In 1968, 39 year-old Myron Cope was enjoying a successful career as a professional freelance sports journalist and had a modest level of financial security thanks to his contract with Sports Illustrated. He just had his first child, Danny, with his wife Mildred. And he was about to receive the first of several phone calls that would change his life. On a January morning in 1968, Cope received a call from publicity director Bernie Armstrong Jr. at Pittsburgh radio station WTAE 1250AM. The station was purely a music and news station, but was trying to develop a sports image. Cope was a local guy with national credentials, and he could bring instantaneous credibility to the sports broadcasts. WTAE wanted him to do a couple of short five-minute commentaries each weekday morning. He could continue his freelance writing career, and broadcast his commentaries from home or on the road to provide flexibility. With the birth of his new son weeks prior, Cope took the opportunity to obtain some supplemental income. Cope’s one-of-a-kind voice first burst over the airwaves on Monday January 29, 1968 at 7:35am.
WTAE radio had a deeper agenda when it came to creating a sports presence… they wanted to land the Pittsburgh Steelers game broadcasts. By getting Cope and establishing a credible sportscast and voice, they hoped to woo the Steelers from competitor KDKA. KDKA was a 50,000 watt powerhouse, while WTAE was just a 5,000 watt station. But events were working in WTAE’s favor. The Pittsburgh Steelers were founded in 1933 by Art Rooney and had undergone 35 years of futility. In there first 35 years of existence from 1933 through 1967, they only had eight winning seasons. In 1968, the club went 2-11 and followed that up in 1969 by going 1-13. With the Steelers legacy up to that point being one of perennial losers, they were second fiddle in the city to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who at that time were in playoff contention year-in and year-out. In addition to broadcasting Steelers games, KDKA also carried the Pirates games. On days when Pirate games and Steeler games coincided, KDKA would carry the Pirates game live and then play the Steelers on tape-delay following the baseball game. In the late 60’s, Dan Rooney began to take over day-to-day operations of the Steelers from his father Art. Dan did not like the current situation with KDKA and felt that the Steeler organization needed to show some self-respect and step out from the shadows of the Pirates. So he moved the rights to the Steelers broadcasts to WTAE for the 1970 season, the same season the Steelers moved into Three Rivers Stadium.
In 1970, Cope had been doing his commentaries at WTAE-AM radio for two years, and was still writing. He now started doing three commentaries a week on WTAE Channel 4 News, alongside sportscaster Ed Conway. Through Cope’s TV commentaries, viewers heard the moniker “Immaculate Reception” for the first time, were introduced to the Terrible Towel, and watched Dr. Cope and his Cope-r0-scope dissect upcoming opponents. In summer 1970, Cope received another life changing phone call. This time it was from then Steelers PR director Ed Kiely. Kiely was looking for a color analyst for the Steeler broadcasts. The Steelers had retained longtime play-by-play broadcaster Jack Fleming. Fleming had been doing Steeler games since 1958 on WWSW radio, and when the Steeler games moved to KDKA radio in 1962, Fleming followed. Fleming had been teamed up with Tom Bender on the broadcasts at KDKA where they usually rotated each quarter between play-by-play and analysis. But the Steelers wanted to go in a different direction for Fleming’s broadcast partner in the booth and have a definitive color analyst. The Steelers initially offered the job to broadcaster Dick Stockton and made a formal announcement in June 1970. However, Dick Stockton would turn down the job. Future PR Director Joe Gordon was in the first year of his job as an underling to Kiely, and he suggested that the color analyst be Cope since Cope was already part of WTAE, was intimately familiar with the team and city and had a unique style. So Kiely phoned Cope and wanted to know if he would like to be the color analyst for the Steelers. Cope had no experience, but accepted the job on one condition. He wanted the Steelers to know that he wouldn’t be impartial. If the Steelers were playing well, Cope would be ecstatic, and if they were playing poorly, he would say they were lousy. Basically, Cope refused to be a “homer”, and the Steelers were totally okay with that, as they wanted to increase attention towards the team and drive attendance at their new home, Three Rivers Stadium. In July 1970, Cope was officially named the color analyst for the Steelers.
