Remembering Myron Cope, The Steeler Nation Pope
Today, Feb. 27, 2009, marks one year since good old Myron Cope has been gone as the Pope of Steeler Nation. So, let's take a moment and remember how valuable he was to our great Black and Gold Nation.
In late 1975, Myron was approached by WTAE radio's producer to come up with a gimmick for the run to the Super Bowl. Myron professed that he wasn't a gimmicky type of guy, but his producer refreshed his memory that he was due for a new contract. So, Cope said, “I'm a gimmick guy.”
Co-workers blurted, “How about a mask of Noll's likeness?” The marketing department did some research on it and noted that it would cost a lot at 50 cents apiece for 30,000 fans. Then Myron said, “How about a towel? We can call it the Terrible Towel?” The marketing director said “Yeah, that'll work. Everyone has a towel, but they must be yellow or gold ones.” Then he said, “If the fans don't have one, they can buy one and if they don't want to buy one, they can dye one.”
See, awhile back Myron Cope use to be a sports writer for Sports Illustrated before he got into broadcasting. He had among the best and top-rated articles in sports. Let me show you an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated:
Present At The Creation
THE IMMACULATE RECEPTION AND OTHER STEELERS MIRACLES, AS WITNESSED BY A SPORTSCASTING LEGEND
Myron Cope, From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Aug. 20, 1973
IN THE SPACE OF 40 YEARS, INFANTS HAVE grown to become Watergate plotters, beauty queens have been retired to nursing homes and Norman Thomas has become for many a name they might identify as that of a Padres first baseman.
So, 40 years is a long time, and unless you were one of us — that is, a part or partisan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who after four desolate decades in the NFL won their first division title in 1972 — you cannot possibly know the sweetness. Sweetness, did I say? More, it was the ne plus ultra of fruition when, as if to compensate for the lost years, everything fell into place. Even Sinatra came around, and I shall begin by telling you about him in the event there exists any doubt that to get hot after 40 years is to be hot.
It is December 1972. We are in Palm Springs, Calif., to acclimate ourselves (I as the color man for Steelers radio broadcasts) for the upcoming game in San Diego. Dinner the second evening is at Lord Fletcher's, well out beyond Frank Sinatra Drive. Over cocktails I say to traveling secretary Buff Boston, "I'm giving up on the Sinatra project. I've had it." During our stay, at least six local Italians have represented themselves to me as Sinatra's No. 1 compáre and guaranteed to put him in touch with me at once. "All phonies," I say. "I'm not wasting any more of my time."
"Waste a little more," says Boston, who is facing the front door. "There's your man."
In the flesh, to be sure. He and his party go to a table in an adjoining room. I write a note on a napkin:
And then, reaching back to Sinatra's origins, I tell a small lie: P.S.: Franco's from Hoboken.
He's really from Mount Holly, N.J., but my artful approach—supported, in retrospect, by the fact that quarterback Terry Bradshaw has a dislocated finger and Sinatra the earmarks of a man who bets football—does the trick. His first words, after making a beeline to our table, are, "How's the quarterback's finger?"
In Pittsburgh four-star general Stagno, summoned by my urgent call, tumbles out of bed to learn that Sinatra has agreed to present himself approximately 15 hours hence. Never in his 34 years has Tony Stagno been able to screw up the courage to board an airplane, but within the hour he and three-star general Al Vento are talking to an airline clerk. The two generals peel off close to $400 apiece for round-trip tickets that will land them in Palm Springs at 2 p.m. and six hours later fly them back to their bakery and pizza establishments in Pittsburgh.
So right there along the sideline at practice, with Italian flags flying, the whole thing comes off—the wine, the cheese, the embracing and kissing, the cries of compáre! Franco stands beaming, the first player in the history of the NFL to drink during practice. Sinatra, after giving his ear the familiar tug and saying "Groovy, groovy," inquires of Franco, "How's the quarterback's finger?"
Before boarding his return flight, General Stagno telephones his wife and tells her, "It was like kissing God."
SO I ASK YOU, CAN YOU DOUBT THE SWEETNESS OF that 40th year? Perceive it you may, but, again, unless you were part or partisan of the Steelers, you cannot fully comprehend. I am 13, walking, sometimes skipping, down the hill to the foot of Bouquet Street, heading for the bowels of old Forbes Field. I pass through a narrow entrance into the vendors' hole. No problem gaining entrance, for during the baseball season I had appeared regularly for the shape-up.
