It's a gross understatement to say that I've been blessed with high quality contributors for the Steelers preseason annuals I've compiled and edited for Maple Street Press the past two years.. There may be things I wish I could change about the publications -- some bigger than others. But believe me: they sure as hell have nothing to do with the fine roster of analysts, story tellers and writers I was fortunate enough to recruit and collaborate
What follows is in my mind though is right there at the top of the list of all the great stuff submitted by 'rose, Howard Fineman, Jim Wexell, Dale Lolley, Doug Farrar or any of the awesome fan authors that have contributed the last two years.
It's a tribute to the late Myron Cope written by Mike Silverstein, who we all know around here as Homer J. Silverstein is a seasoned jorno by trade, a veteran reporter and editor in the news business dating back to his early days growing up in Pittsburgh. He then took his talents to Washington D.C. for the formative years of his career, and if I'm not mistaken, he's staying busy during his 'retirement' serving on a number of prestigious local committees and boards reserved for people with big, fat Roladexes and an impeccable track record of non-phony relationship building and practical problem solving.
His contacts in the media world and more importantly, his core essence as a native son, allowed him to really tell an incredible story about Myron Cope -- his life, the people Cope touched, and how his never-to-be-matched personality wove its way into the city of Pittsburgh's fabric then, and for the long haul so long as stories continue to be passed down from one generation to the next. Which is to say, forever.
-Michael B. -
Myron Cope and the Fabric of Pittsburgh: The Weaving of a Legacy
BY MIKE SILVERSTEIN
"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 has covered every President from Nixon to Obama and has been an eyewitness to nearly 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.
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 snapshot 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 simply 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.
REALLY OFF THE WALL
"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 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.
HE NEVER MAILED IT IN
Bill Hillgrove worked with Cope at WTAE from day one, and was side-by-side in the Steelers broadcast booth with Myron for the final eleven years of Cope's career. In 35 years, Myron shared the booth with two play-by-play men: the late Jack Fleming for 24 years, then Hillgrove.
"He saw the world funny," says Hillgrove. "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 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."
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 recalls. "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," says 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 notes 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 notes 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.
STICK HIS HEAD IN A CAN OF PAINT
"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."
HE CALLED HIM CHAMP
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 Atkins. 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.
OF FABRIC AND TEXTILES
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.
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 1973 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 how 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 nightly radio program.
"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 men 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 theme 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 if he were to change jobs and insurance companies. .
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.
LEGACY OF LUNACY
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. Watch the videos. Try not to laugh.
Required YouTube Watching:
- Pittsburgh Steelers Terrible Towel
- Myron Cope Pittsburgh Broadcasting Legend
- Myron Cope Does The Macarena...
Myron Cope: Double Yoi!. Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing, 2002.
"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-TV.
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."
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, dear friends, 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 is being written, money from The Terrible Towel is 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.
A PRAYER FOR MYRON
Bill Hillgrove, who was there when Cope's broadcasting career began, and had the sublime pleasure of sharing so many years behind 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!"
Mike Silverstein, a Pittsburgh native, is recently retired after a forty year broadcasting career that began in his home town, included an unfortunate three year purgatory in Cleveland, and then concluded with a more than thirty year stint with ABC News in Washington D.C. He has recently been sworn in as a member of the District of Columbia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, fulfilling a lifetime dream of being able to work to ensure law-abiding Americans their access to really cold, delicious beer.