Cope’s timing to become the color analyst for the Steelers was impeccable. The Steelers had just finished a 1-13 season in 1969 under first year coach Chuck Noll, winning in Noll’s debut game against the Lions and then losing 13 straight games. From their founding in 1933 through the conclusion of the 1969 season the Steelers had a record of 162 wins-268 losses-18 ties, with only 8 winning seasons over that span. They made the playoffs once during this span in 1947, when they went 8-4, but lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs 21-0. But the pieces were quickly falling into place for a Steelers renaissance. As mentioned, in the late 1960s Dan Rooney had taken over day-to-day operations of the club (he eventually was named president in July 1975), which meant an internal infrastructure was now being created to deal with personnel decisions. Gone were the days when Art Rooney put all the power in the hands of the head coach. Dan Rooney’s first major personnel decision was not renewing the contract of head coach Bill Austin at the conclusion of the 1968 season.
In 1969, the Steelers hired Chuck Noll as their head coach, and at 37 years old, he was the youngest head coach in the league. Noll had grown up just across the border in Ohio and played for the Cleveland Browns for seven seasons. Prior to being hired by the Steelers, Noll was the Defensive Coordinator for the Baltimore Colts, who under head coach Don Shula had gone 13-1 in 1968 but eventually lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets, who were led by Joe Namath. Noll brought a winning attitude with him, and was a young, first-time head coach with energy. Before Noll’s arrival, the Steelers had a been a revolving door of head coaches, with 16 coaching changes since their founding in 1933.
Also in 1969, the Steelers finally began to draft well, and started plucking premier talent out of lesser-known southern colleges. Chuck Noll was selected and formally introduced as head coach on January 27, 1969. He arrived in Pittsburgh that evening, which happened to be the eve of the NFL draft. The following day on January 28, 1969 the Steelers drafted defensive tackle Joe Greene out of North Texas State as their top choice and 4th overall selection in the draft (the 1969 draft also produced offensive tackle Jon Kolb in the 3rd Round out of Oklahoma State, and future Hall of Fame defensive lineman and Steel Curtain member L.C. Greenwood in the 10th round out of Arkansas AM&N). After going 1-13 in the 1969 season, the Steelers landed the first overall pick in the 1970 draft after winning a coin toss with the equally awful Chicago Bears. The Steelers selected future Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw out of Louisiana Tech with the number 1 pick overall, and future Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount in the third round out of Southern University. In 1971 they added linebacker Jack Ham from Penn State, defensive end Dwight White from East Texas State University and defensive tackle Ernie Holmes from Texas Southern. So within three draft classes, the Steelers had created the original Steel Curtain: Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes. In 1972, the Steelers took running back Franco Harris out of Penn State 13th overall, and in 1974 they had the greatest draft class in NFL history when they added wide receiver Lynn Swann (USC), linebacker Jack Lambert (Kent State), wide receiver John Stallworth (Alabama A&M) and center Mike Webster (Wisconsin). Within six draft classes between 1969 and 1974, the Steelers had created a dynasty that would go on to win four Super Bowls in six seasons.
The final piece of the Steelers renaissance was a new home at Three Rivers Stadium in 1970. Prior to moving into Three Rivers, the Steelers had been playing their games at Pitt Stadium, so the upgrade from a college facility to a modern pro facility was much needed. Fans endured an ugly 1-13 season at Pitt Stadium in 1969 during Noll’s first season at the helm, and helped the Steelers establish a home attendance record of 273,958 (which was still second worst in the NFL). Having a brand-spanking-new stadium was a huge draw and helped the team attract new fans who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to watch a perennial loser. The Steelers sold approximately 25,000 season ticket packages in 1970 after selling only 16,000 the season prior. The Steelers improved to 5-9 in 1970, but had a winning 4-3 record at their new home and set an attendance record of 323,387. In 1972, the Steelers won their first ever division championship, made the playoffs for only the second time in team history, and won their first playoff game on Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception. While they would go onto to lose the AFC championship to the Miami Dolphins (the eventual Super Bowl Champion and only undefeated team in NFL history), excitement surrounding the team was at an all-time high. Season ticket holders jumped from 30,000 to the maximum 44,500 for the 1973 season, and a waitlist was created that exists to this day (currently 50 year wait with over 60,000 names). During the 1970s, the Steelers went 69-13 during the regular season at Three Rivers, with an 8-1 postseason record at home. Over there 31 years at Three Rivers Stadium the Steelers would go 182-72 with a 13-5 playoff record. After failing to win a single division championship in their first 37 years of existence at Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium, the Steelers were Central Division champions 14 times during their time at Three Rivers. The home crowd was a big part of the Steelers success, as the team had 29 consecutive seasons without a losing record at home (1970-1998). They sold out every game from November 5, 1972 to the closing of the stadium at the conclusion of the 2000 season (with the exception of an October 18, 1987 game against the Colts that featured replacement players due to the 1987 players strike).
