Leaving his Mark: Giangreco’s story plays out like no other
The longtime Chicago sports anchor has rubbed some people the wrong way, but he has delighted, informed and supported countless more.
Chicago was tugging at Mark Giangreco’s sleeve long before he called it home.
When he was 8, he’d lie in bed at night — when the signal reached his home outside of Buffalo, New York, the clearest — and listen to the city’s radio stations on his transistor. He was obsessed with the music stations. He’d rock to WCFL and WLS and dream of becoming a disc jockey like Dr. Brock, John Records Landecker and Larry Lujack.
Even though he was more than 500 miles away, Giangreco felt connected to Chicago, which to him was a much larger Buffalo. The cities have the same Great Lakes accent, the same blue-collar mentality and relatively the same weather. They share an ethnic mix of mostly Irish, Italian and Polish, which he identified with, having grandparents in an Italian neighborhood where no one spoke English.
Giangreco’s attraction to Chicago grew stronger while he was at the University of Dayton, where he had a roommate from Northfield, a suburb north of Chicago. They would hitchhike into the city on weekends to party on Rush Street. If they had access to a car, they’d make the five-hour, 300-mile trip, party, then drive back. They felt invincible.
When he began his broadcasting career, Giangreco knew where he wanted to end up. But when he finally arrived in Chicago in 1982, he learned quickly that partying there and competing there were mutually exclusive.
He had no idea the city was about to enter the greatest sports era in its history, in which every major team would win at least one championship, and he’d become its top TV sports anchor. In Chicago, a provincial town despite its major-market status, that equates to celebrity.
“Chicago doesn’t have movie stars — they’ve got sports stars,” said longtime TV news anchor and journalist Carol Marin, who worked with Giangreco. “Without any Hollywood [types], you’re stuck with the news people.”
Chicago became enamored of Giangreco. His authenticity came through the TV screen as clearly as the radio signal that reached his childhood bedroom. It’s hard to act your way through a newscast. At some point, the façade will crack and viewers will see through you. Giangreco was himself, script and all.
“To Mark Giangreco, they were never just words on a page,” said former news anchor Ron Magers, who also worked with him. “They were words he created; they were words he wrote. They were the essence of him. That’s why in what seemed to be an even ordinary story, you still got him.”
But being him had its drawbacks. During his school days, he was often blunt and outspoken — traits he picked up from his mother, Joanne — and found himself in trouble for it. Once he became comfortable in Chicago, he pushed the boundaries and inevitably crossed them a few times.
Whether his last transgression merited his ouster is at least questionable, if not outright wrong, to many. During what became his last newscast Jan. 28 at ABC 7, Giangreco jokingly said news anchor Cheryl Burton “can play the ditzy, combative interior decorator” on a fictional DIY Network show he concocted. Burton complained to station management, which took Giangreco off the air. He and the station reached a separation agreement March 12 for the remaining 18 months on his contract.
But labeling Giangreco a “bad boy” would be a misnomer. Another element of his authenticity is his generosity — a trait he picked up from his father, Joseph. Those he has touched have reciprocated with an unyielding show of support for which he is grateful.
Another reason for his success — and that of his stations’ newscasts in the ratings wars — was his unique style. He was paid to live on the edge, and handsomely. While others in town kept their sportscasts straightforward, Giangreco kept viewers coming back to see what he’d do next.
“I have some regrets. That’s what happens when you shoot from the hip,” said Giangreco, 69. “But that was just me. I’m lucky that the fans in this town were a lot like the people I grew up with. I never wanted to be a celebrity. I just wanted to be creative and have fun with the subject matter, which is sports. I was lucky that just being myself worked.”
Giangreco’s first job was in Dayton at WING radio, where he was a news and sports sidekick. He cut his teeth in TV at WLKY in Louisville, Kentucky. Though the station rated a distant third in the market, it was producing strong work with young, talented people. It couldn’t gain traction because those same people moved on to bigger markets.
“But we were the only station that had a helicopter,” Giangreco said. “We promoted the hell out of that.”
Giangreco spent four years in Louisville, but he was pushing to move on more than halfway through. At the time, he was dating his ex-wife, Cindi Lyles, who was an investigative reporter and weekend anchor at the station. She was pushing for him, too, and sent out his tapes.
NBC 5 in Chicago received one and hired Giangreco to be the weekend sports anchor and work with Chet Coppock. Giangreco, in his late 20s, arrived for work at the Merchandise Mart with equal parts fear and awe.
