By BOB LABRIOLA
For a generation of sports fans in Western Pennsylvania, Myron Cope was a voice on their radio, a voice they invited into their homes nightly, a voice they turned to when they wanted to know something about their favorite football team. He was a voice they trusted.
"I've often thought that, when I kick the bucket, there'd be a story that said, 'Creator of towel, dead.'" Cope cracked during the news conference called to announce his retirement on June 21, 2005. "Truthfully, I was gifted and educated to be a writer. I made it as a writer. That is what I was trained to be and that's what I wanted to be. That's what I thought I had a gift for. I would like to be remembered as a pretty decent writer."
Myron Cope died today, Feb. 27, of respiratory failure at the age of 79, and I'm going to honor that request.
As a writer, Cope's talent put him in the company of the best people Sports Illustrated ever had under contract, and as evidence, Mr. Cope's profile of Howard Cosell was selected by Sports Illustrated during its 50th Anniversary as one of the 50 best pieces ever published in the magazine.
Cope also was a regular contributor to the "Saturday Evening Post" and "True, The Men's Magazine," and it was in that latter publication that Mr. Cope spent days traveling on a train with Cassius Clay in 1963 to do a profile on a man who would become one of the greatest boxers of all time. Clay won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston and then changed his name to Muhammad Ali; Mr. Cope's piece won the E.P. Dutton Prize for "Best Magazine Sportswriting in the Nation."
As a talk-show host, Mr. Cope literally was without peer in Pittsburgh, because he was doing it well when nobody else even was attempting it. Mr. Cope's talk show aired from 6-8 p.m., five nights a week, on WTAE-AM, and it gained a reputation on the dial as a place to go for good, solid information.
As a color commentator on the Steelers' broadcasts, well, it's impossible to believe anyone could've been more colorful.
And he was good at all of it, because he worked hard at all of it.
Nobody read more than Myron Cope, and everybody returned his telephone calls. Even though he most often is associated with football, Mr. Cope didn't give short shrift to the other sports. It was common to see Mr. Cope racing over to Three Rivers Stadium on a weeknight after his talk show to catch the rest of a Pirates game and then interview the manager and some players in the clubhouse. The same thing happened in the winter, only then Mr. Cope's after-show destination was the Civic Arena for a Penguins hockey game, or maybe the Fitzgerald Field House for a Pitt basketball game.
Mr. Cope will go down in NFL history as the creator of the Terrible Towel, and over the course of its 30-year existence that magical piece of terrycloth has generated millions of dollars for the Allegheny Valley School, an institution for the profoundly mentally and physically disabled.
Mr. Cope had the foresight to trademark the Terrible Towel, and in 1994 he signed over his rights to the trademark to the Allegheny Valley School in perpetuity. After the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, there was a check presentation to the school for the one-year proceeds from sales of the Terrible Towel. The amount of that check was $1 million.
Myron Cope was so good at his craft because nobody out-worked him. He was thorough. He was diligent. And because he was both of those, he also was often right. Mr. Cope was so respected that in 1983 he became the first member of the broadcast media to be appointed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame to its Board of Selectors.
But Myron Cope also was one of the guys. He never big-timed the other working stiffs – whether they were newspaper guys or whether they worked in radio or television – even though they essentially were his competitors. He was always ready to buy the next round, or entertain the boys with a story in which he himself often was the foil.
On the day he retired as a broadcaster, he was asked what he believed he accomplished.
"You have to keep perspective," Mr. Cope said at the time. "To me, I'm most proud of my credibility. I have always guarded it. I want people to believe that if I say something, I know what I'm talking about, at least partially, and that is what I believe. I never played devil's advocate on my talk show in the almost 22 years that I had it. I never did because I didn't want to say something and not believe it, so I think people bought me … I was on the alert all the time -- are you being credible, Cope?"
He was being credible. He was being unique. He was being Myron Cope, and we all benefited from that.