It should be noted, that 1970 was also the season the NFL & AFL officially merged to create one league. The Steelers (along with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts) moved from the old NFL to join the new AFL teams in the AFC, thus giving the two conference (NFC and AFC) equal number of teams. Prior to 1970, the Steelers had played in the NFL Century Division along with the NY Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Browns. Starting in the 1970 after the merger, the Steelers would compete in the new AFC Central (now the AFC North), along with the Houston Oilers, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
So on September 20, 1970 Myron Cope found himself sitting in the brand new press box at Three Rivers Stadium in his first game as the color analyst for the Steelers, just as the franchise began its transformation from perennial loser to one of the best teams in pro football behind rookie quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Along the way, the Steelers attracted and developed one of the largest and most ardent fan bases in the country, and Cope became “the Voice” of Steeler Nation. While the Steelers lost their first game at Three Rivers to the Houston Oilers 19-7 (their 14th consecutive loss in what would become a franchise worst 16 game losing streak), the worst days were behind the franchise. During Copes 35 years from his perch in the press box (1970 through 2004), he witnessed a team that had previously been 162-268 with one playoff victory prior to his hiring, go 322-212. During that 35 year span the Steelers went to the playoffs 21 times, playing in the AFC Championship game 12 times (including 6 times in the 1970s) and advancing to 5 Super Bowls, 4 of which they won. He broadcasted every game at Three Rivers Stadium over its 31 year existence. He retired after the 2004 season, during which the Steelers posted their best record in franchise history, going 15-1 under Ben Roethlisberger (they lost to the Patriots and Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game). The year following Cope’s retirement in 2005, the Steelers won their 5th Super Bowl. Cope was in the the right place at the exact right time.
With the new job description of color analyst added to his resume in 1970, Cope decided to fully transition into broadcasting and leave his writing career behind. Now that broadcasting was occupying a greater chunk of Cope’s time, he no longer had the downtime to dedicate to writing. He still contributed several stories to Sports Illustrated throughout the 1970s, but he was no longer under contract with the magazine. While broadcasting was by far more financially lucrative than the world of freelance writing, Cope always insisted that his transition into broadcasting from journalism had nothing to do with the money. Rather the main reason Cope went all-in on broadcasting is that he received major medical insurance benefits. When Cope verbally agreed to join KDKA in 1969, WTAE beat KDKA’s offer to retain Cope as a sportscaster, and part of that offer was a benefits package that included health insurance. In the cutthroat world of freelance writing, perks like benefit packages were nonexistent…even getting a retainer contract from a magazine was a rare luxury. By 1970, Cope and his wife Mildred realized that their 2-year-old son Danny had a mental disability, which at the time was believed to be autism. It would turn out that Danny was severely brain damaged and as a result displayed autistic traits. The medical bills were already starting to come in for Danny’s treatment, and Cope was now informed by doctors that Danny would need to be institutionalized at a facility that understood his disability and could provide 24 for care . So having major medical insurance was imperative, and going back to freelance writing was no longer an option.
