O'Donnell: Holiday Pick 5 -- the most impacting nightly sportscasters in Chicago TV history

  • Former TV sportscaster Johnny Morris, right, shares a few laughs with former Bears safety Gary Fencik at the Bears convention in 2019.

    Former TV sportscaster Johnny Morris, right, shares a few laughs with former Bears safety Gary Fencik at the Bears convention in 2019. Daily Herald File Photo

  • The late TV sportscaster Tim Weigel at Channel 7.

    The late TV sportscaster Tim Weigel at Channel 7.

 
Updated 7/1/2022 7:00 PM

NO SLEEPY SENOR, no fretting over Zach LaVine's loser brand of "hero ball" and no worries about the expanding Big Ten -- which will be in Munich, Tokyo and Pago Pago by 2030.

Instead, presenting a Fourth of July weekend list of the most impacting nightly sportscasters in the history of Chicago TV.

 

Decisions of the judge are semifinal. Key word is "impacting" -- not necessarily "best."

Broadcasters who worked primarily as play-by-play men were not considered.

That means Len Kasper, Gary Bender and the late Milo Hamilton will lag far behind on another day.

THE LIST

1. Johnny Morris (1964-96; WBBM-Ch. 2; WMAQ-Ch. 5; WBBM-Ch. 2) -- The Johnny Carson of Chicago TV sportscasters. ... No one elevated the genre with such style, competitiveness and athletic pedigree. ... Also has never made any bones about the enormous contribution first wife Jeannie Morris and her penchant for quality sports journalism made to his career. ... Longtime friendship with Mike Ditka didn't hurt. ... Hard to believe ol' No. 47 will turn a hale and hearty 87 in September.

1A. Tim Weigel (1975-2001; WMAQ-Ch. 5; WLS-Ch. 7; WBBM-Ch. 2) -- Staggering intellect, phenomenal people skills and a remarkably intense competitiveness honed on the playing surfaces of Lake Forest High and Yale. ... He took Channel 7's "happy talk" to a higher level and was a critical linchpin in Dennis Swanson's remarkable flip of the station in 1983-84. ... Endless "feud" with Johnny Morris was a thing of beauty. ... Within hours of getting stabbed in the back at WLS in 1994, had offers from Channels 2 and 5. ... Still difficult to accept that his 53-week battle with brain cancer so sadly ended 21 years ago.

3. Wendell Smith (1964-72; WGN-Ch. 9) -- Perhaps the grandest hidden nugget in the annals of Chicago TV. ... He was the Black sportswriter who Branch Rickey designated to travel with Jackie Robinson in 1946 (with Triple-A Montreal) and 1947 (with the Brooklyn Dodgers). ... Joined the Chicago Herald-American shortly after and in 1964, WGN VP/GM Ben Beretson doubled his salary to join Channel 9. ... That made him the first person of color to be a regular on a Chicago TV newscast. ... Affability, insight and class personified. ... Died far too soon of cancer one month after Robinson in the fall of 1972.

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4. Bill Frink (1968-84); WLS-Ch. 7; WGN-Ch. 9) -- Was little more than a vagabond sportscaster before lucking into the role on the original iteration of "happy talk" at Channel 7 in 1968. ... Alongside Fahey Flynn, Joel Daly and weatherman John Coleman, the quartet revolutionized local TV news in America. ... To his everlasting credit, Frink "got it" from the outset and never fumbled. ... In his niche, held his own against power players like Johnny Morris and Brent Musburger. ... Arced out and wound up at Channel 9, where his final TV days cleared the deck for Dan Roan.

5. Bruce Roberts (1949-1981; WBKB-Ch. 7; WBBM-Ch. 2) -- A smooth, good-looking guy who confirmed his jock fiber at South Shore High and on the football team at Michigan. ... Set out to be "a broadcaster" and wound up manning the sports desk on Channel 2's memorable Amoco team of Fahey Flynn, John Drury and P.J. Hoff. ... Most importantly, by the mid-1960s, was anchoring CBS's NFL Sunday updates from Chicago, just after the league's first big-money unified network deal kicked in. ... Rather dramatically died in the sports office at Channel 2 in September 1981, moments before he was to interview Rudy Glenn, who had scored the championship-winning goal for soccer's Chicago Sting the night before in Toronto.

NIPPING AT THE CHARMED CIRCLE

Brent Musburger (1969-73; WBBM-Ch. 2) -- Missed the cut because the ambitious Chicago American sports columnist wasn't on local TV long enough. ... In an amazing five-year span (1968-73), went from a radio stringer at the Mexico City Olympics for WBBM-AM (780) to Channel 2 to the CBS Sports anchor desk in Manhattan.

Mark Giangreco (1982-2021; WMAQ-Ch. 5; WLS-Ch. 7) -- Commendable longevity and chameleon-like adaptability. ... "Career management" was his calling card until his Ditzy-Loo at Channel 7. ... And there are some who think he forced that disconnect because he was sick and tired of the tentacles of toxicity purportedly engendered by the starch-collared Cheryl Burton.

Chet Coppock (1981-83; WMAQ-Ch. 5) -- Brought new dimension to the idea of "own worst enemy." ... Could be the bombastic top spinner in one moment, a self-sabotaging schoolboy in the next. ... When he got waxed at Channel 5 in November 1983 -- age 35 -- no rational TV biz mind thought he would not move back into a No. 1 TV sports chair somewhere. ... But he never did.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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