Myron Cope and the Fabric of Pittsburgh: The Weaving of a Legacy, Part 2
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. Part 1 can be found here.
Over the years, Cope became as much a part of Pittsburgh as a Primanti’s sandwich, or a dog and “small” fries at the Dirty O, or a Vinny’s Pie. All acquired tastes. All very habit forming.
- Of Fabrics and Textiles
- Legacy of Lunacy
- Joined at the Knee
- Living Legacy
- A Prayer for Myron
ESPN’s John Clayton says Cope “had a uniquely Pittsburgh style and got into the fabric of the town.” In fact, Myron got into the fabric of the city as much as the triumphant textile he helped create and popularize on his nightly radio show. The program was a fixture among local sports fans from 1972 through 1995. Steeler coach Bill Cowher, remembered first hearing Myron’s show as a kid in the family kitchen, when his Dad listened every night. Cowher admitted to wondering why his Dad could stand listening to that voice. But Cowher, by the time he grew up and became Steeler coach, had become a regular listener himself.
Steve Peresman, who runs the news desk at ESPN, was also a regular listener when growing up in Pittsburgh. “Myron’s show was where you went before the days of the internet and ESPN,” says Peresman. “Otherwise, you’d have to wait till the next day, when the newspaper came, to get player transactions, and any other in depth sports news.”
Clayton remembers when Cope lit into him on the air. In 1978, writing for the Pittsburgh Press, Clayton reported that the Steelers had recently held an Organized Team Activity (OTA) in violation of league rules. The article was accompanied by a picture of Clayton helping John Banaszak into his pads. When Pete Rozelle learned of the violation, he made the Steelers forfeit a third round draft choice. Cope let Clayton have it on the air.
“My own mother called Myron on his radio show. She said, ‘Myron, this is John Clayton’s Mom, and I agree with you. He never should have written that article.”
That speaks to Cope’s sway over the masses. It also underscores the wisdom in what a journalism teacher once told his class: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Cope also had a special relationship with Chuck Noll, or Emperor Chaz as Cope famously christened the head of the Steeler dynasty. The Nolls lived just down the street from the Copes, allowing the two icons to form a bond away from work. When WTAE built a small studio and installed a broadcast line in Myron’s basement, The Emperor would simply walk down the street to pre-record the weekly “Coach’s Show,” scheduled for broadcast prior to kickoff each week. Noll, a renaissance man, loved to tinker and fix things. Cope could do most anything, except, of course, manual labor.
“So if anything ever broke in the house,” says Joe Gordon, “Myron would tell Mildred to ‘wait till the end of the week when Chuck comes over. He’ll fix it.’ Myron was so bad with mechanical stuff that if he called you and said his car wouldn’t start, you would have to ask him if he tried putting the key in the ignition.”
Noll may have been Emperor of the Football World and a future Hall of Fame Coach, but Myron and Mildred were perfectly happy to let him be their Handy Manny or Mr. Fix-it.
Cope became embedded in the fabric of Pittsburgh, and there was a recurring them embedded in his adult life. He stayed in broadcasting and remained in Pittsburgh, in large part out of loyalty to his son. His union, AFTRA, was able to provide the family with major medical coverage. The union local along with its President, Bill Cardille, had “put fierce pressure on New York union headquarters,” wrote Cope, to get them to cover treatment for autism, which was then often considered mental illness. The loyalty of his union friends saved Myron from financial ruin. Myron wrote of receiving other job offers and not even considering them because he and Mildred were not certain that young Danny’s expensive medical care would be covered by other insurers.
When Danny moved into the Allegheny Valley School at age 15, Myron was riding high professionally, and had numerous opportunities in other markets. With Danny cared for, Cope could seriously consider those offers. But he decided to remain in Pittsburgh and with the Steelers to stay close to his son, and to stay with the city and friends he loved so deeply, the friends who had stood by him and Mildred. His job security as the Steelers’ color man was never in doubt. He was part of the Steelers’ family pretty much as long as he wanted. “It was just assumed he would stay on,” says Joe Gordon.
The loyalty thread running through Cope’s life is like something out of a Capra movie – a picture of how the way the world should be, but ain’t. Unfortunately, there was only one Myron Cope. And while there have always been a healthy number of Rooneys, we could always use a few more.
Another part of the Cope legacy can be found on YouTube, where new people every day are being introduced to the Myron Cope music videos. They’re easy to find, with a keyboard and a mouse. Google: Cope Macarena, Cope Yonkos, or Cope Can’t Touch This.
Now watch. Try not to laugh.
“He was a genius as a promoter, and he never lost his enthusiasm. He knew exactly what he was doing,” says Joe Gordon.
Myron Cope, in that ridiculous matador’s hat, doing the macarena with a bevy of bodacious babes, rapping about “Jerome Bettis ain’t no head a lettuce” is unforgettable. Myron was probably not exaggerating when he recounted the time a well-dressed lady came up to him in a restaurant and whispered – in his good ear – that her entire family “pissed their pants” when they saw his annual video on WTAE.
