While The Terrible Towel was the first rally towel, it is not a traditional rally towel. Whereas most rally towels are handed out for free at games, The Terrible Towel has always been sold since it’s initial licensing and merchandising in December 1978. Purchasing a Terrible Towel is a right of passage for Steelers fans. Fans hold onto their towels and use them for years, and often times you can tell how long a person has been part of Steelers Nation just by looking at their towel. Most Steeler fans have an arsenal of towels, but there is always that one towel, rugged and worn with cracking and flaking screen print, that is the g0-to towel with the best mojo. It’s the towel that has been waved in rain and snow, twirled furiously in glorious victories and covered one’s face in agonizing defeat. While most rally towels litter the stands after a game, The Terrible Towel is securely attached to its owner’s waistband, and pleas for finding lost towels have been known to appear in the classified sections of local newspapers. Just like there is etiquette for storing the American flag, each fan has their own unique protocol for storing towels between use. After all, The Terrible Towel isn’t a rally towel – it is the flag of Steelers Nation.
Over its forty-year existence, The Terrible Towel has relatively maintained the same modest price point since it hit the Gimbels’ sales floor back on December 21, 1978. For Myron Cope, the towel’s creator, it wasn’t about getting rich off theidea. In fact, it is believed that he never took a cent from the sale of the towels. Cope always saw The Terrible Towel as a “positive force”, both on and off the field. The very first advertisement for the towel in the Pittsburgh Press on December 20, 1978 stated that “a portion of each purchase will be donated to a charity of Mr. Cope’s choice.” Cope donated his proceeds initially to the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and later to the Allegheny Valley School. Both organizations were near and dear to Cope and his family.
Myron Cope and his wife Mildred had their son Danny in January 1968. By 1970, when Danny was 2 years old, the Copes realized that Danny had a severe mental disability and would need care for the rest of his life. At first, the Copes were told Danny was severely autistic, but at the time little was known about autism (it later turned out he was severely brain damaged which led him to display several autistic traits). In 1972, when Danny was 4, a doctor recommended that he be institutionalized in a place where autism was understood and could provide around-the-clock care. The Copes were given a list of five institutions in the Northeast, and they drove around to each one. The Copes walked in and right back out of most facilities they visited because the conditions were so bad. They finally found the Devereaux School in West Chester, PA which was suitable for Danny. However, the price tag was $18,000 per year. Luckily by this time Myron Cope had major medical health insurance benefits thanks to his broadcasting career with WTAE. In fact, Cope made the transition from writing to broadcasting in order to obtain major medical health insurance, a luxury not available to him as a self-employed freelance writer.
In 1982, Cope began looking for a new school for Danny that was closer to his home in Pittsburgh. Danny was currently residing at The Devereaux School, which was across the state just outside of Philadelphia. Another Pittsburgh broadcasting legend, Bob Prince, offered Cope a local recommendation – The Allegheny Valley School. Bob Prince (“The Gunner”) was the legendary voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates for 28 years from 1948 to 1975. Like Cope, he had a unique delivery, a penchant for story telling, clever nicknames for players and zany catchphrases. And like Cope and his Terrible Towel, Prince was also the creator of good luck charms for the Pirates – the Green Weenie (1966) and Babushka Power (1975). Prince was also a co-founder of the Allegheny Valley School and served as a director and executive vice president. More importantly, he was a dedicated fundraiser for the school, helping to raise $4 million. Prince’s close friend and philanthropist Patricia Hillman Miller established the school in 1960 when a local orphanage, Pittsburgh Home for Babies, closed and adoptive families could not be found for 10 children who had intellectual disabilities. Today, the Allegheny Valley School is a private, non-profit organization with facilities and programs serving more than 900 children, adults and senior citizens with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities. Cope followed Prince’s recommendation and enrolled Danny at the school in 1982, and he has resided there ever since.
