Mulligan is living the American Dream

Mulligan is living the American Dream
March 26, 2013, 11:30 am
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This isn't an April's Fool joke. Mike Mulligan really is living the American Dream. Whoever would have thought the proud son of Irish/English immigrants who grew up on Chicago's South Side, near 87th and Talman, would be living on the North Shore by making money where his mouth is?

This is a guy who originally went to school to be a priest, moved on to answering phones in the Chicago Sun-Times sports department, then covered every sports event from nine state basketball championships to 16 Super Bowls to six NBA finals to the World Cup and now is co-host of the most popular radio sports talk show in Chicago.

But he'll always remember a bizarre incident that shaped his journalistic career. Most reporters would have packed it in and opted for another less dangerous profession after experiencing such a fearsome adventure. But Mulligan chose to stay the course.

Mulligan's professional biography began in 1982, when the Loyola University student was hired to answer telephones in the Chicago Sun-Times' sports department.

It almost ended in December of 1983 when he was assigned to cover a high school basketball game pitting Ben Wilson and Simeon's eventual state championship team at Farragut.

A fight broke out at the end of the game and Simeon coach Bob Hambric refused to send his players back on the floor, resulting in a forfeit. It was Simeon's only loss in what turned out to be a state championship season.

"My girlfriend had a car and we went to Farragut. I had never been there before," Mulligan recalled. "The game was interrupted multiple times. There was a bad vibe in the stands. In the final seconds, one of the Simeon kids got punched. All hell broke loose. It was out of control. Kids were running everywhere.

"I persuaded some kids to take us to the Simeon locker room. Then we jumped in the car and drove to a 24-hour diner to call the Sun-Times to report a riot. I was told: 'Go back. Get the facts.' And the guy hung up.

"I went back but the doors were locked. Nobody was around. I asked for the officials' names and how many people were arrested. My girlfriend started crying. It was frightening, complete mayhem. I called back to the Sun-Times. I reported no one had been arrested. But Simeon had forfeited the game. I was just a sophomore at Loyola."

That was just the beginning.

"I loved the Sun-Times. It was hard to leave. I grew up there. My whole identity was wrapped up there. I was 18 going in. I had to wait so long to get hired on staff. I was just out of college and working preps. By the time I got my first beat, I was more than prepared. I had done game stories and roundups on deadline. It was great training," he said.

Mulligan, now 50 and married with three children, has dodged a lot of bullets since, mostly of the oral variety. He was awed while interviewing Wayne Gretzky or eating dinner with Mike Ditka at Ditka's restaurant, endured excruciating exchanges with Mike Tyson and Richard Dent and still dreams of one day having an opportunity to interview Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary manager of Manchester United, the world's most famous football (soccer) club.

"I've been a fan since I was a kid. I would love to ask him questions," Mulligan said. "If I could cover one event each year, only one, it would be an international soccer match, Manchester United versus Real Madrid or Barcelona. Of course, I've never covered the Olympics. And I would love to go to Las Vegas for a big fight."

Mulligan's father was born in the north of England. His mother was raised in Tipperary, Ireland. They met in Chicago and married in Dublin. They bid on a house in Libertyville but didn't get it. So they settled on the South Side.

Mike enrolled at Quigley South Seminary to be a priest. Then he went to Loyola to study pre-med. But he didn't like biology or chemistry so he switched to English literature.

"I had no master plan. I would rather write and read," he said.

Two friends at Loyola's radio station, Dan Cahill and Kelly O'Connor, persuaded him to join them at the Sun-Times, answering phones and covering high school games. He took a bus to cover games all over the city. He earned $50 a day for answering phones and $75 for covering a game.

"I got the bug working at the paper," he said. "I started working on the agate desk, handling the scores and results. Then I went to covering high school games, then to college games and backup on major league baseball, then the Blackhawks, then the Bulls. At 26, I was covering the Bulls. It was a meteoric rise."

Mulligan covered the Bulls' first three NBA championships, then was assigned to the Bears' beat. Then he became the Sun-Times' NFL writer and began to do The Sporting News radio for extra income on the side. In 2004, he landed a gig as a part-time fill-in host on WSCR-670 The Score.

It just kept getting better. He got his first full-time job at The Score on the Rick Telander Show. Later, he worked with Doug Buffone. Then he did a 10-to-noon show with Brian Hanley, a Fenwick graduate whom he had worked with at the Sun-Times. When Mike North left, Mully and Hanley moved to mornings and became the most popular show in town.

"I was still working full-time at the Sun-Times at the time," Mulligan recalled. "I covered a Bears game at Minnesota and did the radio show out of a station in Minneapolis. I fell asleep on the way home and got into a car accident. It was time to trim back to two days a week at the paper."

Mulligan left the Sun-Times in 2011 and now files a column for the Tribune one day a week during the Bears season.

"Am I living the American Dream? Yes, I am. Who woulda thunk it? I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood. My dad worked hard. He was a fireman, then a rate taker for the water department," he said. "I never would have thought I would be doing what I am doing. I loved being a sportswriter. I am blessed to have experienced a transition into another area of the business.

"My goal in high school and college was to read books and write one. They had a great writing program at Quigley South. It was called 'Stack the Deck.' My dad wanted to write a book about the 49ers and the California Gold Rush." In my wildest dreams, I never aspired to anything like this."

The Score has changed his life -- and his lifestyle. It wasn't easy to adjust to 5-to-9 working hours, getting up at 3 in the morning to drive to work. A middle-aged man with a family, he admits he doesn't go out as he did when you was single and younger. And he doesn't see as many sporting events in person as he once did.

"I miss it. I watch a lot of sports on tape," he said. "The Score has changed my life in a lot of ways. I never aspired to do this. I got into it to be a writer. But it has allowed me to make a good living. There are times when I long for the old days, when I traveled and covered games. Now the Score has allowed me to enjoy my family."

Of course, radio talk show hosts come and go quickly, like NFL quarterbacks. If the ratings are low, especially in a big city, you move to the unemployment line faster than the next commercial. But Mully and Hanley have survived critics and the test of time. They know what it takes to make a good sports talk show.

"Doing mornings, the No. 1 thing is high energy. You can't sleep walk. You have to have strong opinion. High energy and strong opinion make for good radio," Mulligan said.

"You have to have a stronger argument. Let people take a side in an argument. Draw people in. I will have a strong belief of something and someone will make a different argument.

"People love sports in Chicago. As sportswriters, that's what we did -- sit around and talk sports. It isn't all about informing people, it's about getting their input."

Mulligan believes he and Hanley are fortunate because they covered a lot of sporting events during their careers at the Sun-Times.

"We know backgrounds, where mistakes are made, why administrations don't succeed," he said.

Yes, the 5-to-9 morning shift is exhausting. He sets five alarm clocks to be absolutely certain that he is awake at 3 so he is on the road by 3:30, at the office by 4 with an hour to prepare for the show with Hanley and their staff -- program director Mitch Rosen, executive producer Dustin Rhoades, Dennis Gambino and Craig Miller.

Two years ago, they catapulted to No. 1 in the all-important demographic of men from 25 to 54. In other words, it's the No. 1 man show in Chicago.

"It's the best shift to work," Mulligan said. "You get the first bite of the apple. You come out with your opinion based on what just happened. You get to start the conversation in the morning. You aren't dependent on anyone else.

"To be honest, I never thought we were that bad when we were ranked 13th or 14th in the market or that good when we're No. 1. I don't know how we got so significantly better. But it is a blessing. We're delighted. It says we are doing what we are supposed to do."