Myron Cope and the Terrible Towel

The world's most revered textile—with the possible exception of the Shroud of Turin.


The towel's genesis dates to 1975, when the station manager of WTAE-Radio asked Cope to come up with a gimmick, something to connect with the fans. "I'm not a gimmick guy," Cope retorted. At which point he was reminded that his contract was almost up—so he became a gimmick guy in short order.

Cope imagined something simple, safe, portable, cheap—ideally something people already had, like a towel. He took to the airwaves, demanding they bring gold or black towels to the upcoming playoff game against the hated Baltimore Colts. "If you don't have one, buy one. If you don't want to buy one, dye one."

Some were skeptical. Former linebacker Andy Russell remembers Cope going around the locker room to discuss the concept. "As captain he came up to me and asked me what I thought of the idea of a towel. He said we'd call it the Terrible Towel. I said, 'Myron, that's a dumb idea, even for you. We're not a gimmick team. We don't need our fans swinging a towel,'" Mr. Russell recalls. "It was really going against [Coach] Chuck Noll's philosophy to have these players getting interested in a towel," Mr. Russell believed at the time. He's since come around, having recently seen 67,000 fans waving the rags at Heinz Field.

At that win against Baltimore, Cope claimed there were 30,000 people waving towels. But it was the following game against the Raiders that really ignited the crowd.

"There was a Terrible Towel in the locker room and it was going to be a nasty day," Hall of Famer Lynn Swann tells me. "I don't normally put a towel under my belt, but I had it in my hand." As the offense was announced, "I was hitting the towel against my leg—a bit of nervous energy." When he was introduced, Mr. Swann ran onto the field jumping and waving the towel.

It was "not a premeditated act, not intended to be promotional to any degree, just natural, spontaneous," says Mr. Swann. But Cope capitalized, screeching on the radio about Mr. Swann and the magic of Terrible Towel.

WTAE's gimmick became a phenomenon. Dish rags and hand towels of various hues soon became a uniform, trademarked product. In 1996, Cope gave the towel's trademark rights to the Allegheny County School, which services 900 individuals with special needs, including Cope's son. Since that year, all of the royalties—$3 million—have gone to the school.

Tim Carey, merchandise director for the Steelers, says "there have been more towels sold in the past 10 years than there are people in the Pittsburgh market." Retailer Marcia Feinberg says she is absolutely slammed, ordering some 1,500 a day. "We can't get them fast enough. There's just not enough Steelers merchandise in the world."

Pittsburghers have taken Terrible Towels to Vatican City, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and on at least one NASA mission to space. One was seen fluttering among the Tibetan prayer flags on Mt. Everest. And right now, a Terrible Towel festoons the New York City Public Library—the result of a lost wager between Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Why the towel took off is a subject of serious debate. Sports marketing experts claim it taps into a highly scientific combination of color and motion. Then there was Cope's relentless promotion. "The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!" he'd wail.

Comment: More on Myron Cope * and the Terrible Towel

* For my Brother who still is a Cincinnati fan: "Cope also used the term "Cinicinnati Bungles" to describe their division rivals, who had a string of bad seasons during the 1990s"

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