But this was football season, and I had no intention of working. An iron gate separated the vendors' hole from a ramp leading into the park to keep the no-goods among us from sneaking off to spend the day as spectators. I had learned that if I arrived early enough, one of the bosses going to and fro would leave the gate unlocked for a few moments. I would dash through, sprint clear to the top of the ballpark in rightfield and hide in a restroom. It would be 2½ hours till the ballpark gates opened, but I passed the cold mornings memorizing the rosters I had torn from the Sunday sports section. At 11 a.m., I would be in position for a front-row space amid the standing-room crowd. The standees seemed to outnumber the people holding tickets for seats.
We came knowing we would suffer. It is 1955, and the Steelers have a splendid passer named Jim Finks and a limber receiver named Goose McClairen. They also have a chunky fullback in Fran Rogel and a coach named Walt Kiesling, who in training camp a few months before had cut a rookie named John Unitas. A big, narrow-eyed German, Kiesling wears the expression of a man suffering from indigestion and has the view that there is only one way to start a football game. On the first Steelers play from scrimmage, Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, he sends Rogel plowing up the middle.
The word having gotten around, the enemy is stacked in what might be called an 11-0-0 defense. From the farthest reaches of Forbes Field 25,000 voices send down a thunderous chant, hoping ridicule will dissuade Kiesling: "Hi-diddle-diddle, Rogel up the middle!" And up the middle he goes, disappearing in a welter of opponents battling like starved wolves for a piece of his flesh.
From his seat in the press box Steelers owner Art Rooney—the Chief—tightens the grip on his cigar till his knuckles whiten. Never has he interfered with a coach. But he has absorbed all he can bear, so for the next game he furnishes an opening play. "Kies," he tells the coach, "we are going to have Jim Finks throw a long pass to Goose McClairen. That's an order."
McClairen breezes into the open field, there being nobody in the 11-0-0 defense remotely concerned about him, takes Finks's pass at a casual lope and trots into the end zone. The touchdown is called back. A Steelers lineman was offside. After the game Rooney confronts the offender, only to learn from the poor fellow that Kiesling ordered him to lurch offside. "If that pass play works," Kies hissed at the lineman, "that club owner will be down here every week giving us plays." A philosophical man, the Chief never again makes the attempt.
So you see, it was not that we always had the worst talent in the league. Heroes we always had. They thrived in the black pall that rose from the steel mills along the Monongahela; they perfected the brand of football that the working people loved. From Johnny Blood to "Bullet" Bill Dudley to Bobby Layne and John Henry Johnson, we had players to cheer, but usually not enough of them.
Our ascent to glory began on a gray winter's afternoon 4½ years ago in an upstairs suite of the Roosevelt, an aging downtown hotel where the Steelers had their headquarters. Dan Rooney, then 36, the Chief's eldest son, for several years had been easing into command of the club's day-to-day operations, and now he was presenting Pittsburgh's 16th head coach to the press.
Chuck Noll, 36, scarcely cut a figure to trigger excitement. Nor did his first Steelers team. The previous season Pittsburgh had won but two games; now it won but one. "The problem we had," says Noll of that first year, "was to find out about our players. And the only way was to play them."
Noll is, beyond anything, resolute. While a low-salaried linebacker and messenger guard for Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns, he completed three years of a four-year night-school law course, with no intention of ever practicing law. "I felt that just playing football and doing nothing else was a waste of time, so I went to law school simply with the idea of gaining background," he says.
The son of a Cleveland laboring man who died in his 40s of Parkinson's disease, Noll had come poor to football and culture. He thinks of himself not so much a coach as a teacher, and is totally confident of his ability. Steelers crowds booed him and critics panned him when he refused to call plays for Terry Bradshaw, who after playing quarterback at Louisiana Tech, was finding the transition to the NFL roughly equivalent to trying to fly a lunar rocket after six lessons in a Piper Cub; but Noll was serene.
"Chuck feels," says Dan Rooney, "that if the quarterback is totally involved, even to the point of helping form the game plan, he'll feel freer to audibilize and to consider a story from a receiver who says he can get clear."
So the teacher brought up his young pupils quickly and somewhat sternly. "On Monday morning," said one Steeler the day the team clinched the Central Division title, "he'll smile passing you in the hall and say, 'Good morning,' and just from the way he smiles you're damn sure he's telling you, 'You played a terrible game yesterday.' The feeling you get is not that you're only as good as your last game, it's that you're only as good as your next game. You never know where you stand with Noll, so you're always working like hell to keep your job. But he is so knowledgeable, so cool under fire, that you have tremendous respect for him."
