by our beloved Myron Cope
In the 1975 NFL season, the Steelers in the next-to-last week of play clinched both a berth in the playoffs and home-field advantage. The season before, they'd beaten a strong Minnesota team to win their first Super Bowl championship, so their fans were ecstatic at the prospect of their team making it two in a row.
Now, in '75, their first playoff game lay two weeks away, against the Baltimore Colts at Three Rivers Stadium. On a fateful December afternoon, Pat Bertalanits, the secretary to the vice president and general manager of WTAE-Radio, Ted J. Atkins, phoned me at my desk.
"Can you step over to Ted's office?" she said.
Crossing the hall, I found the tall, burly GM huddled with the vice president for sales, Larry Garrett. Atkins got quickly to the point. "As the Steelers' flagship radio station, we think we should come up with some sort of gimmick for the playoffs - something that will involve the people."
Atkins paused, then barked at me: "Come up with a gimmick!" "I am not a gimmick guy," I replied. "Never have been a gimmick guy.”
Garrett, the sales exec, spoke up. "You don't understand," he said. He explained that were I to successfully promote some kind of object the fans could wave or wear at the playoffs, advertisers would be so impressed by my hold on the public that they would clamour to sponsor my daily commentaries and talk show. "Besides," said Garrett, "your contract with us expires in three months."
No, he was not threatening that I might be let go. He was suggesting that a Steeler gimmick, if successful, would give me leverage for a nice raise. "I'm a gimmick guy," I conceded.
Atkins hurriedly summoned advertising sales persons to his office, turning it into a think tank in which all of us could train our brains on the vital search for the unknown gimmick. Brainstorms erupted. "I've got it!" cried a salesman. "Chuck Noll's motto is 'Whatever it takes,' right?" The salesman proposed that we dress every fan entering the stadium in black costume masks upon which Noll's motto would be printed in gold lettering.
At the time, Three Rivers Stadium held 50,000 spectators (later, 60,000), so Atkins reached for his phone and called a novelty supplier for a price on 50,000 such masks. "Fifty cents apiece," said the supplier. Twenty-five thousand dollars. Atkins and Garrett immediately concluded that masks were not the crowd-pleaser we were looking for.
My eye on their gimmick budget, I said, "What we need here is something that's lightweight and portable and already owned by just about every fan."
"How about towels?" Garrett suggested.
"A towel?" I said. It had possibilities. I ruminated. "Yes, we could call it the Terrible Towel. And I can go on radio and television proclaiming, 'The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!' "
The room stirred. A voice piped, "Gold and black towels, the colours of the Steelers."
"No," I said. "Black won't provide colour. We'll tell 'em to bring gold or yellow towels."
"Yellow and gold will fly!" cried a sales voice. "Tell 'em, if they don't have one, buy one, and if they don't want to buy one, dye one!"
"I'll tell 'em they can use the towel to wipe their seats clean," I said. "They can use it as a muffler against the cold. They can drape it over their heads if it rains."
Atkins sent out for champagne.
While we toasted our brilliance, Atkins suddenly said, "Myron, we've got to go upstairs and get approval from Mr. Snyder."
Franklin C. Snyder headed both our radio and television stations and was general manager of the entire Hearst Broadcasting System as well. A rugged man, he listened as we presented our plan, then banged his desk and said, "No!"
"We must have black towels, too," he said gravely. "If we exclude black we'll be asking for trouble from the Human Relations Commission and the FCC."
All right, black towels, too.
A few days later, on the heavily watched Sunday night 11 o'clock television news, I introduced Pittsburgh to the Terrible Towel, making a damned fool of myself by hurling towels at the anchorman, the weatherman, and the floor director. Throughout the week leading up to the playoff opener, I would implore my radio and television listeners who held game tickets to bring towels.
The Terrible Towel was born, but nobody knew if the fans would take to it. The build up to the first game against the Baltimore Colts at Three Rivers Stadium was tense for the radio station and Atkins began to have doubts.
"Suppose the Steelers lose," Atkins asked Myron. "Suppose the players say you jinxed them with your Terrible Towel. Those goofy Steeler fans are liable to come out here to the station and burn the place down. What I want you to do," he continued, "is go to the Steelers' locker room and poll the players - do they want the Terrible Towel or not?"
Okay, upon arriving there, I entered the trainer's room where linebacker Jack Ham and defensive tackle Fats Holmes sat on tables, having their ankles taped for practice. I carried a clipboard on which to record votes. Ham responded first. "I think your idea stinks." Holmes, never a man to trifle with, narrowed his eyes and slowly said, "Marn, I don't want you to do this."
Hey, I'd already campaigned on the air for the Terrible Towel. "What's needed in this locker room," I told myself, "is a banana-republic vote." I found Terry Bradshaw seated on a stool at his locker, reading the farm reports. "How do you feel about the Terrible Towel?" I asked him.
He looked up and said, "Huh?"
I check him off as a yes.
I made my way across the lockers, using similarly conscientious polling technique, until I had a clear majority on my clipboard. But co-captain Andy Russell stopped me as I crossed the locker room. "What's this crap about a towel?" he growled. "We're not a gimmick team. We've never been a gimmick team."
His words had the ring of familiarity. Hadn't I said something like that to my bosses? Still, turning back was not an option. "Russell," I said, "you're sick." I reported back to Ted Atkins that the Steelers overwhelmingly approved of the Towel.
Mind you, I did not see the Terrible Towel as witchcraft to hex the enemy. It would be a positive force, driving the Steelers to superhuman performance, but if it experienced a yen for mischief and created fatal mistakes by opponents, I would tolerate that. Not entirely sane by now, I daily intoned on the air, "The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!"
At last, game day arrived. As soon as the stadium gates opened I sat down in our broadcast booth and trained my binoculars on the fans as they took their seats. No towels in sight! Even as the Steelers and Colts went through warmup drills, barely a dozen towels could be seen. Had the public scoffed at my call for towels?
That very morning, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had protested that I was trying to turn Three Rivers Stadium into a tenement district, such neighbourhoods being characterised in that era by wash hung out to dry. Now, at least one newspaperman strolled into our booth to snidely ask, "Where are all the towels, Cope?"
Nearing kickoff, the Steelers gathered in their tunnel for introductions, whereupon the crowd exploded - and suddenly, by my estimation, 30,000 Terrible Towels twirled from the fists of fans around the stadium! Where had those towels been? Well, the day was wet and nasty, so I supposed all those fans either had been sitting on their Towels or had stuffed them into their coats. Whatever, my reputation was saved and my next raise assured.
Yes, the Terrible Towel was born that day, December 27, 1975, bursting into the world like a bawling infant. Frank Lewis, a swift Steeler receiver, raced across the middle in the rain and made a scarcely believable one-handed catch of a Terry Bradshaw bullet.
A young woman named Lisa Benz would soon mail me the following verse:
Now how could you, Frank
Try what you tried
In weather so wet and so foul?
"There's one thing to thank,
I had my hand dried
On a piece of the Terrible Towel!"
Myron's book, "Double Yoi!" is still available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
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