Myron Cope/Foge Fazio Golf Tournament for Autistic Children
The experience of institutionalizing Danny left an impression on Cope. As his broadcasting career took off, he was determined to find ways to use his fame and influence to raise money to improve the quality of life and care for for those with autism and severe mental disabilities. At the time of Danny’s enrollment into Allegheny Valley School, Cope had been raising money for the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and sat on their board of directors. The proceeds that he received from initial sales of The Terrible Towel were donated to the Autism Society, although at that point in time the amount was minimal compared to what the towel generates today. In 1981, Cope co-founded the Myron Cope/Foge Fazio Golf Tournament for Autistic Children. The two other co-founders were former Pitt football coach Foge Fazio and Frank Haller, who was Cope’s neighbor, friend and frequent golfing partner. The Myron Cope/Fage Fazio Memorial Invitational for Autism is now in it’s 37th year (as of 2017), taking place annually at the Montour Heights Country Club. It is the longest standing charity golf event in the state of Pennsylvania, and it has raised over $1.6 million for the Autism Society of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix
When Danny enrolled at Allegheny Valley School in 1982, Cope focused his fundraising efforts towards the school. In 1983 he cofounded the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, a vintage sports car racing event that has become the largest in the nation. The event was the brainchild of Art McGovern and Mary Beth Gmitter who thought Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park would be the perfect venue for a vintage auto racing event. When they approached the city with the idea, approval of the event was contingent upon all money raised being donated to charity. Art and Mary immediately went to Cope, given his local fame and his autism advocacy, and Cope signed on. The city approved the event, and on September 3, 1983 the first Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix was held with all money raised from the event going to Allegheny Valley School and Autism Society of Pittsburgh. Donations in the inaugural 1983 event were $24,000. The event is now in it’s 35th year (as of 2017) and has grown into a 10-day, multi-venue event that attracts 250,000 spectators and in 2015 raised a record $400,000. All told, the event has raised $4.3 million dollars, split evenly between the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Valley School.
The Terrible Towel & Allegheny Valley School
While the golf tournament and auto race have raised millions of dollars over the past 35 years and are still going strong, Cope’s most lasting and impactful contribution is The Terrible Towel. Cope never intended to get rich off of The Terrible Towel when he officially received the trademark in the summer of 1979. Since the towel’s initial release at Gimbels department store in December 1978, Cope donated his portion of the proceeds to the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and later to Allegheny Valley School (anything that wasn’t donated was set aside to cover legal costs of defending the trademark). While Cope had successfully fostered the growth of The Terrible Towel from a corporate boardroom gimmick to the good luck charm of the 70s Super Steelers, the ultimate longterm success of the towel was tied to the success of the Steelers. By 1982, when Cope enrolled his son Danny at the Allegheny Valley School, The Terrible Towel was no longer a hot-ticket item for Steelers fans. The Steelers dynasty was crumbling, and as the team’s popularity fizzled, so did the popularity of the towel. But Cope always viewed the towel as a “positive force” both on and off the field, and he was determined to not let it have the short life span inherent to all gimmicks. In order for the towel to be an effective conduit for money to flow to charity, fans needed to keep buying towels. While the Steelers struggled through the 1980s, Cope focused on his radio career and building his personal brand through his number-one-rated talk show. He kept fans engaged with the Steelers at a time when players like Louis Lipps and Mark Malone were the superstars on the team. Cope was the consummate promoter, and he leveraged the relationship and influence he built with his audience to try to bring back The Terrible Towel time and time again throughout the 80s and early 90s.