“I get in the elevator, and all the other floors had numbers on them except WMAQ. It had a peacock,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ ”
Giangreco learned the ropes from the late Coppock like a rookie backup quarterback watching a veteran starter. Coppock was protective and supportive of Giangreco, all while battling rival anchors Johnny Morris at CBS 2 and the late Tim Weigel at ABC 7. They would vie for scoops and volley assaults at each other through newspaper TV critics, who would fan the flames. Giangreco stood back and watched.
Less than a year after Giangreco arrived, the station fired Coppock and threw Giangreco into the top spot. Management had had enough of Coppock’s ad-libbed, rambling sportscasts slamming into Johnny Carson’s monologue on “The Tonight Show,” among other indiscretions. One such lapse in time judgment led to executive producer Phyllis Schwartz coming into the studio and screaming at Coppock.
“It was no-holds-barred craziness,” Giangreco said of those times.
Not only had Giangreco become the station’s No. 1 sports anchor, but the Chicago sports scene was taking off. The White Sox won their division in 1983, the Cubs followed suit in ’84, the Bears won the Super Bowl after the ’85 season, and Michael Jordan was turning into a national phenomenon with the Bulls. It all put sports front and center, and the competition between stations became even more fierce.
“There was no greater satisfaction than beating the competition,” Giangreco said, “and there was no greater humiliation than getting beat.”
Back then, station management expected a scoop every week. Sometimes, during competitors’ live shots, power cords magically came unplugged. There was always lots of jostling for position in scrums around players, and tensions would rise. Giangreco and ABC 7’s Jim Rose almost came to blows once in the Bears’ locker room, to the players’ amusement. Cooler heads prevailed.
At the Bears’ peak in the 80s, TV crews couldn’t miss a minute at Halas Hall, and it had nothing to do with football. They needed video of quarterback Jim McMahon wearing goofy glasses and shoulder pads on backward while riding a scooter, or whatever hijinks the players were up to.
Giangreco missed one iconic moment, though it’s hard to fault him. Morris delivered lots of exclusives because he was coach Mike Ditka’s teammate with the Bears in the 1960s. Media weren’t allowed upstairs at the old Halas Hall in Lake Forest — the pressroom was downstairs — but Morris would go up there and sneak his cameraman with him.
Ahead of a 1987 game against the Vikings in Minneapolis, Ditka disgustedly called the old Metrodome a “Rollerdome” and said the cheerleaders should wear roller skates. Vikings general manager Mike Lynn responded by sending a pair of skates to Ditka, who put them on and wheeled around the floor. Morris and a cameraman were on hand for the scoop.
“I remember when they showed that video, I’m like, ‘Goddamnit,’ ” Giangreco said. “We rebounded when Ditka put gum on our camera lens.”
That was emblematic of a contentious relationship with Ditka. Unlike other media types, Giangreco refused to fawn over Ditka and didn’t fear him. In fact, he would go out of his way to make fun of him on his sportscasts. Ditka resented it, and to this day he has no fondness for Giangreco.
But that wasn’t the case with athletes. Giangreco had a great relationship with Jordan. They would challenge each other in interviews, and it was Giangreco who asked the first few questions at Jordan’s first retirement news conference. It appeared to be turning into a one-on-one interview before Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — another Giangreco detractor — quietly told Jordan to call on someone else.
Giangreco had his share of scoops, too. In Jordan’s early years, when the kid didn’t know any better, Giangreco would grab him and pull him into a broom closet for an interview. Competitors complained about the access, but they did it, too.
He once overheard Bears linebacker Wilbur Marshall in the locker room complaining that teammate Mike Singletary received a new contract and Marshall hadn’t yet. After practice, Giangreco congratulated Singletary, who wondered how Giangreco found out. The bit of eavesdropping led to an exclusive on-camera interview.
His favorite scoop was riding in a limo with Scottie Pippen en route to the Bulls star’s appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in Los Angeles during the 1991 NBA Finals. CBS 2 reporter Jay Levine was waiting at the back door of the studio for what he thought would be an exclusive interview. When the limo pulled up and Giangreco and his crew popped out, Levine realized that was no longer the case.
The competition extended to the sports recap shows on Sunday nights, especially during football season. CBS 2 had Ditka on its show, of course, and ABC 7 had running back Walter Payton and McMahon. Giangreco and NBC 5 took a different approach, hiring Steve “Mongo” McMichael.
Their “Sports Sunday” show was lewd, crude and sometimes revolting. McMichael brought movie props to abuse Giangreco: a chainsaw, a shaving-cream pie, a knife, water balloons. He’d put Giangreco in a chokehold or headlock, cut off his tie or immobilize him with duct tape. After Giangreco mocked McMichael’s wife for her makeup, Mongo painted his face with lipstick and mascara.
