Myron Cope and the Fabric of Pittsburgh: The Weaving of a Legacy, Part 1
by Mike Silverstein
This is yet another article from the now-defunct publication referenced in Ivan Cole’s article. As I think you can see from Ivan’s articles, and now Mike’s, it wasn’t a lack of quality which did the magazine in. This is again split up because of the length.
“I thought I was going to a Radio Hall of Fame Induction, but somehow, my husband and I ended up at a Pittsburgh Steelers rally!”
When she returned to work that Monday morning November, 2005, ABC Radio White House Correspondent Ann Compton was in high spirits following the weekend’s festivities in Chicago. She couldn’t wait to tell a Steelers’ fan in her office what had happened. “Your friend and your football team really took over the place,” she laughed.
Compton, who covered every President from Nixon to Obama and was an eyewitness to more than forty years of history at her post, had just been inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, along with the recently retired Pittsburgh Steelers color analyst Myron Cope.
- Exit Dancing
- Really off the Wall
- He Never Mailed it in
- Stick his Head in a Can of Paint
- He Called him Champ
She clearly remembers how she learned what every NFL fan already knows: that the Steelers and their fans travel well.
“He was a bundle of energy, ricocheting through the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel, overlooking the Chicago River. He brought along a large table of friends and fans. There was a towel on every chair in the ballroom, and when he was announced and inducted, everybody in the ballroom started waving their towels.”
“The thing I remember most vividly was there was an orchestra and dancing at the end of the program. And before I knew what had happened, he took my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor. And he would make any modern teenager blush at the way he could boogie with the best of them! Franco Harris was his presenter, and Franco was also busy taking pictures of everybody and everything.”
‘Everybody and everything’ included several memorable photographs of Cope – all of 5-foot-2 – jitterbugging with Compton, who stands nearly six feet tall. One particularly timeless shot made was included in the second edition of Double Yoi!, Cope’s autobiography.
“He would be on anybody’s short list of people who were fun,” says Compton, quickly adding, “and I’m NOT referring to his height.”
Just days earlier, Steeler Nation saluted the legendary voice of the team on Myron Cope Night. The date: October 31st, Week 8 of the 2005 season. The setting: Monday Night Football featuring the Steelers and Ravens in front of a packed house at Heinz Field on Halloween.
Cope would be escorted onto the field twice that night – first for the opening coin toss and then at halftime for a special, commemorative ceremony in his honor. Sixty-three thousand Steeler fans frantically waved their Terrible Towels to say farewell and thanks. Former players and coaches descended upon Pittsburgh to celebrate the life and legacy of Cope. In typical Rooney family fashion, Dan and team President Art II hosted former Steelers who made the pilgrimage to Heinz Field to honor their friend and colleague.
Most people in the radio business leave their final job with a severance package and maybe a small party thrown by their surviving colleagues. Most often, you’re let go because of poor ratings or downsizing. It’s a tough and heartless business, to put it kindly. But Cope left to the cheers of tens of thousands. He left dancing.
“Myron Cope was not only an advocate for Steeler fans,” says ESPN Senior NFL correspondent John Clayton. “He was a General for the fans. He led the troops.”
“Myron connected with fans as well as any broadcaster this side of Vin Scully,” says longtime Steeler play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove.
Hillgrove and retired team publicist and marketing director Joe Gordon were two constants in Cope’s broadcasting career. They shared his 37 years on the air….and especially the 35 years with the Black and Gold.
Both knew Myron before his Steeler days, and remained close friends after he retired.
Hillgrove can pinpoint the exact day back in 1968 that Cope’s broadcast career began. “I was working at WTAE Radio, and our program director called a meeting and said he wanted to add a morning sports commentary. He said he was thinking about hiring Roy McHugh of the Pittsburgh Press. But our News Director, Ron Rininger, piped up and said he knew this guy who hung out at Dante’s and ‘was really off the wall.’ He was referring to Myron.”