In the beginning, the towel was reserved for home playoff games and Super Bowls. But after the Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons in 1980, Cope urged fans to wave The Terrible Towel at all 1981 regular season games in hopes that the towel’s magic would get the team back to the playoffs. However, the Steelers promptly dropped their 1981 season opener at home to the Kansas City Chiefs in heartbreaking fashion. Leading 33-30 at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, and merely running out the clock with the ball on the Chiefs 28 yard line, Bradshaw fumbled the ball away as he went to hand it off to Franco Harris (the Steelers had eight fumbles and two interception in the game). The Chiefs picked up the fumble and returned it 65 yards for the winning touchdown. Despite the loss, Cope urged fans to use their towels the following week as the Steelers traveled to Miami. But the result was the same as the Steelers got blown out 30-10. The Steelers and The Terrible Towel were 0-2, and the Steelers would finish the season missing the playoffs for the second straight year. Fans stopped twirling their towels, and Gimbels (the sole licensed producer and retailer of the towel at that time) stopped aggressively marketing the towel.
Gimbels tried one final marketing push at the conclusion of the strike-shortened 1982 season when the Steelers hosted the Chargers in the playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium. Cope called on fans to bring their Terrible Towels to the game, reminding them of the towel’s perfect 9-0 record in home playoff games and Super Bowls. But the Steelers lost another heartbreaker, as Dan Fouts led the Chargers back from an 11 point fourth quarter deficit, throwing a go-ahead touchdown with one minute on the clock. It was the first home playoff loss ever for The Terrible Towel. Gimbels stopped marketing and producing the towel, and fans either threw their towels away or buried them deep in storage.
The shine of the Super Bowl dynasty had officially faded as aging superstars like Jack Ham and Lynn Swann began retiring and there was no one available to fill their shoes. After having some of the greatest drafts in the early 70s, the Steelers drafts of the late 70s and early 80s were filled with busts. Terry Bradshaw was nearing the end of his career and underwent elbow surgery shortly after the playoff loss to the Chargers. Despite Bradshaw’s questionable health, the Steelers decided against drafting local Pitt star Dan Marino and instead focused on defense, selecting Gabe Rivera in the first round of the 1983 draft. Just over a month into the 1983 season, Rivera was paralyzed in an automobile accident. Bradshaw’s elbow injury was more serious than initially thought, and he was forced to miss the first 14 games of the
1983 season. When he returned in a Week 15 matchup against the Jets, he re-injured the elbow in the second quarter and never played another snap in the NFL. Despite the devastating setbacks, quarterback Cliff Stoudt led the Steelers to a 9-2 start, but Stoudt and the Steelers dropped 4 of their final 5 games and limped into the playoffs at 10-6. The Los Angeles Raiders put the Steelers out of their misery in the Divisional Playoff game at the LA Coliseum, blowing them out 38-10.
In 1984, the Steelers won the division title with a 9-7 record in a very weak AFC Central. They stunned the Broncos in the divisional playoff, but were completely overpowered by Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship. Cope never called for The Terrible Towel since both playoff games were on the road, and despite another relatively successful season, fans were largely disinterested in a team in transition.
The Steelers would miss the playoffs for the next four seasons, and officially bottomed-out in 1988 with a 5-11 record. Only once during this time did Cope call for the towel. During the 1985 season, the Steelers entered the midpoint of the season at 3-5. But they won three games in a row and entered their Week 12 matchup against the Redskins in first place in the AFC Central at 6-5. Cope urged fans to bring their Terrible Towels to the game. The result was another loss for the towel, as the Redskins won 30-23 and the Steelers dropped out of first place in the AFC Central. The Steelers would finish the season losing 4 of their final 5 games, and finish 7-9. After the November 24, 1985 loss to the Redskins, The Terrible Towel entered its longest period of hibernation. It took almost five years to the day for Cope to call for its resurrection.
