Like anyone born in Western Pennsylvania during the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s, I was born with the innate hereditary trait of loving anything that was black & gold….especially the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately, I was born in 1980, exactly one month after the Steelers 4th Super Bowl title on January 20, 1980 against the Los Angeles Rams. The Steelers would enter a period of mediocrity for the next decade as veterans from the Super Bowl teams began to deteriorate and retire, and the Steelers entered a rebuilding period. My first Steeler game was October 16, 1988 at Three Rivers, where Bubby Brister’s Steelers got blown out by Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers 34-14. The Steelers would finish that season 5-11, which was their worst record since 1969 when they finished 1-13 during Chuck Noll’s first season as head coach.
I went to most home games the following year in 1989 when the Steelers opened the season with back-to-back blowout losses to the Browns and Bengals. The 51-0 loss to the Browns on opening day of the 1989 season is still the worst loss in franchise history, and that was followed up by a 41-10 drubbing by the Bengals. As a young fan there weren’t many players to root for. Louis Lipps was the only bonafide “star” on the team. Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd were just starting to bud into emerging stars, and future Hall-of-Fame center Dermontti Dawson had just taken over for Mike Webster (also a soon-to-be Hall of Famer and the last player left from the 1970s Super Bowl dynasty). That left quarterback Bubby Brister and running back Merril Hoge as the only players to root for by default. The Steelers would eventually right the ship that season and squeak into the playoffs for the first time since the 1984 season.
While there were lots of frustrated faces and boos throughout Three Rivers Stadium during these lackluster rebuilding years, one thing I never remember seeing were Terrible Towels. At this point, Terrible Towels were no longer being officially produced or merchandised. So they weren’t for sale at souvenir booths inside the stadium. It’s possible some parking lot vendors had some unlicensed towels for sale or some deadstock towels from Gimbel’s department store (which had closed it’s doors in 1986). Any of the local sports stores in the area that advertised in the GameDay programs, Steelers yearbooks, or local newspapers never advertised Terrible Towels. Just like the Steelers’ Super Bowl hopes had died during the 1980s, so to had the Terrible Towel.
It’s important to remember that during the Super Bowl runs in the late 1970s, the Terrible Towel had been reserved for home playoff games only for good luck, and wasn’t waved during regular season games. For all intents and purposes, the Terrible Towel was a gimmick, and like all gimmicks, its lifespan was initially short-lived. Once the Steelers missed the playoffs in 1980 & 1981 and then concluded the strike-shortened season of 1982 by getting eliminated from the playoffs by the Chargers, the marketing behind the Terrible Towel stopped as well as the merchandising and production. A lot of fans either threw away their towels, or packed them away.
The first Terrible Towel I remember seeing wasn’t until the 1992 season. The Steelers finished 11-5 that season under rookie head coach Bill Cowher, and they faced the Bills in the second round of the playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium on January 9, 1993 (it was the Steelers first home playoff game since the 1982 season). Myron Cope called for a revival of The Terrible Towel, and even made one of his notorious song parodies about towel (Achy Breaky Heart). While no Terrible Towels were being produced for retail, lots of fans were able to either dig their vintage Terrible Towels out of storage or brought plain gold/yellow towels to the game. The Steelers would ultimately lose, but this was the beginning of the towel’s resurrection as the stands were full of twirling towels.
In 1993, Terrible Towels were being printed and sold again at Three Rivers Stadium and surrounding Steeler souvenir shops, although demand was lackluster. The towel was prevalent in the stands during the November 15, 1993 Monday Night Football game against the Bills. Cope had called for the towel to work its magic as the Steelers looked to end a five game skid against the Bills and more importantly avenge their playoff loss from the previous season. The Steelers shutout the bills 23-0 that night, but finished the season 9-7 and lost their Wild Card game on the road in Kansas City against the Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Bills advanced to their fourth straight Super Bowl.
In 1994 the Terrible Towel was back for good as the Steelers went 12-4, and were considered a lock for the Super Bowl. The stadium was full of towels during the Steelers Week 16 showdown with bitter division rival the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers and Browns were fighting it out for the AFC Central title, and the Steelers needed to beat the Browns to clinch the division and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Steelers and The Terrible Towel prevaled, and the two teams met again a few weeks later during the Divisional Playoff at Three Rivers Stadium. with the same result. Although the Steelers would shockingly lose to the Chargers in the AFC Championship and miss a shot at a 5th Super Bowl ring, the Terrible Towel had undergone a resurgence and officially made the crossover from a gimmick to an iconic symbol that united Steelers fans across the world. It had become a staple at not only home playoff games, but regular season games both at home and on the road.
In 2006, I had the privilege of attending the Super Bowl in Detroit where the Steelers beat the Seahawks. It was at this point in my life that I began collecting Terrible Towels. Not only did I purchase all the commemorative towels from that Super Bowl, but I sat next to a gentleman that had a 1979 Super Bowl edition Terrible Towel. I had never seen one before. I always thought the mid-90s version of the Terrible Towel was the same design that was used during the late 70s. Thus began my interest in vintage Terrible Towels.
As a collector, it was important to me to know exactly what I was collecting, rather than just accumulating Terrible Towels for the sake of amassing the largest collection. I wanted to know the story behind each towel design. I wanted to know which towels were rare and which were common. I wanted to know that the towels I was buying were authentic and not counterfeit or homemade. So I did lots of research over the past decade to guide my collecting. During this time I found that there was no complete, accurate story about the Terrible Towel, and no website solely dedicated to the entire history of the towel. Prior to the 2012 season, The Terrible Wall was unveiled in the Great Hall at Heinz Field. I thought finally this would give an accurate visual history of the towel and its evolution. When I saw it in person I was completely disappointed, and it was at this time that I decided to create a website/blog that would give a comprehensive history of The Terrible Towel, complete with photos of all towels, tons of news articles and advertisements. It’s taken me a bit to curate all of the content, but with last season being the 40th anniversary of the creation of The Terrible Towel, I wanted to get this site launched.
This site is for Terrible Towel collectors and Steelers fans in general. It’s for research purposes only, and I am not selling any towels. All towels pictured on this site are from my personal collection. This is the most accurate history and evolution of The Terrible Towel that I could come up with based on my research, but I’m always looking for new insights and want this to be an open forum. I’ll start with blog posts, but as content increases I’ll be creating independent galleries and subsections that will be easier to navigate. I hope yinz enjoy!