PITTSBURGH -- Myron Cope, the screechy-voiced announcer whose colorful catch phrases and twirling Terrible Towel became symbols of the Pittsburgh Steelers during an unrivaled 35 seasons in the broadcast booth, has died. He was 79.
Cope died Wednesday morning at a nursing home in Mount Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb, Joe Gordon, a former Steelers executive and a longtime friend of Cope's, told The Associated Press. Cope had been treated for respiratory problems and heart failure in recent months, Gordon said.
Cope's tenure from 1970-2004 as the color analyst on the Steelers' radio network is the longest in NFL history for a broadcaster with a single team and led to his induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2005.
Even after retiring, Cope - a sports talk show host for 23 years - continued to appear in numerous radio, TV and print ads, emblematic of a local popularity that sometimes surpassed that of the stars he covered.
Beyond Pittsburgh's three rivers, Cope is best known for pioneering the Terrible Towel, the yellow cloth twirled by fans as a good luck charm at Steelers games since the mid-70s. The towel is arguably the best-known fan symbol of any major pro sports team, has raised millions of dollars for charity and is displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"You were really part of it," Steelers owner Dan Rooney told Cope in 2005. "You were part of the team. The Terrible Towel many times got us over the goal line."
An announcer by accident, Cope spent the first half of his professional career as one of the nation's most widely read freelance sports writers, writing for Sports Illustrated and the Saturday Evening Post on subjects that included Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell and Roberto Clemente. He was hired by the Steelers at age 40, several years after he began doing TV sports commentary on the whim of a station manager, mostly to help increase attention and attendance as the Steelers moved into Three Rivers Stadium.
Neither the Steelers nor Cope had any idea how much impact he would have on the franchise. Within two years of his hiring, Pittsburgh would begin a string of home sellouts that continues to this day, a stretch that includes five Super Bowl titles.
Cope became so popular that the Steelers didn't try to replace his unique perspective and top-of-the-lungs vocal histrionics when he retired, instead downsizing from a three-man announcing team to a two-man booth.
"He doesn't play, he doesn't put on a pair of pads, but he's revered probably as much or more in Pittsburgh than Franco (Harris), all the guys," running back Jerome Bettis said. "Everybody probably remembers Myron more than the greatest players, and that's an incredible compliment."
Cope and a rookie quarterback named Terry Bradshaw made their Steelers debuts on Sept. 20, 1970.
Just as Pirates fans once did with longtime broadcaster Bob Prince, Steelers fans began tuning in to hear what wacky stunt or colorful phrase Cope would come up with next. With a voice beyond imitation - a falsetto so shrill it could pierce even the din of a touchdown celebration - Cope was a man of many words, some not in any dictionary.
To Cope, an exceptional play rated a "Yoi!" A coach's doublespeak was "garganzola." The despised rival to the north was always the Cleve Brownies, never the Cleveland Browns.
He gave four-time Super Bowl champion coach Chuck Noll the only nickname that ever stuck, the Emperor Chaz. For years, he laughed off the downriver and often downtrodden Cincinnati Bengals as the Bungles, though never with a malice or nastiness that would create longstanding anger.
Many visiting players who, perhaps upset by what Cope had uttered during a broadcast, could only laugh when confronted by a 5-foot-4 man they often dwarfed by more than a foot.
During the years, it seemed every Steelers player or employee could tell an offbeat or humorous story about Cope.
He once jammed tight end Dave Smith, fully dressed in uniform and pads, into a cab for a hectic ride to the airport after Smith missed the team bus for an interview. He talked a then-retired Frank Sinatra into attending a 1972 practice in San Diego to make him an honorary general in Franco Harris' Italian Army fan club. He took a wintertime river swim in 1977 to celebrate an unexpected win, and was sick for days.
Cope's biggest regret was not being on the air during perhaps the most famous play in NFL history - Franco Harris' famed Immaculate Reception against Oakland in 1972, during the first postseason win in Steelers history.
Cope was on the field to grab guests for his postgame show when Harris, on what seemingly was the last play of the Steelers' season, grabbed the soaring rebound of a tipped Bradshaw pass after it deflected off either the Raiders' Jack Tatum or the Steelers' Frenchy Fuqua and scored a game-winning 60-yard touchdown. As a result, play-by-play man Jack Fleming's voice is the only one heard on what has been countless replays over the years.
"He ran straight to me in the corner, and I'm yelling, `C'mon Franco, c'mon on!"' said Cope, who, acting on a fan's advice, tagged the play "The Immaculate Reception" during a TV commentary that night.
Remarkably, Cope worked with only two play-by-play announcers, Fleming and Bill Hillgrove, and two head coaches, Noll and Bill Cowher, during his 35 seasons.
Cope began having health problems shortly before his retirement, and they continued after he left the booth. They included several bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis - he smoked throughout his career - a concussion and a leg problem that took months to properly diagnose. He also said he had a cancerous growth removed from his throat.
"Wherever I go, people sincerely ask me how my health is and almost always, they say `Myron, you've given me so much joy over the years,"' said Cope, who also found the time to write five sports books, none specifically about the Steelers. "People also tell me it's the end of an era, that there will never be an announcer who lasts this long again with a team."
Among those longtime listeners was a Pittsburgh high school star turned NFL player turned Steelers coach - Cowher.
"My dad would listen to his talk show and I would think, `Why would you listen to that?"' Cowher said. "Then I found myself listening to that. I (did) my show with him, and he makes ME feel young."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press