In 1989 the Steelers opened the season with back-to-back blowout losses to the Browns and Bengals, and it appeared the team was heading for a fifth straight season without a playoff appearance. But the Steelers turned it around, winning 5 of their final 6 games to finish 9-7, and they snuck into the playoffs. The Steelers traveled to Houston and defeated the Oilers in the Wild Card game 26-23 on a 50 yard field goal by Gary Anderson in overtime. For the first time in several years enthusiasm returned to Pittsburgh. Steelers merchandise, which had been collecting dust on store shelves, began selling once again (side note: as of 1992, the most popular selling Steelers jersey was Jack Lambert, who had retired 8 seasons earlier). Cope discussed with his lawyer the possibility of once again marketing The Terrible Towel. In 1986, Gimbels had gone out of business, so no one currently held the license to produce and market the towel. But with only a week before the Steelers Divisional Playoff game with the Broncos, there wasn’t enough time. Also, the Steelers were the lowest seed, so even if they upset Denver on the road (the Steelers were 10 point underdogs), the AFC Championship would also be away. So Cope decided against putting the towel back into production. But he did get Bubby Brister to agree to wear a commemorative edition towel from the Steelers Super Bowl XIV victory over the LA Rams on his waist. However, prior to the game Brister found the towel to be too bulky and didn’t wear it. The Steelers squandered a late fourth quarter lead but still had the ball with just over two minutes left. Needing to get in field goal range for a Gary Anderson game winning kick, Brister couldn’t handle a bad snap on third down and the Broncos recovered, sealing a 24-23 come-from-behind victory. Despite the loss, fans appreciated the Steelers effort
to salvage a season that began disastrously and break the four year playoff drought. Interest in the team was starting to grow again as promising young players like Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson gave fans confidence in the future. Cope saw the opportunity to resurrect The Terrible Towel was near.
In 1990, Cope was working behind the scenes with his lawyers to revive The Terrible Towel in hopes that the Steelers would make it back to the playoffs and possibly have a home playoff game. After defeating the Jets in Week 12, the Steelers headed into their Week 13 showdown with the Bengals in a three-way tie for the AFC Central division lead (Steelers, Bengals and Oilers were all 6-5). The Steelers had dropped five straight games to the Bengals, but if they could break the losing streak, they would jump to the top of the division. Also, a victory against the Bengals would give Chuck Noll his 200th victory as the Steelers head coach. Cope saw this as the perfect opportunity to revive The Terrible Towel. For the first time since the 1982 season, the towel officially returned with a very limited production run and marketing campaign. Cope partnered with Kaufmann’s to produce, market and retail the towel. The new Terrible Towels were sold exclusively at various Kaufmann’s department stores in the greater Pittsburgh area starting on Monday November 26, 1990, the week leading up to the December 2nd matchup with the Bengals. Cope promoted the towel on his talk show throughout the week and asked fans to bring old towels, new towels or just blank towels. It was the first time in five years that Cope called for the towel (the last time was November 24, 1985 when the Steelers faced the Redskins). Just like in 1985, The Terrible Towel failed to deliver another key win as the Bengals beat the Steelers 16-12 and knocked them out of first place. Despite the loss, the Steelers won 3 of their final 4 games and finished 9-7, the same record as the Bengals and Oilers. However, due to tiebreakers resulting from head-to-head matchups, the Steelers finished 3rd and missed the playoffs. The Terrible Towel’s resurgence in 1990 was limited to one game. But for the first time, the Allegheny Valley School was the beneficiary of the proceeds that Cope received from the limited sales at Kaufmann’s.
For the next two years Cope did not license the towel, so once again no towels were produced or sold. In 1991 the Steelers regressed, going 7-9 and missing the playoffs. Chuck Noll retired a week after the Steelers season finale victory against the Browns. But in 1992 the Steelers bounced-back and went 11-5 under rookie head coach Bill Cowher. After leading the Steelers to their best record since 1979, Cowher was named AP Coach of the Year, which was an accolade that Chuck Noll had never received. In Week 15 the Steelers backed into the AFC Central Division title after a loss to the Bears, their first division title since 1984. In their season finale, the Steelers defeated the Browns to lock up the number one seed in the AFC and secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They played the Buffalo Bills at home in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. It was the Steelers first home playoff game since they lost to the Chargers on January 9, 1983, exactly ten years prior. Cope once again called on fans to bring their old Terrible Towels to the game, or at least bring blank towels. He also released one of his famous parody videos to promote the towel, Achy Breaky Heart. The Steelers organization looked into producing 20,000 towels to hand out to fans at the game, but they were unable to find a printer in time. Nonetheless, fans responded and the stadium was filled with twirling towels. But once again, The Terrible Towel failed to deliver. The Bills routed the Steelers 24-3 and eventually marched to their third straight Super Bowl appearance. Despite the loss, the Steelers had turned the corner and finally looked like a perennial contender once again. Cope began working behind the scenes to bring the Terrible Towel back for good.
