When asked how he would like to be remembered on the day he retired from the Steelers broadcasting booth, Myron Cope summoned his impish grin and offered an epitaph.
"When I kick the bucket, there'll be a little story that'll say, "Creator of Towel Dead,' " he snickered.
No, he didn't invent terrycloth. But he did come up with the name for the portable, personal pennant of The Nation -- The Terrible Towel. Prior to a 1975 playoff game, he encouraged fans to wave towels brought from home to give the Steelers an extra bit of oomph. In time, he trademarked the name of what would become an officially licensed product and the instantly recognizable talisman of any true Steelers fan.
Twirled in triumph and in tears, often imitated but never quite matched, it has been present at baptisms, whirled at wedding receptions and tenderly placed inside coffins, such as in the case of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor.
Mike Webster wore one in a Super Bowl. Lynn Swann twirled one on the sidelines. Franco Harris waved one in the Super Bowl XL introductions, and Bill Cowher clutched another when he was presented the Lombardi Trophy in the post-game celebration. Not only has it been formally recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it has been carried inside the cockpits of warplanes and tucked away by troops serving in hostile lands as a link to home.
But its most endearing legacy is its contributions to charity.
In 1996, Cope donated the trademark of The Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School, a private, non-profit agency that cares for children and adults with intellectual developmental disabilities. The agency operates more than 120 facilities and programs for more than 900 children and adults in nine counties across Pennsylvania. Cope's son has been a resident of the school since 1982.
During the past 11 years, royalties from the Towel and its spinoffs -- including pillows, gloves, earrings and much more -- have brought in $2.2 million for the school. The money has helped pay for equipment, program expansions and renovations to buildings so that those under care can live with purpose and dignity.
Not a bad legacy for a gimmick, you betcha.
Long before the concept of the towel was kicked around at a brain-storming session, the Steelers had already been in the playoffs three straight times and had won their first Super Bowl. But the towel has made such an indelible mark that no Steelers broadcast is complete without images of the blend of color and motion hatched in Cope's fertile imagination.
In documenting his version of how it all came to be, Cope wrote that he was summoned in November 1975 to the boss's office at WTAE, which was the flagship radio station of the Steelers and which employed Cope in various positions on radio and TV.
With home playoff games on the horizon, the executives wanted a promotional gimmick. Cope protested that he wasn't a gimmick guy. But when it was pointed out that his contract was up in three months and that advertisers were needed to sponsor Cope's various shows, he saw the light.
Larry Garrett, vice president of sales, suggested the towel because it was lightweight, portable and a common possession. No money would have to be fronted, and because Pittsburgh would never be a place for pompoms, the tough and durable fabric was seen as ideal. It could also serve as a muffler against the cold and provide cover in the rain.
"I can go on radio and television proclaiming, 'The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!' " said Cope, instantly hitting upon the name.
Champagne was ordered, and Cope introduced his creation during the 11 o'clock news on the Sunday before the Dec. 27 playoff game with the Colts. He admitted "making a damned fool of myself by hurling towels at the anchorman and the weatherman."
Steelers co-captain Andy Russell was dubious, however.
"We're not a gimmick team. We've never been a gimmick team," he told Cope.
But the towels, once introduced, were like a genie pouring out of the bottle. Roughly three of five spectators in attendance carried either a gold one or a black one. It is said that wide receiver Frank Lewis wiped his hands in a Terrible Towel before making a one-handed catch, and the air was filled with towels when an injured Terry Bradshaw emerged from the locker room after the second half had begun.
Even Russell became a convert, which gave rise to a legend. During that victory over the Colts, Russell scooped up a fumble and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown, which is still a playoff record. (The late Ray Mansfield said the lumbering run required so much time that NBC cut away to a commercial and returned to the air before Russell reached the end zone.)
A woman named Lisa Benz was inspired to send Cope her poetic interpretation:
He ran ninety-three
Like a bat out of hell,
And no one could see
How he rambled so well.
"It was easy," said Andy,
And he flashed a crooked smile.
"I was snapped on the fanny
By The Terrible Towel!"
The Steelers beat the Raiders at home the following week, then defeated the Cowboys for their second Super Bowl title.
Although the line is often blurred, Cope proclaimed that the use of the towel is reserved exclusively for post-season games. Many fans have separate towels for the regular season and for draping over TV sets for away games. And a flurry of towels provided the send-off at Cope's official farewell at a Monday night game in 2005.
The towel, it is said, possesses incredible power, such as the time bowler Marshall Holman won a $15,000 check after being given a Terrible Towel by a Steelers fan. On the other hand, those who would desecrate it are tempting fate. Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiped his shoes with it after scoring a touchdown in Heinz Field, and there is no need to mention the annual fate that befalls the Bengals.
Cope addressed this issue in a certificate of authenticity:
"The Terrible Towel is not an instrument of witchcraft ... It is not a hex upon the enemy. The Towel is a positive force that lifts the Steelers to magnificent heights and poses mysterious difficulties for the Steelers' opponents only if need be. Many have told me that the Terrible Towel brought them good fortune, but I can't guarantee that sort of thing because the Steelers, after all, are the Towel's primary concern. Still, at the least, the symbol of the Terrible Towel will serve as a memento of your having been part of the Steeler Dynasty of the 1970s. And if it causes good things to happen to you, so much the better."
Over the years, other organizations have attempted to borrow on the towel's powers. The Cleveland Indians once had Hate the Yankees Hankies. The 1987 Twins came out with Homer Hankies. Playoff towels have been distributed at Penguins games, and the Vancouver Canucks once promoted Towel Power. West Virginia University had its own version in Mountain Magic Towels.
But there is only one Terrible Towel, fitting in that its creator was a one of a kind personality. As long as it waves, his memory lives. Requiescat In Pace.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Allegheny Valley School at 1996 Ewings Mill Road, Coraopolis, Pa., 15108, or The Autism Society of Pittsburgh at 4371 Northern Pike, Monroeville, Pa., 15146.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 29, 2008) The address of The Autism Society of Pittsburgh is 4371 Northern Pike, Monroeville, Pa., 15146. The street name was incomplete in this article as originally published Feb. 28, 2008 in relating where to send donations in memory of Myron Cope.
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org First Published February 28, 2008 5:00 AM