John Popovich's 40-year career as a WCPO-TV sportscaster can be summed up by the title of the Sunday night show he launched, Sports Of All Sorts.
"Popo," as everyone calls him, covered all kinds of sports, which endeared him to viewers of all ages – or at least those old enough or enterprising enough to watch the one-hour show starting at 11:30 p.m. Sunday night.
The city's first Sunday night sports show, which premiered Dec. 21, 1980, began with a TV magazine format with three extended features on all kinds of major and minor sports – football, basketball, baseball plus fishing, skateboarding, rugby, auto racing, marathons and horse racing, to name a few.
Those early Channel 9 features helped sharpen the storytelling skills that made him the best storyteller on Cincinnati TV today, maybe in all of Cincinnati TV. What makes him special? He juices up his stories with wonderfully vivid details – like his idol, Charles Kuralt, CBS' late "On The Road" reporter – which I'll miss after the
6 p.m. newscast Friday, Dec. 27 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts Thursday, Dec. 26.
The 69-year-old Northeastern Ohio native and 1973 Ohio University graduate came to WCPO-TV in July 1979 from Davenport, Iowa, thanks to Chuck Underwood, former radio voice of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Underwood and Popovich were sports anchors at competing stations in Davenport. Underwood had accepted a sports job at WCPO-TV from legendary news director Al Schottelkotte, then broke the commitment to take the Buckeyes' radio job in Columbus.
I'll let him tell the story:
1. OUT OF THE BLUE: "The first call he made was to Schottelkotte saying, 'I can't take this job.' And the second call was to me, because he knew I wanted to get back to Ohio. He said, 'Send this guy a tape if you're interested.' So I called Al on Monday and sent him a tape. And I made a visit here to interview four or five days later, and I started here in July of '79."
Now comes the details on what happened between mailing a resume tape and taking the job:
"I came in and interviewed. Al got me in a car, and we went out Eastern Avenue. And he stopped the car, and he said, 'Come on out and give me a hand.' And we picked up chlorine to take up to his house up in Finneytown. He had a swimming pool out back. Then he drove me up to Maketewah (Country Club). That's where Al spent most of his afternoons, playing cards or playing golf. He played cards for a while and left me (alone), and I talked to some other guys. And we got back in the car, went back to the station, and he said, 'When do you want to start?'
"They were starting the 7 O'Clock Report with Jon Esther and Jack Helsel. (Sportscaster) Tim Melton was doing the sports. He said, 'Tim can't do that feature every night.' They had about a four-minute block every night. 'We'd like you to do features for that.' That's what I really was in town to do."
2. NINE STANDS FOR NO: Here's a story I had never heard until I lunched with Popovich recently to write this retirement story: Popo was not impressed with Schottelkotte's unique all-visual newscasts -- during which Schottelkotte or his reporters were seldom seen – and turned down the job. Schottelkotte opened newscasts at the anchor desk, and then would read up to a dozen stories while viewers watched film, video, slides, graphics or interviews. Usually the only evidence of Channel 9 reporters was a shot of a hand holding a microphone. Reporters didn't do "packages" introducing stories on location until years later.
"Actually, I first said no (to the job offer). I watched the news – and I'd never seen a newscast like that. Al was on (camera), and then you saw video and slides and graphics, and more video and slides and graphics. You didn't see Al for 10 minutes. It was the oddest newscast I ever saw.
"About a week later, Tim Melton calls me and says, 'We'd like you to come here. We talked to Al, and he's going to let us transition. He knows we have to change the way we do news. He's gonna let sports be the transition part. We're going to be on air a little bit more, and get more face time. And so I eventually came."
3. THE CHAMP: "A few weeks after I started, the phone rang on the sports desk. The guy on the other end said. 'I just wanted you to know that Muhammad Ali is up here at Stagg's Barber Shop (in Avondale) getting a haircut.' He's trying to convince me he's there. It's one of those cases where you're looking over your shoulder to see who's screwing with you. I said, 'If he's there, put him on the phone.' The next thing I hear is Ali on the phone. I don't remember what he said, but I knew his voice.
"So I said, 'Do you mind if we come up and talk to you?' And he says, 'Well, that's why we're calling, isn't it?'
"I got a photographer and we went up to talk to him. He was real playful and funny. I asked him why he was getting a haircut here, and he said, 'Maybe you ought to try it. It's a good place to get a haircut.' It was a big deal. I realized I wasn't in Davenport, Iowa, any more."
"But I never saved the tape! And I'm guessing about 10-12 years ago, somebody said there's a guy in the lobby who wants to see you. He had three pictures of me interviewing Ali getting his hair cut. So I have the pictures, and I used them several times on the air."