“Thirty seconds of that show could never air today,” Giangreco said. “Not even 20 seconds.”
It was perhaps inevitable how McMichael’s run ended after two years in 1991. He brought a giant, cartoonish hypodermic needle that collapsed to make it appear as though it was injected in someone. He told Giangreco, “You and I have been working together too much — I gotta give you an AIDS test,” and he put the needle to his neck.
That night, the lead story of the newscast was about a woman who died of AIDS after contracting HIV from her dentist. The station fired McMichael immediately.
By late 1994, Giangreco had become a star on the Chicago sports scene. But he didn’t have a contract with NBC 5 beyond that year, and the station was stringing him along in negotiations. He also was at odds with general manager Pat Wallace.
“In the 12 years I was at Channel 5, I loved everyone I worked with, but not everyone I worked for,” Giangreco said.
Meanwhile, ABC 7 was running out of patience with Weigel, who had owned the market. He could rub some people the wrong way on the air, but the station still had a slight lead over NBC 5 in the ratings.
ABC 7 general manager Joe Ahern saw an opportunity. He met Giangreco for lunch and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Giangreco didn’t want to break up his family with Magers and Marin. He essentially was the snotty little brother to big brother Ron and big sister Carol. He also didn’t want to join his longtime enemies.
He consulted with Magers.
“You gotta get outta here,” Magers said. “We’ll still be friends. Just go. This is ridiculous. You gotta take it.”
NBC 5 had the right of first refusal, and it refused to match the offer.
“[Wallace] and the news director, Mike Ward, made me sit in the outer office with the door open while they talked,” Giangreco said. “They called me in, and Wallace said, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna match this offer. I don’t think you’re worth what we’re stuck paying you here.’ I said, ‘Fine. [Expletive] you.’ And I walked out.”
Ahern had chosen Giangreco over Weigel, cementing the former’s status as the top sportscaster in town — not to mention as a millionaire. It was front-page news in the Sun-Times and Tribune. It also set off a round of musical chairs that saw Weigel leave ABC 7 for CBS 2, Corey McPherrin leave CBS 2 for Fox-32 and Darrin Horton leave the market.
Giangreco didn’t want anyone to see him pack, so he planned to sneak into his NBC 5 office at night. But Marin uncovered the plot, as she always was apt to do, and stayed late to wait for him.
“I hated to see him go, but I understood,” she said. “What do you do when you love somebody? You help them pack.”
One of Giangreco’s all-time best friends is WGN-TV director of production Bob Vorwald. From 1990 to ’93, Vorwald was Giangreco’s producer at NBC 5.
“He’s one of the smartest guys I know,” Giangreco said. “He made my career. He really did.”
After establishing the sports department for the new Fox-32 newscasts in 1987, Vorwald would sit by Giangreco in press boxes, and the two became friendly. Eventually, Giangreco let Vorwald know of a possible job opening that came to fruition.
They talked sports and broadcasting all day, through meals and on walks. Giangreco’s joke was that Vorwald made his living by telling management he could handle him. Vorwald might have been a good buffer, but Giangreco didn’t need handling. He had a way of aspiring to excellence without being a jerk.
Vorwald saw the sports-media landscape changing with ESPN coming into its own and sports marketing becoming an industry. He thought it best to prepare himself by enrolling at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to receive his MBA. But that meant he had to leave Giangreco.
They met for lunch before school started, and as they finished, Giangreco handed Vorwald an envelope. Without looking inside, Vorwald shook Giangreco’s hand, and they parted. When he returned home, Vorwald opened the envelope and couldn’t believe what he saw: a check to cover his first year of tuition.
Vorwald called Giangreco to say he couldn’t accept it, but Giangreco was insistent. “You earned it,” he said.
That’s one example of many — though likely the most expensive — of Giangreco going above and beyond for others. He was a mentor, with a veritable coaching tree of media figures who interned for him.
Marc Silverman, who co-hosts ESPN 1000’s afternoon show with former Bears wide receiver Tom Waddle, interned for Giangreco at NBC 5. They met when Silverman was in seventh grade, and Giangreco spoke at his high school, Niles North. Mark Shapiro, the former ESPN executive who produced the incredible “SportsCentury” documentary series, also was an intern.
Giangreco always made time for his interns. He taught them the skills to put a show together and helped them make audition tapes on the set.
He also has emceed countless events for the Ronald McDonald House and other institutions. It all stems from advice his father gave him.
“My dad always said, ‘Don’t ever think you’re so great, don’t ever get full of yourself,’ and ‘You’ve been so lucky, you’d better share that,’ ” Giangreco said. “People helped me, and I’ve never forgotten. That makes you want to help others, because look what it did for you.”