During the 1993 season, Cope struck a deal with Mike Feinberg Co. to produce and distribute the towel, while he still retained the trademark and received a royalty for each towel sold. Mike Feinberg’s is an iconic party supply/novelty store in Pittsburgh’s Strip District where it has been a staple since the mid-1950s. They have always carried a wide variety of Steelers merchandise, and ironically had been sued twice by Cope (in 1980 and 1988) for producing and selling counterfeit Terrible Towels at their shop. Cope officially called on fans to bring the towel to the Steelers Monday night showdown with the Buffalo Bills on November 15, 1993. The Terrible Towel propelled the Steelers to a 23-0 shutout, the first win for the towel since the Steelers Super Bowl XIV victory over the Los Angeles Rams on January 20, 1980. But the Steelers finished the season 9-7 and traveled to Kansas City for the Wild Card game, where they lost in overtime 27-24. As a result of the Steelers mediocre season, not many towels were sold and Feinberg actually lost money on the licensing deal . Despite low demand, the towel was being distributed to multiple retailers for the first time. In addition to carrying the towel in their Strip District store, Mike Feinberg was supplying them to department stores throughout Western Pennsylvania including Hills, Kaufmann’s and JC Penny, as well as local team merchandise stores like Sports Deli/The Pro Sports Store. Previously Cope had struck licensing deals with Gimbels (1978 – 1986) and Kaufmann’s (1990) where they had exclusive rights to produce, market and retail The Terrible Towel. But the licensing deal with Mike Feinberg required distribution to third-party retailers to expand the availability and access to the towel. It also allowed these third-party retailers to market the towel in their local advertising throughout Western Pennsylvania, thus amplifying the marketing reach that previously had been confined to local Pittsburgh newspapers.
The 1994 season marked the official resurgence and permanent return of The Terrible Towel. Stores were stocked with them from the previous year when they couldn’t give them away. The Steelers had high expectations going into the 1994 season, but were only 5-3 after a week 9 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. But then the Steelers went on a seven game win streak, including a pivotal Week 16 matchup on December 18, 1994 against Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns. Cope called for the towel to make a rare regular season appearance as the Steelers needed to beat their hated divisional rival to clinch the AFC Central and lock up a number one seed and home field advantage in the playoffs. The Steelers beat the Browns and went on to finish the season 12-4, one game ahead of the 11-5 Browns. Terrible Towels were disappearing from retailers’ shelves, and Mike Feinberg was shipping thousands to keep with growing demand. By the time the Steelers squared off with the Browns again in the Divisional Round of the playoffs at Three Rivers on January 7, 1995, most stores were completely out of stock. Mike Feinberg’s vendors couldn’t dye and print them fast enough. The stands at Three Rivers were full of twirling towels when Steelers beat down the Browns 29-9 to advance to their first AFC Championship in ten years. When the Steelers faced the Chargers the following week in the AFC Championship game, the stands were engulfed in Terrible Towels….a site reminiscent of the Steelers last Super Bowl run in the 1979 season. The Chargers shocked the Steelers 17-13 in a stunning upset that many consider the worst in conference championship history (the Chargers were 9.5 point underdogs). Despite the loss, The Terrible Towel was officially back. Cope’s persistence had paid off, and he was receiving record royalty payments on sales of the towels, which he donated to the Allegheny Valley School.