In June 1973, WTAE radio hired Ted Atkins from KIIS-AM in Los Angeles as the station’s new General Manager. Atkins would immediately begin to revamp the radio lineup, which included replacing Tom Bender on the weeknight sports report from 7pm to 8pm. Atkins felt that Bender’s program was too boring. Cope was still doing his commentaries three times per day, so he was the logical choice to replace Bender (Cope had already replaced Bender on Steelers broadcasts in 1970). On August 8th, 1973 it was announced that Cope would replace Bender, and on August 31, 1973 WTAE debuted it’s new format with Myron Cope’s sports show airing from 7pm to 8pm each weeknight. His daily commentaries also increased from three to four per weekday, with two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Ever since starting his daily sports reports in 1968, Cope had signed off with his famous “this is Myron Cope on sports.” His new sports talk show would soon become known as “Myron Cope on Sports”, and his callers who made brilliant points were dubbed “Cope-a-nuts”.
By 1979, Cope was doing five commentaries daily along with his one-hour sports show each weeknight and Steeler games on Sundays. In 1983, Cope temporarily added Pitt football games to his schedule when he teamed up with Bill Hillgrove to do color analysis for the games. Johnny Sauer was the color analyst for the Pitt Panthers but had a medical emergency that caused him to be sidelined for the 1983 season. In March 1985, Cope signed a new contract with WTAE. Just like in 1969, Cope had been approached by KDKA to switch radio stations. KDKA was also trying to outbid WTAE for the radio rights to Steelers broadcasts, and one of the stipulations the Steelers had was that Cope had to continue as color analyst. In 1984, WTAE had paid the Steelers $575,000 for the local broadcasting rights. As a result of the bidding war with KDKA, in 1985 WTAE was now paying $1.2 million for the rights. After maintaining the rights to Steelers broadcasts, the next priority was making sure Cope didn’t leave the station. Cope was happy with his overall situation at WTAE and had no intentions of leaving. Just like in 1969, he used the negotiations as leverage with WTAE to obtain a better contract. Starting on March 25, 1985 Cope’s evening sports talk show was now increased an hour from 6pm to 8pm. But his weekly commentaries were cut in half from five per day to just two per day in the morning. This gave Cope a more balanced work schedule that he desired. Although the Steelers entered a period of mediocrity during the 1980s as the shine of the 1970s Super Bowl dynasty wore off and future Hall of Famers retired, Cope’s popularity continued to rise throughout the 1980s. Myron Cope on Sports was the highest-rated program on WTAE year in and year out during the 80s, and was consistently the number one show in its time slot.
In 1989, Cope was 60 years old and the grind of a weekly two hour sports talk show along with his Steelers broadcasts and daily commentaries were beginning to take a toll. Cope had worked 16 straight years without a vacation. In addition, his wife Mildred had been diagnosed with cancer. Cope would take a sabbatical from his radio show starting on May 1st with plans to return in mid-July. He wouldn’t return to the airwaves until August 1st, 1989 after renegotiating his contract to lessen his workload. Upon his return, he was now only doing two nightly radio shows per week on Monday and Tuesday from 6pm to 8pm, as well as only two commentaries on Monday and Tuesday mornings. He continued to be the color analyst for the Steelers.
Following the conclusion of the 1993 season, Cope’s longtime play-by-play partner Jack Fleming retired after 36 years. Bill Hillgrove replaced Fleming starting in the 1994 season, and he is currently in his 23rd season as the Steelers play-by-play broadcaster. Prior to joining the Steelers, Hillgrove had been a long time play-by-play broadcaster for Pitt football and basketball and had worked alongside Cope in 1983 on Pitt football broadcasts. Three weeks into the 1994 season on September 20th, Cope’s wife Mildred passed away due to cancer. Cope would miss his first ever broadcast the following week on September 25th when the Steelers played the Seahawks in Seattle.