Giangreco never would be confused for Howard Stern, but they had some similarities. For one, people always wanted to see what they would do next.
“I got that a lot, and that was my goal,” Giangreco said. “When someone would say that to me, it was so appreciated. But it was just me trying to be me. I was trying to come up with something funny or quirky or controversial.”
To Giangreco, the most important part of his sports segment wasn’t the lead story. It was the last story, the spot where he’d show that out-of-the-ordinary video. It might have been only 15 seconds, but he drove his producers crazy looking for a perfect shot or coming up with a funny line.
He did not lack creativity. The scripts and graphics were his, and his puns could match those of any newspaper headline writer.
But standards have evolved. He used to have a section of his sportscast called “Sports Briefs,” and among other sports items in the graphic above his shoulder was a pair of underwear.
“They were like, ‘You’re gonna have to take the shorts off [the graphic],’ ” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, God, really?’ ”
The undies had nothing on some of his questionable, if not objectionable, on-air remarks. Before a Bulls-Lakers game during the 1991 NBA Finals, he half-jokingly accused the league of trying to extend the series by assigning alleged Bulls hater Hue Hollins to officiate. NBC had the NBA’s broadcast rights, and neither appreciated the insinuation. He was suspended and forced to apologize.
When his newscast included a story about boxing promoter Don King ripping off local fighters, Giangreco chimed in with, “What do you expect from a murderer?” King had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1967, so when his lawyers heard “murderer,” Giangreco had to apologize.
“But I didn’t really read the apology the way it was written,” he said. “I said, ‘I apologize for calling him a murderer. Technically, it was manslaughter.’ And I had to apologize for that.”
When Aretha Franklin performed one night at the Chicago Theatre, the newscast aired a clip. Said Magers: “There she is, the Queen of Soul.” Said Giangreco: “She looks more like the Dairy Queen of Soul.”
“I shouldn’t have made fun of an overweight person,” Giangreco said. “But I was never trying to be malicious. I just said whatever blurted out of my mouth.”
After the Pistons won the NBA title in 2004, he showed video — taken from a Godzilla flick — of a city being ravaged by fires and called it a “typical night in Detroit.” It earned him a suspension.
“That was perceived as being racist, and I’m like, ‘What?’ ” he said. “Detroit was our archrival in every way.”
Giangreco suffered his biggest indignity in 1999 when he said Payton looked like Gandhi, not knowing he had a liver disease that would kill him that year. Payton had told Giangreco’s ABC 7 colleague Brad Palmer that he had overtrained for a marathon. Giangreco thought the quip was safe.
He apologized profusely and tried to reach Payton a number of times. Payton eventually called Giangreco to forgive him, admitting he had misled him. Nevertheless, the episode has stuck with Giangreco to this day.
Giangreco always told colleagues he never wanted a goodbye party. He certainly made sure he didn’t get one.
But the public perception of his ouster at ABC 7 has abated his initial fears about how he’ll be remembered. He has been surprised and overwhelmed by all of those who have rallied around him, though he earned their support long ago.
“Chicago doesn’t put their arms around you right away,” Marin said. “They want to see if you’re going to stick around and if you mean it. And if you mean it, then they’re loyal to you.”
Giangreco developed another audience and grew his popularity by joining former ABC 7 colleague Janet Davies for the station’s New Year’s Eve countdown show. Their on-screen partnership was a ratings hit and lasted 20 years.
Marin, Davies and plenty more female colleagues have expressed their support.
“Every female anchor I ever worked with reached out and lined up behind me, backed me during all this, which I will never, ever forget,” Giangreco said. “Because my relationship with them was genuine.”
He isn’t sure what he’ll do next. He has received several inquiries and offers, and he’s mulling it all.
Part of him says he isn’t finished in broadcasting and still has a lot of juice left. The night Carlos Rodon threw a no-hitter for the White Sox, Giangreco was contemplating how he would package the highlights and sound bites in his segment, if he still had one. The other part of him says he’s 69 and it’s time to enjoy himself, maybe reinvent himself.
For now, he’s enjoying being a civilian and a casual sports fan. He’s watching documentaries, riding his bike and getting back in the gym. He’s visiting his three sons and three grandchildren. He’s hanging out with his college buddies and siblings.
“It’s all good right now,” he said. “It’s really a weight off my shoulders.”
While the end to his 39-year run in Chicago was unglamorous, it might have been, in some warped way, appropriate. And in retrospect, it might have been predictable.
“I said to him, there probably was never going to be another way,” Marin said. “You were going to be shot out of a rocket out of there.
“It’s fitting for his personality, for his history. And what’s really good about all this is he’s at peace with it.”