4. BUCKS FROM GENESEE BEER: "We started doing Sports Of All Sorts in December 1980. Schottelkotte came to me because Genesee Beer was coming to town and they wanted a vehicle to launch it, and they liked a Sunday night sports show. He gave me 50 bucks extra a week, and he said, 'We'll do this for 13 weeks, that's all they're asking for.' And on Dec. 20th, it's 39 years continuous.
"It was 15-minute show. We did some highlights off the top, and then we did two or three feature stories. It was really good for me.
"It was a magazine show until 1988 when the Bengals were working their way to that second Super Bowl. That's when (news director) Jim Zarchin suggested we should do something more interactive, that it become a talk show. He got to know Dave Lapham, and he said, 'How about you guys do it together?'
"The show started at 15 minutes, and then went to 30 minutes. And once we hit midnight, we still have people waiting on the line. So we started doing a full hour live. It was that way from 1988 until May of 2013 when I handed it to Ken Broo." (Now the show is taped Sunday evening.)
"It was mentioned to me several years ago that no other Sunday night show nationally comes close to 39 consecutive years on the air. I don't know if that's true."
5. WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING: "I look back and think about how many people came in and did it live, at 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 in the morning. I thought it would drop off (after football), but it was making money. So we started getting basketball guys in: Terry Nelson, Ralph Lee, Scott Droud. Murray Cook (former Reds general manager) came in and became our baseball guy. He had been fired by Marge (Schott, former Reds owner). Steve Wolter from Sports Investments was one of the most popular shows.
"We'd get (Reds managers) Bob Boone and Jerry Narron on live right after the Reds Caravan. Marvin Lewis came in. Mike Zimmer, Bob Bratkowski, Jay Gruden. Those guys were great. Most of them had never seen the show. Football coaches have a different kind of life.
"Bob Huggins came in two times a year. (Former Xavier coaches) Skip Prosser, Pete Gillen, Sean Miller. After a while, you start to get calls from people who wanted to be on the show live.
"I remember when Nick Vehr was trying to bring the Olympics here. And I teased it during sports that he'd be in to talk about it on Sports Of All Sorts. Nick was watching at home… So he raced down here. He was about five minutes late, but he made it.
"I had so many people say, 'You're talking about 11:30 AT NIGHT? Not in the morning?' But the show did well. Nobody else was doing it."
6. POPO & DJ: For nearly 30 years, Popovich and Denny Janson were the city's best sports TV team, in my opinion. Rarely do you find a TV journalist who chooses to be a storyteller, instead of the high-paid anchor who delivers the news. That's Popo.
"I didn't ever really want to be the (sports) anchor. I never intended to do that. When they hired Bob Hillman (as anchor in 1981), they made me the sports director. That was kind of to appease me. I was really enjoying Sports Of All Sorts. I was meeting a lot of people and telling a lot of stories, and there was enough recognition that it satisfied my ego.
"When Denny came (from WKRC-TV in 1984), that was great. He wanted to anchor, and I wanted to report. But it should never take away the fact that Denny is a fabulous reporter. He was one of those guys – I wasn't good at this – he worked the phones endlessly. If he heard something, he worked it endlessly.
"I think they thought I'd be disappointed, and they sent Denny and I to The Maisonette to have lunch. I was doing OK. I guess I knew in my heart I wasn't making the kind of money he was making, but I was doing what I wanted to do….
"When I came here in 1979, I don't think I knew what was in front of me. I never really pursued any opportunities out of town. I got some overtures from other local stations, but I decided against those."
7. NEWSMAN AT HEART: Watching a Popovich story, you knew from the beginning if a team won or lost. He would present the highlights in that context -- unlike so many sports reporters who start with background setting up the match-up, and make viewers wait till the end to find out who won. It's no surprise that Popo started as a news reporter at Ohio University (while classmate and Channel 9 coworker Tom McKee did sports at OU).
"I grew up in one of those houses where every night my dad watched the news. We watched the local news, and then we watched Walter Cronkite. And I don't know when it started… but I started latching onto Charles Kuralt. I loved him the first time I saw him, and seeing the things he was doing from 'On The Road.' I thought Wow, that was pretty cool That piqued my interest in news more than anything else.
"I'm old enough to remember watching a lot of the Watergate hearings. My dad would wake us up if there was a space shot going up, before the moon launch. It didn't matter if it was 5:30 in the morning, he'd say, 'Get up! Let's watch this!'
"People told me coming out of college that every TV station has maybe 10 news reporters and only one sports reporter. It was really hard to get into sports; it seemed easier for me to get into news. That probably played a part in me going into news.
