Friday, February 29, 2008

Myron Cope 1929-2008

A piece of Pittsburgh died this week.

As I write this, people are gathering in downtown Pittsburgh to pay tribute to Myron Cope with a ceremonial wave of the Terrible Towel he invented. Newspapers, TV stations, and blogs are loaded with tributes to Cope, who died Wednesday from respiratory failure at 79.

These tributes are the most I’ve ever seen for a sportscaster. Nobody mourned Howard Cosell this way.

In the relatively brief time that I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, I can see that the tributes are justified.

Soon after I moved here in 2002, it became apparent to me that Cope was more than a sportscaster. One of the first things Jamie did to introduce me to the area was play a Steelers radio broadcast. I had never heard an announcer quite like him. His nasal voice, with a heavy Pittsburgh accent, came across like Cosell without the pretentiousness. His catch phrases, such as “um-hah,” “yoi,” and “okle-dokle,” became part of the local vocabulary, as did his nicknames for opposing teams—the “Cleve Brownies,” the “Cincinnati Bungles,” and the “Baltimore Birdies.” He made Steelermania instantly accessible to me. For the uninitiated, this site has a good collection of Myron’s sound bites.

Two of his most recent games stand out in my mind. One was the last game of the 2004 season. The Steelers had clinched a playoff berth and started many second-stringers against the Buffalo Bills, but beat them anyway. Myron marveled at the performance of the “Steelers Scrubs” and riffed on it throughout the game. He even joked that he would have T-shirts made reading “Steelers Scrubs.”

Another game, that same year, was a fairly decisive win against the arch-rival Cincinnati Bengals, in which he came up with the line, “We’re putting the lox on those Cincinnati Bagels!”

His legacy goes beyond the broadcast booth. He once joked that his epitaph would read, “Creator of Towel Dead,” and many people know him best as the creator of the Terrible Towel. The Towel, invented prior to a 1975 playoff game, has set the standard for sports team symbols. Cope was also an excellent print journalist. He and George Plimpton are the only two writers ever given the title of Special Correspondent for Sports Illustrated.

Until Myron's retirement, it was a tradition in our house to watch the Steelers game with the TV sound turned down and the radio playing in the background. I will never forget that moment before each game when the stadium music boomed in the background as the Steelers ran onto the field. Myron would sputter, raise his voice higher than usual, and generally break every rule of sportscasting, but, at that moment, he said everything you needed to know. It’s telling that, with all due respect to Tunch and Bill, we now listen to the radio broadcast only when the TV announcers really suck.

Thank you, Myron, for welcoming me to Pittsburgh.

Bye now!

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