Cope, at that time, already had a solid reputation as one of America’s top sportswriters, but his voice was certainly not of the deep baritone quality often favored by timid radio executives. Nevertheless, WTAE’s Don Shafer gambled on the idiosyncratic Cope. It would be several years before he got his start as the voice of the Steelers, but from that day in 1968 on, Cope became a familiar presence in the homes, cars, and craniums of Pittsburghers for nearly four decades.
Two years later in 1970, the Steelers made the move that changed things forever for Cope. They had been broadcasting for decades over KDKA Radio, the 50,000 watt powerhouse. But KD was also the flagship station for the Pirates, and on Sundays, when the two teams’ games coincided, the Steelers games were actually broadcast on tape delay after the Pirates had finished their business for the day.
Dan Rooney, who was gradually assuming control of day-to-day operations of the organization, decided that it was time to put an end to delayed broadcasts. The Steelers had a promising new coach in Chuck Noll and would be playing their inaugural season in the recently built and highly anticipated Three Rivers Stadium. Filling that stadium meant raising the team’s visibility, and that meant not playing second fiddle to the Pirates. Rooney moved the Steelers’ broadcasts to WTAE for the start of the 1970 NFL season. Steelers’ Publicity Director Joe Gordon suggested that Cope – his fellow Taylor Allderdice High School alum – would be a good color man.
There was some initial deliberation and questioning about that nasally voice of Cope. One writer described it as sounding like a tornado ripping through a junkyard; other descriptions have been downright unkind. Gordon was ultimately successful lobbying for Cope, persuasively reminding the Steeler brass that rolling the dice on Cope wasn’t all that risky considering that he already knew the team, knew the players, and was already on staff at the new flagship station. They took the chance.
Hillgrove loved working Steeler games with Cope from Day One.
“He saw the world funny. He was a respecter of the King’s English, but when he didn’t have the proper word, he’d invent one.”
Yoi, and double yoi.
“His preparation was vast. He’d walk into the booth with a half inch stack of note cards. He would start to tell a story on the air…then hold on when you ran a play…then finish the stories. The stories were fun, so he would keep you entertained, even if the game was a stinker.”
Joe Gordon remembers Cope’s work ethic and dedication. Gordon tells of how Cope would be in the PR Director’s office every Sunday morning by 9am, and how he never failed to chat up the opposing team’s coaches and broadcasters, his famously large ears always open for an insight or human interest story. “I never saw anyone prepare so carefully,” Gordon remembers. “Along with Arthur J. Rooney, he was the most remarkable person I ever met.”
The late Beano Cook, the ESPN college football analyst and former Pitt Sports Information Director, worked with Cope when both were starting out in their careers. “We were roommates on the road when he covered Pitt,” he recalled. “He was very clever and insightful. And he never stopped working.”
“A lot of these guys who become successful, they forget how they got to the five yard line. Then they mail it in. He never mailed it in,” said Cook. “But I don’t think he’d get hired today. His voice was like something you’d hear in a Bugs Bunny Cartoon.”
Cook noted the element of timing in Cope’s success. “Cope came along, the Steelers got good, and Cope spread the word.” It might not have been so easy had Cope been broadcasting the exploits of the Steeler quarterbacks of the 60’s like Kent Nix or Dick Shiner.
Cook noted that Cope’s creativity and daring expressions helped immortalize many of the Steelers and their exploits. “What made the Immaculate Reception was the name. It wasn’t as remarkable a play as the Cal-Stanford one with the band, where they spiked the tuba player. But Myron checked with his Catholic friends to make sure nobody would be offended, and then he used that term on the air, and it became history.”
“They were winning, he was part of it. People grew to love him, and when they went on the road, at the hotels, they went wild,” says Cook.
Joe Gordon remembers those road games. “As many Steeler fans recognized Myron as recognized Bradshaw or Joe Greene or Franco. And they would chant, ‘Myron, Myron, Myron.’”