In 1995, the Steelers started out slow once again, falling to 3-4 after a Week 8 loss to the Bengals. But just like the year before, the Steelers caught fire. They went on an 8 game win streak and clinched the AFC Central with an 11-5 record. The Steelers rolled through the Divisional Playoff game at home against the Bills and then survived a last second hail mary attempt by Jim Harbaugh to defeat the Colts in the AFC Championship and advance to their first Super Bowl since the 1979 season. Terrible Towels were prominent at regular season games, and once again the stadium was a sea of twirling towels once the playoffs started. Although the Steelers lost the Super Bowl XXX to the Cowboys, more than 300,000 towels were sold that season. Moving forward, there was no need for Cope to call for The Terrible Towel as it became a staple at all Steelers games.
In August 1996, with The Terrible Towel back for good, Cope turned over trademark ownership of the towel and all rights to its royalties to the Allegheny Valley School. As part of the transfer, Cope only requested that the money be spent on things that directly impacted the quality of life of each person at the school, rather than administrative items. A month later, in September 1996,the Steelers announced that they had acquired the merchandising rights from Mike Feinberg Co. This was a big boost for The Terrible Towel moving forward because the Steelers had the ability to better market and produce the towel, and they had the legal capacity to fend off counterfeiters. The Terrible Towel had officially become the everlasting iconic symbol of Steeler Nation.
In 1997, the Steelers added stickers to each towel to let people know that a portion of the proceeds from their purchase goes to supporting the Allegheny Valley School. In 1999, the stickers were replaced by more prominent cardboard hang tags, which exist to this day. Prior to 1997, most consumers didn’t know that they were supporting the Allegheny Valley School when they purchased a Terrible Towel. In the first 18 years that Cope held the trademark on The Terrible Towel (1979 through 1995), approximately $100,000 was donated to Allegheny Valley School and Autism Society of Pittsburgh. In the 13 years from when Cope gave Allegheny Valley School the trademark (1996) to the time he died (2008), sales of the towel generated royalties of $2.2 million for the school. That number has now grown to almost $5 million. In the Super Bowl winning season of 2005, sales of the towel netted a windfall of $1 million for the school just in that season alone. The school receives about $0.70 from every $3.50 the Steelers collect when they sell a towel to a major retailer, and those retailers subsequently mark them up to the $6 to $8 range. The school also collects royalties off of any other merchandise bearing The Terrible Towel logo. Moreover, when the Steelers acquired the license for the towel they eventually partnered with McArthur Towel and Sports to produce the towel. In turn, McArthur contracted with Chippewa River Industries to do the printing. Chippewa River Industries is a Wisconsin based company that employs people with mental and physical disabilities. Thanks to the Terrible Towel, Chippewa River was able to employ as many as 50 people dedicated to production of the towel. For Super Bowl XL, they printed 500,000 towels, and a few years later for Super Bowl XLIII, they printed over 750,000.
The Terrible Towel is indeed a “positive force” not only for the Steelers, but more importantly for those less fortunate, like Danny Cope. As a result of everything that Cope had done for special-needs advocacy, he was awarded with the American Institute for Public Service’s Jefferson Award in January 1999. But the biggest reward for Cope was seeing the stands full of Terrible Towels at every Steelers game. The Terrible Towel was personal to Myron Cope. That is why he was so persistent in promoting the towel and trying to make it a lasting symbol of Steeler Nation. And that is why Steeler Nation has embraced it and doesn’t appreciate the towel being disrespected. On the field, the legacy of The Terrible Towel is 7 Super Bowl appearances and 5 Super Bowl rings since Cope introduced the towel for the very first time on the Channel 4 Evening News on December 21, 1975. Off the field, the legacy is much greater…millions of dollars raised in perpetuity to help thousands of people with severe mental disabilities to live a dignified, higher quality life. Without his son Danny, Myron Cope wouldn’t have developed close, personal ties to the Allegheny Valley School. And without the Allegheny Valley School, The Terrible Towel would have most likely disappeared along with the Steelers playoff aspirations in the 1980s.