Chet, people were lining up not to like him at Channel Five. From camera crews to directors and producers to colleagues at the anchor desk, Chet sensed animosity. Then one day, while working out at the East Bank Club, Chet was interrupted by his agent. It's all over kid, you've been fired, the agent told him bluntly. "I still feel it to this day," Chet says. First he cried like a baby, then he considered what possessions to sell and which cities he'd consider moving to to chase his career.
Just then he got a call from a fellow named Tom Hall, president of Ogilvy & Mather advertising. Hall told Chet he suspected they were related. Sure enough, they compared notes and it turned out Hall was Chet's old man's son by a previous marriage. It had been a secret for Chet's first 33 years. "No rational explanation has ever been offered," Chet says incredulously.
Nor has he ever received a satisfactory explanation for his firing, he says. He admits he isn't good at playing politics and that he can be described as "tempestuous and overbearing," but still, when pressed to account for his ouster, he shrugs and says, "I just wasn't their boy."
After being fired, Coppock stayed on with WMAQ radio as sports director, developing Coppock on Sports in 1984, and took on Chevrolet as the first of his spokesperson gigs. When WMAQ switched over to an all-news format, he again was cast adrift. If not for concern about his daughter's self-image, he might be the host of the World Wrestling Federation national telecasts. Upon learning he was free, the WWF producers offered him the high-visibility job, but Coppock balked at leaving Chicago and, he says, "I wasn't all that crazy about the idea of my daughter going to school and her fellow tots saying, 'Why did the Million Dollar Man hit your daddy with a folding chair last night?'"
For a couple of years before this time, Coppock had had several friendly chats with Jim DeCastro, then general manager of WLUP-FM. DeCastro told him he'd love to have Coppock on Sports on his station but it wouldn't fit in with their album-oriented rock format. Then, WLUP's parent company purchased WCFL, changed its call letters to WLUP-AM, and instituted a hybrid talk-comedy format. It was a natural for the newly unemployed Chet Coppock.
Now Chet is just another controversial figure at a place where the inmates run the asylum. The station's three biggest names, Jonathon Brandmeier, Steve Dahl, and Garry Meier, had already greased a path for Chet by knocking innumerable noses out of joint. "I have absolutely no complaints here," Chet says. "Nobody has ever told me what I should or shouldn't do."
Doesn't matter if they tried, though. Chet would probably just call them dickheads and go about his business.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.