Cope reached the status of a few Brazilian soccer stars, known simply by their first name. Myron was up there with Pele, or Kaka, or Ronaldinho. Or Fred.
The fact that Cope might head down to the hotel bar on Saturday night while on the road to talk sports over a toddy with fans didn’t hurt his popularity. It added to his reputation as a regular guy.
“He was the quintessential Western Pennsylvania tough guy,” explains Gordon, “a native Pittsburgher and proud of it. He was a little guy, worked his way through the ranks, and people related to that. He wasn’t afraid to mouth off, had more than a few fights as a young man, and would hold his own.”
He smoked, drank, and hated to exercise. He had no time for those do-gooders who told him what to do, or tried break him of what they considered to be his bad habits. His accent became the gold standard for Pittsburghese, but yinz already knew that.
Tough guy Myron may have had his finest moment broadcasting on December 16th, 2000, the date of the final Steelers home game ever at Three Rivers Stadium. The man who had coined the monikers Cincy Bungles, Cleve Brownies, Dallas Cryboys, and Denver Yonkos was at his post describing the 24-3 thrashing Pittsburgh was dealing the hapless ‘Wash Redfaces,’ when someone from the Redskins front office came into the broadcast booth and told the producer to tell Cope to knock off the Redfaces stuff.
Cope came out of a commercial break and relayed to his listeners what had happened. He made it clear to his audience that he believed the ‘order’ came directly from Redskin owner Daniel Snyder. Then he fired back.
“If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, he should stick his head in a can of paint,” he roared.
The episode became a cause célèbre in the nation’s capitol, with Redskins fans backing Cope. They, too, had had enough of Snyder.
“Like it or not,” wrote Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, “Myron Cope was speaking for America. And the Redskins should listen.”
Cope’s most remarkable gift and finest legacy would stem from the greatest irony of his life: that this world-class writer and communicator would have a child with whom he could never fully communicate. Danny was born with autism.
“He accepted that, and spent as much time as he could with him,” says Joe Gordon. For years, Cope would accept speaking engagements and simply endorse the checks to the Allegheny Valley School, Danny’s home from the age of 15.
“He called him Champ,” recalls Gordon, “and he and Mildred and their daughter Elizabeth would always take Danny out to dinner.”
Cope frequently conducted fundraisers for the school, but it was a 1996 gift that sealed him forever in the hearts of many Pittsburghers. After his beloved wife Mildred died of cancer, Myron signed over the rights to the Terrible Towel to Allegheny Valley School.
You must understand that Pittsburghers have an extraordinarily deep concern for children, especially kids in medical need. Pittsburgh’s world-renowned Children’s Hospital was built in large part with the donations of average Pittsburghers, and many of us of a certain age still believe that Christmas and the Children’s Hospital fund-raisers go hand in hand.
For Myron Cope to dedicate his life’s work and donate most of his fortune to help children with severe disabilities made him a Very Special Pittsburgh Guy. Politicians may talk family values; Pittsburghers walk the walk. They watch to see how you treat your own family and how you treat what the good book calls “the least of these.” Myron’s actions spoke even more profoundly than his words.
Cope’s generosity extended far beyond money. He was always willing to share credit for his gimmicks and on-air triumphs. He made pizza man Al Vento and baker Tony Stagno celebrities for starting Franco’s Italian Army, and even arranged for them to meet Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs. Stagno phoned his wife after dining with Sinatra after inducting Old Blue Eyes into Franco’s Army. “It was like kissing God,” Tony told her.
Cope gave credit to Michael Ord and Sharon Levosky for the term Immaculate Reception. He would readily admit that the Towel was not his idea, but he was “persuaded” to create it by WTAE executives Larry Garrett and Ted Adkins. And when he read Liza Benz’ poem on the air, immortalizing the first week’s magic of the towel, he gave her full credit. Of such generosity and sense of community, a nation – Steeler Nation – was built.
to be continued