Nation waves 'bye now' to Myron Cope
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 volume on the radio to hear the beloved icon known simply as Myron.
Hall of Fame Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope died Wednesday morning at the Covenant of South Hills nursing home in Mt. Lebanon.
Cope had been treated for respiratory problems and heart failure in recent months. He was 79.
Services will be private.
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 he retired in June 2005.
"Myron touched millions of people throughout his life," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said. "Myron was also a very close friend. His contributions and dedication to Steelers football were incredible."
Cope is survived by two grown children, Danny and Elizabeth. His wife, Mildred, died Sept. 20, 1994, after a long illness. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Martha Ann.
Pittsburgh City Council held a moment of silence before its meeting yesterday. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he is considering having a Terrible Towel flag made and flying it in front of the City-County Building, Downtown.
"Myron Cope is really the heartbeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers in many ways," Ravenstahl said.
Former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell visited Cope at UPMC Presbyterian a few weeks ago.
"I know he fought the good fight," Russell said. "He was a tough guy. I think at some point he got too tired."
Writer at heart
An acclaimed newspaper and magazine writer who hosted his own nightly sports talk show 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 left the Steelers broadcast booth in 2005 after 35 years of describing games in his unique, nasally style.
"Myron brought Steelers football closer to the fans than any other person," Steelers President Art Rooney II said. "The way he was able to describe his personal kind of relationship with the players brought humor to the situation and brought the fans closer to the players and made them feel like they had a relationship with the players through him."
A terribly ingenious idea
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.
"He asked a few players on the team what they thought of the idea," Russell said. "I remember telling him, 'Myron, that's ridiculous. We're not a gimmick team. We don't need people waving towels at us to win games.' I rejected his idea. Now, I feel like such an idiot when I see thousands of people waving their towels."
Fans still wildly wave the black-and-gold cloths at Heinz Field and in bars and living rooms across the country. They even waved them last night at the Petersen Events Center during the Pitt-Cincinnati college basketball game. Pitt was Cope's alma mater.
Cope gave the trademark for the towels in 1996 to Allegheny Valley School, an institution for the mentally and physically challenged. Cope's autistic son, Danny, is a resident at the school, which has received almost $2.2 million from sales of the towel.
"Everyone knew the kind of support he gave us financially and spiritually," said Regis Champ, CEO of Allegheny Valley School, headquartered in Robinson. "That's a void we're never going to fill."
The Pittsburgh kid
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 Pitt before starting 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 always would 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 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.
Cope's first story in the Saturday Evening Post was on former Pitt basketball star Don Hennon.
"The guy had tremendous talent," said Beano Cook, a former Pitt sports information director and ESPN personality. "It's too bad that the younger people never saw some of his writing. He was a heck of a writer, a very good writer. There's a lot of people who will never know what a great writer he was."
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.
Never taking a play off
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.
Cope spent his years in the broadcast booth working alongside the late Jack Fleming and, later, Bill Hillgrove.
"He brought so much to the table," Hillgrove said. "He brought an ace -- and a good one -- with a lot of energy and a lot of substance. He rarely missed a point and when he did, he'd admit it."
Hillgrove said Cope would bring a stack of index cards into the booth and use only half of them during the broadcast.
"He'd say, 'Billy, if the game is a stinker, I still have to be prepared,' " Hillgrove said. "Nobody told a story better than he did."
When he was a rookie with the Steelers in 1980, lineman Tunch Ilkin -- now a Steelers radio analyst -- turned on the TV and saw Cope performing one of his routines. Cope was dressed in a white lab coat, had a light around his head and was holding a stethoscope, his form of a crystal ball that was known as a "Cope-a-scope."
"I thought to myself, 'Who is this guy?'" Ilkin said. "I wanted to see what he was going to say next."
Cope cut back his workload in 1995 when he gave up his radio show. 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."