Cope's calls resonated
Upon retiring after 35 years on Steelers radio broadcasts, Myron Cope cracked that his death would prompt the headline, "Creator of Towel Dead!"
In a career that spanned the mediums of newspapers and magazines to radio and television, Cope became the colorful and distinctive voice of this sports-obsessed town. One who identified with its heroes and everyday men because he was the unique embodiment of both.
Cope, 79, died Wednesday morning of respiratory failure.
"I've been all over the world and the country, and Myron Cope is Pittsburgh. That's all there is to it," said Brian Joyce of Jefferson Hills. "When you were listening to the radio and people would come in from out of town to visit, they'd listen and say, 'That guy's crazy as heck!' And you'd say, 'That's Myron Cope,' and you'd have to explain it to them."
What Pittsburghers remember most was Cope's voice, whether in the rhythmic written or the staccato spoken form, and its distinguishable delivery that captured the hearts and imaginations of both his subjects and audience.
"The first time you hear the voice," sportscaster contemporary Beano Cook said, "it catches your ear."
When word spread of Cope's death yesterday, Steelers fans mourned in the venerable vernacular of the colorful commentator (and title of his autobiography): "Double Yoi!"
"You could almost hear everyone gasp when it was announced," said Lisa Landry, of Greensburg. "We were in a restaurant having breakfast and everyone was like, 'Oh my God, Myron died?' We couldn't believe it. It was sad. He's one of the biggest icons of the area."
As creator of the Terrible Towel, a gold-cloth gimmick that became the waving emblem of Steelers Nation on the way to five Super Bowl victories, Cope rose to cult-figure status from an admiring audience that learned to love his nails-on-chalkboard voice and jubilant jargon.
"His was the most unique voice in the history of sportscasting. Now that's taking in a lot of ground, but you know I'm right if you've heard Myron," Sports Illustrated's Peter King wrote upon Cope's retirement in 2005. "Guys like Vin Scully, Johnny Most and Ernie Harwell are hugely famous for being identified with one specific team. But no voice was more important to the history of a sports franchise than Cope was to Pittsburgh. My in-laws lived there, and I can't tell you how many people in that town turned down the sound on the TV to listen to Myron."
Steelers radio broadcast partners Bill Hillgrove and Tunch Ilkin likened traveling with Cope to touring with a rock star, as fans eagerly anticipated identifying in person the diminutive man behind the descriptive voice.
"He enjoys a status very few broadcasters get to," said Hillgrove, who spent 11 seasons as Cope's straight man on play-by-play. "You'd be walking into a hotel -- you know how Steelers fans are in those cities -- and a star player would go by and there was a murmur. Cope goes by and it's tumult."
Added Ilkin, the former Steelers offensive lineman: "Steelers fans always ask, 'What's Myron like?' I've been in this town 27 years, and that was the No. 1 question I get asked. It was working with a legend."
Hometowne Sports assistant manager Lori Beth Kahle, of Elliott, laughed in recalling a story her father shared about Cope calling out to his wife during a Thursday night broadcast: "Don't forget to put the trash out."
"It cracks me up," Kahle said, "because that was just Myron Cope."
Cope's quick wit was as contagious as his clever catchphrases, the most famous of which was his popularizing Franco Harris' shoestring catch for the game-winning touchdown in the 1972 AFC Divisional playoffs against the Oakland Raiders as the "Immaculate Reception."
"Without that name, that play would not be one half as famous as it is," Cook claimed. "Otherwise, it would just be another play."
Not to say that the Steelers without Cope would have been just another team, but his influence on their dynasty days of the 1970s gave both a national identity.
When Steelers fan Tom Fallon, of Allentown, learned of Cope's death while driving to work, he returned home to retrieve a Terrible Towel in honor of his broadcast hero.
"To me, he's the kind of broadcaster that each team needs," said Fallon, sports director of ESPN Radio Lehigh Valley. "You've got to have somebody like that. It's great to have guys who are very professional and can call a great game, but there's something about having a guy on the broadcast team that makes you feel like you're listening to one of your buddies and reacts the way the fans do."
While Cope's legacy goes beyond inventing the Terrible Towel, it is an association that is undeniable and inescapable. One that will allow Myron Cope's memory to live on even now, after his voice has been silenced.
"It's a pretty sad day in Pittsburgh," Joyce said. "The first thing I thought was, 'He's an icon.' I know he's been sick and all, but today was the day and it's sad for Steelers fans. You gotta wave the towel for him."