"I started in Dubuque, Iowa. That was back in the day when you just looked in the back of Broadcasting magazine and there were some ads there. I worked in news. Did a lot of city council meetings. I worked there for a year, and then I went over to Davenport, the Quad Cities, to do news. City Hall and all that stuff. I realized after a while – a couple of things happened, tragedies and stuff like that – that I didn't have the gut for news. Our sports guy quit and they asked if I wanted to do sports. The timing couldn't have been better. I was really lucky in that. Once I got into sports, I knew that was a better fit."
8. FAVORITE STORIES: Whenever Popovich was telling a story – no matter the sport – I made it a point to watch. My all-time favorite was a little feature he did about Reds players' superstitions and routines. He went far beyond hitters who adjusted their batting gloves between every pitch or guys who won't step on the foul line. He showed how Reds infielders at Riverfront Stadium treated the practice ball used to warm-up each inning, and how players put their gloves and hats in specific spots on the dugout railing. Truly, this was inside baseball! And I loved it.
What's his favorite?
"A lot of people ask me about stories, and I don't know how to answer – because I was doing so many. Until 1988, Sports Of All Sorts was just all features. And then we used to have a segment at 5:50 p.m. in our newscast every night and that was a feature of some sort done by me, or Kathrine Nero, Dei Lynam, Paula Faris (his sports coworkers at various times).
"We were doing a lot of feature reporting. They weren't hard stories, they were just good features. And it's laughable when I hear news directors say now, 'We really have to change the approach in sports. People want stories; they don't want the Xs and Os.' And I'm thinking, We were doing that 30 years ago! And you guys think we're re-inventing the wheel here. You're not."
He tells one story involving Schottelkotte, the tough taskmaster, and his self-deprecating humor. Before the 1979 Reds-Pirates playoffs, Schottelkotte sent him to Fountain Square for a live shot "to capture the excitement, and there was hardly anybody down there. But the Reds promoted that Mr. Red was going to be there. So Schottelkotte yells in my ear, 'TALK TO MR. RED! TALK TO MR RED!' So I got Mr. Red and I started asking him questions – and he motions with his hands. One of his handler there says to me, 'He's not allowed to talk!' That's great.
"On Sports Of All Sorts we could really do anything. We did a lot at UC. We stuck a mic on (basketball coaches) Ed Badger and Bob Huggins, and try to squeeze a few clean minutes out them. Wireless mics were pretty new, and those guys were willing to do that. It allowed us to think outside the box before anyone came up with that term."
Popo talked about his favorite teams:
"The two most electric seasons were those two Super Bowl seasons. That first one was so out of the blue in 1981. It was the second year for coach Forrest Gregg, with Kenny Anderson and Cris Collinsworth. The Bengals had so many guys who could talk! You had all kind of leaders all over the place. The same thing with the second Super Bowl team. It was like magic at that time in this city. You had Sam Wyche as the coach. You had Boomer Esiason, Collinsworth, Anthony Munoz and Reggie Williams, who loved the microphone. On the baseball side you had Pete Rose as manager.
Popo makes it clear that his most favorite team is comprised of his coworkers through the years, many of whom he mentored: Nero, Faris, Lynam, Lisa Cornell, Bill Hemmer, Jason Jackson, Chris Rose, Brett Haber; photographers Sean Dunster, Shawn Jones and Mark Slaughter; producer Jake Jolivette.
9. HALL OF FAMER: Popovich filled Sports Of All Sorts with hundreds of features about high school athletes, which earned Popovich induction into the LaRosa's High School Hall of Fame. In presenting Popovich a Lifetime Media Achievement award in 2016, it was noted that:
"He hasn't shot a basket, swung a bat or, drawn up a winning play on the sidelines to win a big game, yet Ch. 9 legendary sports' anchor John Popovich has likely done more for Greater Cincinnati High School sports than any one athlete or coach over the last 40 years.
"A true advocate and champion of high school sports throughout his professional career in Cincinnati, Popovich becomes only the second member of the sports' media to be inducted in to the LaRosa's High School Hall of Fame. It is an honor much deserved."
Popovich said he "didn't know anything about LaRosa's when I came to town. My wife Kathie and I lived on the West Side, so we went over to the Boudinot restaurant with those Hank Zuerick sketches on the wall, and I thought, 'Is this cool!' They had a little history of each of the guys. Outside of Cincinnati people didn't know who some of them were, but they were all Cincinnati sports figures.
"That was very big to me. I've had some different honors and stuff like that, but that was one of those that just stopped me in my tracks."
He will be missed.
Thanks, Popo, for making all sorts of sports so entertaining.