Hillgrove says Cope “saw himself clearly,” and “knew he was an entertainer.”
“Myron had the courage,” Hillgrove marvels, “to be himself.”
Now google “Myron Cope audio” and listen to a sampling of his radio color. Somewhere out there’s a play-by-play soundbite from the Cowher years, when fans were forever questioning why the team passed so seldom to tight ends. On this particular third and three, they hit the tight end for the first down. “It’s a gadget play,” Cope squawks joyously, “a gadget play, I tell you.”
“The players loved him,” remembers Joe Gordon. “New players would come and and wonder what this guy was all about. But every player loved him. He was very much a part of the team.”
It fell to Joe Gordon to tell Cope it was time to retire. And, in 2005, he did, driving over to his best friend’s house and telling him he was “losing a step.” It was an agreement the two lifetime buddies had. And when Joe said it was time, Myron agreed.
It was also Gordon who had to tell Franco Harris that their good friend was dying.
“Myron was in UMPC Presbyterian and then in a nursing home – from Thanksgiving, 2007 to February, 27, 2008, when he died. And Franco was trying to reach him in December. Every five years, he has a party to celebrate the anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. He wanted to invite Myron to the 35th anniversary party. When I learned that he couldn’t reach him, I called Franco and told him that Myron was in the hospital and often drifting in and out (of consciousness) and he wasn’t getting better. Franco asked if he could visit him., and of course I said yes.”
“So Franco goes over to the hospital with Elizabeth and me, and we tell him to go into his room and we’ll stay at the door and watch. Myron was sleeping, but he came to, and he saw Franco’s face and his face lit up like the brightest Christmas tree you ever saw. Franco walked in that room, and he lit up.”
It wasn’t the last time that Franco visited and, ten weeks later, Franco spoke at Myron’s funeral, saying, “we’ll always be joined at the hip, or maybe, because of the difference in size, at the knees.” Also, one might add, at the heart.
Cope’s legacy has not diminished since his death. Nearly one year after he died, the week of Super Bowl 43, Cope was selected by ABC World News Tonight with Charles Gibson as their Person of the Week. Actually, the award went to the Cope Family, so it was shared with Danny and Elizabeth, for their extraordinary generosity in giving the rights to the Battle Flag of the Steeler Nation to the Allegheny Valley School.
And Myron’s Terrible Towel remains poised to strike. Its curse it still feared by opponents and revered by Steeler fans. Its legendary power is undiminished by the passing of its creator.
On December 21, 2008, the Tennessee Titans defeated the Steelers at Heinz Field, and LenDale White and Keith Bullock stomped on the Towel in its own house. The Titans, who were among the favorites for Super Bowl 43, then inexplicably lost their next eight games. The Steelers, of course, won the Super Bowl.
By the end of October of 2009, the Titans and their defeated fans sued for peace. A Nashville sports broadcaster arranged for White and Bullock to sign a towel and ship it overnight to the Allegheny Valley School. Two days later, the Titans defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars, 30-13, for their first win of the season. That is what we call a teachable moment.
The signed towel was put up for auction on E-Bay, and the winning bid, $1435, went to the Myron Cope Special Equipment Fund at the School.
As this story was being written, money from The Terrible Towel was being used to upgrade the electrical systems of two AVS campuses to accommodate critical life support equipment. Towel funds can be used for equipment that aids in the clients’ communications abilities. All sorts of equipment that is not covered by Medicaid or insurance can be supported by the funds. AVS recently used Towel funds to purchase a wheelchair scale and a transportation stretcher for the campus.
More than three million dollars has been raised for AVS since Myron signed over rights to the towel in 1996.
Bill Hillgrove, who was there when Cope’s broadcasting career began, and had the sublime pleasure of sharing thirty-five years at the mic with him, marvels at how Myron still has a hold on the hearts and the imagination of Steeler Nation.
“More than a year after he died, August, 2009, I was attending a party. It was a combination 70th birthday party and retirement party for a priest friend of mine. It was in Clymer, just outside Indiana, PA. I was sitting on the back porch of the parish house, having a beer, when a woman comes around the corner and tells me she’s so glad to see me. That her family was at home watching Super Bowl 43 when Larry Fitzgerald caught that touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter to put the Cardinals in front, and they decided it was time for prayer. They couldn’t figure out which Saint to pray to, when their ten-year-old said they should pray to Myron Cope. And they all got down on their knees and prayed to Myron and the rest is history.”
They got their miracle, when the Steelers scored in the final seconds to win their sixth Super Bowl.
“It’s a true story,” assures Hillgrove, “and it probably speaks more to Steeler fans and his ability to connect with them than I ever could.”
Saint Myron? Patron saint of the two minute drill? Yoi and Double Yoi!
Oh, well. As Myron would say, “Okel dokel!”