Myron Cope dead at 79
His high-pitched screech was the most unlikely to serve as the voice of Steeler Nation.
Yet for more than three decades, Pittsburgh's football faithful muted their televisions and turned up the radio to hear the beloved icon known simply as Myron.
Hall of Fame Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope died this morning at a nursing home in Mt. Lebanon, said Joe Gordon, a former Steelers executive and a longtime friend of Cope's. Cope had been treated for respiratory problems and heart failure in recent months, Gordon said.
He was 79.
The diminutive creator of the "Terrible Towel," Cope entertained and informed fans with his manic style of color-commentary on the Steelers Radio Network from 1970 until June 2005.
"Myron touched millions of people throughout his life, first as a tremendous sportswriter and then as a Hall of Fame broadcaster," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said. "Myron was also a very close friend. His contributions and dedication to Steelers football were incredible. His creation of The Terrible Towel has developed into a worldwide symbol that is synonymous with Steelers football. He also helped immortalize the most famous play in NFL history when he popularized the term 'Immaculate Reception.'
"Myron was a very passionate person who truly cared about others and dedicated much of his personal time to help numerous charities."
Cope is survived by two grown children, Danny and Elizabeth. His late wife, Mildred, died Sept. 20, 1994, after a long illness.
"Myron symbolizes everything that is great about Southwestern Pennsylvania, and my thoughts and prayers go out his to family," Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said this morning. "Today, the entire Steeler Nation mourns the loss of great man and a great Pittsburgher."
An acclaimed newspaper and magazine writer who hosted his own nightly sports talkshow on WTAE Radio for 22 years, Cope said he wanted to be remembered as a writer.
He blended a knowledge of the game with an endearing sense of self-deprecating humor, once quipping that his nasal voice "falls upon the public's ears like china crashing from shelves in an earthquake."
Through the Steelers' first four Super Bowl championships, the listening public celebrated Cope's quirky on-air expressions -- "Yoi!" "Double-Yoi!" and "Hmm-hah!" are entrenched in the local lexicon.
"Myron is Pittsburgh," former Steelers coach Bill Cowher once said. "I remember when I first got the job here in 1992 having to go down to his studio and do his show that night and thinking, 'I remember listening to this guy when I was in my kitchen in Crafton.'
"My dad would be out there at night listening to his talk show, and I would be thinking, 'Why would you listen to that?' Then, I found myself listening to that."
Cope invented the best-known symbol of Steelers' pride, the Terrible Towel. The idea came before a playoff game in December 1975, when his boss at WTAE wanted a gimmick that would get the crowd at Three Rivers Stadium more involved.
Fans still wildly wave the black-and-gold cloths at Heinz Field and in bars and living rooms across the country. Cope sold the trademark for the towels in 1996 to Allegheny Valley School, an institution for the mentally and physically challenged. The school has brought in almost $1 million from sales of the towel.
"It became something that everybody in Pittsburgh could rally around," Noll said of the invention's impact.
Cope was born Myron Sydney Kopelman on Jan. 23, 1929, in Pittsburgh. He graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School -- briefly boxing at the age of 16 -- and the University of Pittsburgh before launching a career in print journalism.
He started out in newspapers, working first at the Erie Times. In the summer of 1951, Cope was hired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where an editor suggested that his last name sounded too Jewish and that he shorten it. As Cope recounted in his autobiography "Double Yoi!", the editor began shuffling through the phone book and stopped at "Cope."
In 1960, Cope left the Post-Gazette to try his luck at freelance writing. He would always remember what his editor at the newspaper, Al Abrams, told him before he left: "Kid, you'll starve. You'll be back in six months."
Instead, Cope became a successful writer for Sports Illustrated and the Saturday Evening Post. During his time at SI, he wrote widely acclaimed pieces on the likes of Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) and sportscaster Howard Cosell. Cope was one of only two writers under contract for SI, the other being George Plimpton.
In 1968, Cope changed courses again and took a part-time job at WTAE Radio. He parlayed that into his job with the Steelers broadcast team in 1970 and into his career as a radio talk-show host.
Cope battled health problems for the last several years of his career, including severe arthritis, a chronically bad back, pneumonia and throat problems. He missed the team's first three exhibition games of the 2004 season while recovering from throat surgery and pneumonia. Then, he had to leave a game that season because of the after-effects of a concussion he suffered at home the night before, the result of a fall.
Prior to that, Cope had missed only five quarters of Steelers football: One quarter of a game early in his career to attend his brother-in-law's funeral and a game in 1994 after his wife died.
Steelers play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove said in 2005 it was hard to see his longtime broadcast partner struggle near the end of his career.
"We're going to have to work harder because nobody worked harder than Myron," Hillgrove said when Cope retired. "We're going to have to assume the responsibility of having his eye for news and knowledge of the game's history."
When Cope conducted his last radio show in 2005, the final caller was a first-time caller who had been waiting 13 years to say what Cope meant to her family.
One night, she said, her family was sitting at the dinner table and Cope was signing off. He began his familiar closing with, "This is Myron Cope " and the woman's 8-month-old son chimed in "on sports." They were the child's first back-to-back words.
"That was perfect," Cope said after the show. "The kid's first words -- 'On sports' -- I never could have planned such a perfect last call."