During the recent off-season, players who dropped in to Pittsburgh headquarters observed unprecedented signs of warm loquaciousness in Noll. Not long ago, pressed to assess Pittsburgh's difficult 1973 schedule, Noll finally said, "We have an easy schedule. We don't have to play the Steelers."
Yes, having risen, our Steelers are given to flippancy, for they have the look of an express gathering steam. Of the 40 men on the roster, no fewer than 24 were 24 years old or younger. Twelve were second-year men from the '71 draft, and six of those were starters. Let Redskins coach George Allen chew on that while he's turning up the thermostat to keep his old folks warm.
IN THE SPACIOUS LOBBY OF the new Steelers offices on the ground level of Three Rivers Stadium, a brilliant hand-stitched tapestry covered the righthand wall. Avant garde and dazzling, it depicted a football-play diagram exploding into meteors of black and gold. The Chief frowned over his cigar as he studied the spectacular work. It was the summer of 1970, and this was his first visit to the new offices.
The past seemed to have been obliterated by one fell swoop of decorators, except that one anachronistic note remained. Each day the Chief would enter the vast, lavishly appointed new dressing room, pause inside the doorway to get his bearings and then wander from locker to locker. To players dressing for practice he would offer his hand and say, in a dialect surviving the city's long-gone Irish First Ward, "How ahr ya?" To his favorites he would proffer an expensive cigar.
They had every right, these young studs collected by Noll, to wonder, What is it with this old man whose history of failure lies upon us like a millstone, perpetuating our ridicule? He had, in fact, been a great all-around athlete, one who knew football as well as any owner, but he had run the Steelers as a sportsman torn between two loves, the other being horse racing. More often than not he hired coaches who shared his feelings for the track, and he let them run their teams unencumbered. "I think that was my whole mistake, letting the coaches have a free hand," he has said. "I was able. I was competent."
At Three Rivers now, his personal attentions to Noll's players, rather than causing him to appear the fumbling fool, dissolved the athletes' worldly veneer to reveal them as boys far from home. Their cynicism crumbled in his presence, for what other owner in the league knew the names of the lowliest rookies? African-American quarterback Joe Gilliam, an 11th-round choice who in December would save a vital win over Houston, had entered a four-way fight for three jobs, pessimistic that he would receive an impartial evaluation. Briefed however by his soul brothers, he said, "I'm not worried about Mr. Rooney."
"THE WAY I SEE IT, WE'VE GOT TO WIN TWO OF THE first four to have a chance," Dan Rooney said in the summer of '72. A young team needing time to congeal, the Steelers faced a difficult first month—their opener against the strong Oakland Raiders, then three straight road games. But they pulled it off by winning two of the four, whereupon the first sign of euphoria appeared. It was a banner that hung from the bottom deck of the south end zone, and it said, GERELA'S GORILLAS. In a city that would soon embrace the mad notion that it could win a title, what could be more appropriately senseless than the emergence of the team's first fan club as a claque for, of all people, placekicker Roy Gerela.
Victories accumulated—three in a row—and suddenly, on my morning radio show, I found myself hollering, "Attention, Gerela's Gorillas!" Cincinnati kicker Horst Muhlmann was coming to town only two weeks after blowing three crucial field goals in a game in Los Angeles. "Hang out an end-zone banner that says, HEY, HORST! REMEMBER L.A.!" Next, Kansas City's Jan Stenerud was heading our way. Had he not cost the Chiefs a possible trip to the Super Bowl by blowing a field goal against Miami in the 1971 playoffs? "Attention, Gerela's Gorillas! The banner for this week is, HEY, STENERUD! REMEMBER THE MIAMI PLAYOFF!" Next, Minnesota's Fred Cox presented an emotional problem: local boy from nearby Mon City, ex-University of Pittsburgh halfback, highly popular in Pittsburgh. O.K.: MON CITY FREDDY, WE LOVE YOU. BUT CHOKE! The Gorillas, however, had no time for sentiment. Their banner simply read, MON CITY FREDDY, CHOKE! Don Cockroft was having a super season with the Browns, but it came back to me that during his horrible slump of '71 the insiders were whispering, "He thinks too much." So for Cockroft, the Gorillas' banner cried out, HEY, COCKROFT! THINK!
