In Memoriam: Our leader, our hero, our friend

In Memoriam: Our leader, our hero, our friend
December 10, 2013, 10:45 am
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By Jeff Nuich - CSN Chicago Senior Director of Communications

“Outside of my family, the two biggest loves of my life have always been sports and television.” -- Jim Corno

Every city in America boasts its pride as being the greatest sports town in the country. Chicago is definitely one of them, justifiably so. The consumption of games in the U.S., be it in person, watching them on television, or the next phase of watching games just about anywhere, is overwhelming. We take it for granted that we have these luxuries in life as sports fans. But there are pioneers in the television industry that made it possible for us to enjoy these games and life-changing moments that we hold so dear to our hearts. Without question, Jim Corno was one of those industry pioneers.

And when it came to Chicago sports television, no one worked harder and had more passion for delivering these events to us night after night than Jim. Simply put, every regional sports network this city has ever known -- SportsVision, SportsChannel, Fox Sports Net and Comcast SportsNet -- has been run by only one individual: Jim Corno.

The world lost a great man today as Jim’s courageous and heroic battle against cancer came to an end. He was 66.

There are no words to express our sorrow to the entire Corno family. There are no words to describe the heart-breaking loss we, as he liked to call us, his “second family,” are feeling right now. As much as Jim loved what he helped create three-plus decades ago, each and every one of us who ever worked for him knew how much he loved us. We are all honored and blessed to have had him in our lives.

From his humble upbringing in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, Jim Corno knew that television was his destiny. His older brother Bernie worked at KPLR-TV in the early 1960s and was able to find a way to get his younger brother a job at the station. Few people may know this, but Jim actually got his start in television in the mailroom. But it didn’t matter to Jim what he did, the fact that he “got in” was all he needed.

He was relentless in his approach at KPLR in wanting to learn everything about how to run a television station. From the programming department, to the news department, to the editing and control rooms, you name it, Jim honed his skills to a point that he was ready to take on his next challenge.

He left St. Louis in 1974 to work for Post-Newsweek Stations as Operations Manager at WTOP-TV; the CBS affiliate in Washington, DC and was quickly promoted to Post-Newsweek’s Director of Corporate Operations. In 1978, Corno moved on to WDIV-TV, the NBC affiliate in Detroit, MI, where he advanced to the position of Program Manager. Some impressive positions for a young man moving up in the industry, but he always wanted more. Jim wanted to become a General Manager of a television station. The big moment for him, and the entire Chicago sports world for that matter, was about to occur.

After ten years of working his way up the Post-Newsweek corporate ladder, he became aware that his company was looking into buying into a new regional sports network in Chicago. While at a Post-Newsweek seminar in the fall of 1983, he interviewed for the GM position with his boss Jack Williams and was introduced to former Cablevision Systems Vice Chairman Marc Lustgarten. He got the job on the spot and came to Chicago to run SportsVision in March of 1984.

SportsVision started off as a pay-TV service featuring only live pro games featuring the White Sox, Blackhawks, Bulls and the now-defunct Sting, but Jim knew for his network to grow, he had to have it available to everyone on basic cable. Through tough negotiations with countless affiliates, he made it happen. Subscriber growth was small at the start – only 13,000 total, but it was his vision to make it grow. He wanted everyone who can possibly receive his network to be given the chance to watch it. Once he got them to watch it, he wanted to make sure they came back the next night.

With the massive popularity of local sports stars such as Michael Jordan, Denis Savard and Carlton Fisk airing on SportsVision throughout the year, it was Jim’s goal to begin programming his channel like a broadcast TV station. Again, he made that happen too. SportsVision became the first regional sports network in the country to go 24/7.

As SportsVision evolved into SportsChannel in the late 1980s, Jim also created another first for a regional sports network as “The SportsChannel Report” became the first all-local sports news show airing seven nights a week…not to mention he made a very smart move of bringing the ground-breaking “Sports Writers on TV” along for the ride as well.

More evolutions came into play as Fox Sports Net Chicago launched in 1998 and Jim was ready to make that transition a big splash as well. Through his business savvy and gift for team relationships, he negotiated to have 70+ Cubs games a year move from its longtime home at WGN-TV to his network starting in 1999.

When the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox were given an opportunity to opt out of their contract with Fox Sports Net and partner with Comcast to form a brand new regional sports network, there was only one man they wanted to start it up. With the latest transition, Jim launched his fourth regional sports network -- Comcast SportsNet Chicago -- on October 1, 2004.

Jim Corno’s impact on Chicago television has been nothing short of monumental. He was a visionary, a pioneer, a man who loved knowing that his network was being watched by thousands of viewers each and every night. But he never looked at himself as being the reason why fans flocked to his network. He knew without the support of his team partners, especially his longtime business partner and close friend, Bulls/White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, along with the late Blackhawks Chairman William W. Wirtz and current team Chairman Rocky Wirtz and the Cubs organization, that he wouldn’t have been able to execute the kind of programming they would expect from him on a daily basis. Both sides needed each other and both sides always came through.

Jim received numerous National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) Emmy Awards over the years, but he was truly honored when he received the NATAS “Silver Circle” induction for 25 years of excellence and dedication in Chicago television in 2010.

That same year, Jim was also inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame and, just last year, he was inducted into the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame, an honor he knew would mean so much to his entire family.

Honors were something Jim appreciated, but were something he never sought out or felt he had earned. As all of us who truly understood what he created and continued to evolve over 30 years, we knew there simply weren’t enough honors out there to justify his impact on the sports TV industry.

One of Jim’s biggest moments of pride throughout his career was when he knew he was helping out those less fortunate than him. Among hundreds of charities he’s assisted over the years, it was the annual “Sports Awards” dinner benefiting the March of Dimes that Jim was most proud of in his illustrious career. Through his support, direction and leadership, the “Sports Awards” grew to become the biggest sports charity function in the city, raising over $10 million over the past 25 years. Those were the kinds of things that mattered to Jim. He always wanted to make a difference in someone’s life…and he did.

Here’s another anecdote about Jim’s character. Over the past few weeks, the Blackhawks were gracious enough to want to bring the Stanley Cup to Jim’s house so he can have the opportunity to not only see it one last time, but to share that special moment with his family.

Jim, however, had another idea.

Instead of having the Cup brought to his home, he and his family had the Cup brought to the Cancer Center at Edward Hospital in Naperville, where he had been receiving treatments for over the past year. He wanted to give the other cancer patients and caregivers on site that moment of happiness to their lives. That’s just one small example of the kind of man Jim Corno was to the very end.

For any of us who were past or present employees, we were blessed to have Jim as our mentor. We were blessed because we knew we were learning from the very best in the business. He absolutely loved to teach us about the industry and how each of our specific roles at this network was going to make an impact on the media landscape.

He also empowered all of us on a daily basis because he simply had the faith in the team he put together. To say he shaped us all into professionals is an understatement.

But probably the greatest thing we admired most about Jim was that he truly cared about our personal lives. He was everyone’s second dad. He never forgot a birthday, a wedding, a birth, a passing of a loved one…he was always in the know. Not because he felt like that’s what the head of a station should do, but he just felt like that’s how you should be as a person…to always care…to always love.

Jim’s passing leaves a massive hole in the hearts of all of us who loved him so much, but none more so than his wife of 47 years, Carolyn, his two children, Jim Jr. and Christina, and, “his buddies” as he called them, his five grandsons: Jackson, Max, Mitchell, Joseph and Scott.

To our leader and hero, thanks for making all of our lives as special as you did. We all love you Jim. We will continue to honor your legacy each and every day going forward.

Farewell dear friend.