After his wife’s passing, Cope (now 66 years old) decided to reduce his workload yet again to have more free time. On Tuesday April 4th, 1995 Cope broadcast his final radio sports talk show on WTAE, as well as his final morning commentary. Moving forward he would just do Steeler game broadcasts alongside Bill Hillgrove. Starting on September 28th, 1997 following the Steelers-Oilers game, Cope’s Cabana debuted outside of Gate D at Three Rivers Stadium following the conclusion of Cope’s postgame locker room show (which he actually conducted in the Steelers weight room). The Steelers had erected a tent to entertain VIP’s prior to the games, and wanted to try to utilize the tent post game. Thus, Cope’s Cabana was born and nearly 300 Myron Cope fans would pack the tent after each game to listen to post-game commentary from Cope and catch a glimpse of their beloved icon. Cope’s Cabana would continue after the move to Heinz Field in 2001, taking place on the stage in The Great Hall, and the last Cope’s Cabana was held following the Steelers AFC Championship loss to the Patriots in January 2005 (which was Cope’s last Steeler’s broadcast as he retired a few months later in June 2005). Over the years, Cope was notorious for his musical genius. His singing was ear-piercingly painful and his delivery spastic, but yet it was so enjoyable. The “Cope’s Cabana” theme song ranked right up there in his musical catalog, which included hits like “Y’ Cain’t Touch This” (1990 Pirates), “Achy Breaky Heart” (1992 Steelers), “Yoi! Steelermania” (1996 Steelers) and of course his annual renditions of “Deck the Halls”.
On Monday December 28, 1998 when the Steelers visited Jacksonville, WTAE carried it’s final Steelers broadcast after 29 consecutive seasons as the Steelers’ flagship station. Two months later in February 1999, it was announced that the Steelers were moving to the FM dial to WDVE, which currently holds the broadcasting rights through 2018. Cope and Hillgrove were retained (a stipulation of the Steelers), as well as Tunch Ilkin, who had newly joined the team for the 1998 season.
In September 2002, Cope underwent back surgery but didn’t miss a game. The Steelers had an early bye in Week 3 of the season, and Cope elected to have surgery during that downtime. He was right back in the booth for the Steelers 3rd game of the season against the Browns in Week 4. By 2004, Cope was beginning to have increasing health issues. In July 2004, prior to his 35th and final season, the 74 year old Cope (who was a lifelong smoker) had throat cancer surgery and was hospitalized with pneumonia. He returned in time for the start of the season, but his voice was noticeably weaker. In November, during the Steelers Week 9 matchup against the Eagles, Cope left the game at halftime due to a dizziness resulting from a fall at his home the day prior. He was ultimately hospitalized for a concussion and missed the Week 10 matchup against the Browns, which was only the second game he missed in his entire 35 years of broadcasting (the other being against
the Seahawks in 1994 following his wife’s death). The Steelers went 15-1 in 2004 but lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field in January 2005. This would be Cope’s final broadcast as he retired five months later on June 21, 2005 at the age of 76 at the behest of former Steelers PR Director and friend Joe Gordon (who recommended Cope for the job back in 1970). Gordon had promised to be honest with Cope and let him know if his on-air performance was declining, which he let Cope know following the conclusion of the 2004 season. The Steelers did not replace Cope in the booth, and decided to stick with a two person crew of Bill Hillgrove and Tunch Ilkin.
On August 6, 2005 at the Hall of Fame Festival dinner in Canton, Ohio, Cope was awarded the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. The award was created in 1989 and is awarded annually by the Pro Football Hall of Fame for longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in pro football. According to the Hall of Fame, no one had called pro football on radio for 35 consecutive years. Three months later on November 5, 2005 Cope became the first pro football announcer inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago.
The Steelers held a tribute to Cope during their Monday Night Football game against the Baltimore Ravens on 10/31/05. Cope participated in the coin toss, which the Steelers won and subsequently marched down the field on the opening drive for a touchdown. He also led a Terrible Towel wave over the jumbotron prior to departing the sidelines to his seat. Throughout the game tribute clips of Cope were played on the jumbotron. And in the end, Jeff Reed kicked a game winning field goal with just over a minute left to defeat the Ravens 20-19. The Steelers would go on to the Super Bowl and beat the Seahawks for their 5th Lombardi Trophy. Many Steelers fans wanted Cope to come out of retirement to announce that game, but Cope declined.
On the morning of February 27, 2008 Myron Cope passed away at a nursing home in Mt. Lebanon at the age of 79. Two days later on February 29, 2008 a final tribute was held in front of Pittsburgh City Hall. The irreplaceable “Voice of the Steelers” was gone, but his legacy will live on forever thanks to his creation that has become the good luck charm and symbolic flag of Steeler Nation – The Terrible Towel.