The Steelers tore through the Bengals, Chiefs, Vikings and Browns, and all the while the Gorillas dangled perilously over the grandstand facade, jabbing their fingers at their art as Horst, Jan, Freddy and Don ruefully looked up. Among them the kickers managed to put just two field goals between the uprights. Lord, this was more fun than the time fat old Bobby Layne led a jazz band till three in the morning, then went out on a treacherously icy field to establish a Steelers record by passing for 409 yards.
As the Italian Army general staff danced on the dugout roof, Franco Harris was running over cornerbacks, laying them as flat as so many slices of capocollo. Count Frenchy Fuqua, his natty running mate, was now wearing two watches, and defensive end L.C. Greenwood was hanging in there week after week on one healthy leg. One Sunday the congregation of St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Church arose in the middle of Mass to give a lusty cheer for linebacker Jack Ham. But it was at the Astrodome in Houston the next-to-last week of the regular season that our troops, striving to protect a one-game lead over surprising Cleveland, proved what they were made of.
Flu struck five players the morning of the game, but they played. Thirteen Steelers went down with injuries but played on till doctors forbade them. Joe Gilliam, the team's last functioning quarterback, saw his first (and last) action of the season and had his knee torn apart. "Ready to surrender?" said an Oiler, but gimpy Joe, now a black McAuliffe at Bastogne, replied, "Nuts!" The score was 3-3 when our stupendous defensive tackle, Mean Joe Greene, told himself, "I have not come this close to a title to see it slip away." Five times he single-handedly sacked the Houston quarterback; he also jarred loose the ball from an Oilers running back and recovered the fumble to set up a field goal. All told, Gerela kicked three, and amid the rubble of a 9-3 Steelers victory, passions overwhelmed their normally composed coach. "We had guys out there bleeding," Noll said. "Bleeding but simply gutting it out." His thoughts turned to Greene, and summoning the encomium he believed said it all, he declared, "That's a class football player."
How then can anyone insinuate that the Steelers were anything less than deserving of the now-famous Franco Harris miracle, the Terry Bradshaw fourth-down pass that in the first playoff game ricocheted from the shoulder of Oakland's Jack Tatum to be gobbled up on a shoestring catch by Franco? To be sure, as Harris galloped to a touchdown with just five seconds left on the clock, our team stood guilty of receiving 12th-man assistance. While Bradshaw had barked signals, General Tony Stagno had extracted from a small case an ivory fetish and fixed the Raiders' defense with the Italian evil eye. But perhaps an even higher power had ordained the astonishing play, had provided a fillip to ensure that Pittsburghers, in obedience to a decree immediately issued by a 50-yard-line fan named Sharon Levosky, forevermore shall celebrate Dec. 23 as the Feast of the Immaculate Reception.
Alas, there was to be no Super Bowl trip. So now we must try again, but our hearts are lifted by the knowledge that ours is a team that is surely meant to taste the best of life. Lest anyone doubt it, let him be told the Battle of the Soft Drink Cooler.
It is Dec. 3, 1972, and the Steelers have just broken a first-place deadlock with Cleveland by lathering the Browns 30-0—obviously an occasion for great dressing-room jubilation. At the height of it equipment manager Jack Hart, a wiry, brush-cut man, comes upon several small children. To the adult accompanying them he says, "No kids in the dressing room."
"They're O.K.," says Art Rooney Jr., the club's 37-year-old vice president in charge of personnel. "They're friends."
"No kids," reiterates Hart.
One word leads to another, whereupon Rooney seizes Hart and deposits him in a soft drink cooler. From his seat among the Cokes and Dr Peppers, Hart reaches out and pops the vice president two stiff shots to the eye. Awhile later, after Hart has climbed out of the cooler to ponder prospects for unemployed equipment managers and after the vice president has had his eye attended to, the vice president goes to Hart and says, "You did right, Jack."
So there you have it, the enduring flavor of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And maybe that is why so many good things came to them in the 40th year and why there's surely more in store.
MYRON COPE was the color analyst for Steelers radio broadcasts from 1970 through 2004 and is credited with starting the Terrible Towel tradition in 1975. From '60 through '79 he wrote more than 40 stories for SI. In February 2008 Cope died from respiratory failure at age 79.
May God bless Myron Cope. Hope you enjoyed his piece.
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