Legendary Pittsburgh Pirates KDKA broadcaster Bob Prince created The Green Weenie (1966) and Babushka Power (1975) to get fans more interested and involved in the games. Both gimmicks made the fans feel like they were part of the team’s success, and as a result, the gimmicks were highly successful and popular. In mid-December 1975, WTAE general manager Ted Atkins called Myron Cope into his office and asked him to come up with a gimmick for the upcoming playoffs that would connect fans with the team and prove to sponsors that Cope had influence over his audience. There is little doubt that Prince’s success with Babushka Power just a few months earlier during the baseball season was the reason that Atkins called the meeting. Prince had proven that fans in Pittsburgh were receptive to gimmicks and calls to action. And he had also shown that local businesses were eager to capitalize on the popular gimmicks in their advertising as well. Without Bob Prince and his Green Weenie and Babushka Power, there most likely would have never been a Terrible Towel. But there was another gimmick that influenced the creation of The Terrible Towel – the Miami Dolphins white hanky.
Miami Dolphins – White Hanky
During the 1970s, the AFC was dominated by the Steelers, Dolphins and Raiders. During the decade, they accounted for seven Super Bowl victories. Before the Steelers could break through and advance to their first Super Bowl in franchise history, they had to get past the Dolphins and Raiders. In 1972, the Steelers defeated the Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoff game on Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception. But they lost in the AFC Championship to the Miami Dolphins, who would go on to beat the Redskins in Super Bowl VII and finish a perfect 17-0. As the Dolphins marched to perfection in 1972, they were cheered on by fans waving white handkerchiefs. During the 1971 season, Dolphins radio broadcaster Rick Weaver came up with the hanky gimmick, which he nicknamed “Hanky Power”.
Weaver was broadcasting San Francisco 49er games prior to joining Miami radio station WIOD 610-AM as the Dolphins play-by-play announcer for the 1971 season. He went on to become the longest tenured Miami Dolphins announcer in franchise history, spending 23 seasons behind the microphone and retiring at the conclusion of the 1993 season. Weaver’s hiring in 1971 couldn’t have been more timely, as the Dolphins made it to the Super Bowl in his first three seasons behind the microphone.
The Dolphins inaugural season was 1966, and fans suffered through four losing seasons until Don Shula became head coach in 1970. That year the Dolphins went 10-4 after finishing the season on a six game win streak and advanced to the playoffs for the first time. They finished second behind Shula’s old team, the Baltimore Colts, in the newly formed AFC East. The Dolphins would lose their Divisional Playoff game against the Raiders, while the Colts would go on to defeat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V. In 1971, the Dolphins started off slow at 1-1-1 but then rattled off another six game win streak. They entered their Week 10 matchup with the division rival Colts holding a slim half-game lead over the defending Super Bowl champions.
In the week leading up to the November 21, 1971 matchup with the Colts, Weaver and his station WIOD urged fans to bring white handkerchiefs to the game. WIOD was attempting to show advertisers how many fans listened to the station and to show the influence the station had over their listening audience. White handkerchiefs were a cheap, readily available, utilitarian item that fans could easily bring to the game and wave. And they would be highly visible from Weaver’s perch in the press box and to the viewers at home on the telecast. Weaver and the radio station also wanted to gauge how many people in the stadium were listening to his broadcast. During the broadcast, Weaver would give fans the directive to wave their hankies. Back then it was commonplace for fans to bring portable pocket-sized transistor radios into the stadium and listen to the live game broadcast from their seats (especially for those fans sitting in the nosebleeds who couldn’t easily make out what was happening on the field). While transistor radios had been around since the late 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that their price and size started shrinking substantially. By the 1970s, the popularity of portable transistor radios were equivalent to what an iPod would be today. By orchestrating the handkerchief wave through his broadcast from the press box, Weaver would be able to illustrate to the station and advertisers how many fans tuned into his game broadcasts and how popular transistor radios were among Dolphins fans.
When game day arrived, a record 75,312 fans packed the stadium. Weaver called on fans to wave their hankies after the Dolphins scored a touchdown, and an estimated 50,000 people responded as the stadium became a see of white handkerchiefs. The Dolphins beat the Colts 17-14 and took a firm grip on first place in the AFC East. What began as a stunt quickly became a ritual. The next week against the Bears the Orange Bowl was again filled to capacity with hanky-waving fans who propelled the Dolphins to their eighth straight win. The Dolphins went on to win their first division title in franchise history, and defeated the Colts one more time in the AFC Championship to advance to their first Super Bowl.
Weaver tried capitalizing on the gimmick during the 1972 season by selling his version of the white hanky. He had 5,000 produced but claimed he didn’t sell a single one, as fans preferred to just bring their own hankies. The white hankies were prevalent at Dolphin games throughout the 1970s, but began disappearing toward the end of the decade. During the 1981 playoffs, the hanky made a comeback during the playoffs when the Dolphins faced the Chargers in the AFC Divisional Playoff. The Dolphins handed out “The Horrible Hankie” (named to mimic The Terrible Towel) to a sold-out Orange Bowl crowd. The hankies got plenty of use in a shoot-out game that has since been nicknamed the “Epic in Miami”. The Dolphins fell behind 24-0 in the first quarter, but behind quarterback Don Strock they chipped away at the lead in the second quarter to pull within 24-10. With six seconds remaining in the first half and the ball on the Chargers 40 yard line, the Dolphins ran a successful gimmick “hook and lateral” play that resulted in a touchdown as time expired. After scoring 17 unanswered points, the Dolphins went into the half only trailing 24-17 and had all the momentum on their side. The game eventually went deep into overtime tied 38-38, but the Chargers pulled it out with a field goal to win 41-38.
Since then, the Dolphins have handed out various versions of the white hanky at the stadium for playoff games or to commemorate milestones, like in 2012 to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1972 perfect season and in 2015 for the franchise’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Oakland Raiders – Black Socks
From 1967 – 1977, the Raiders won nine division titles and advanced to nine conference championships, but only appeared in two Super Bowls. In 1967 the Raiders had a breakout season as they went 13-1, won their first AFL Championship and advanced to Super Bowl II where they lost to the Packers. The Raiders advanced to the AFL Championship in 1968 and 1969, but lost both times. After the merger in 1970, the Raiders continued to be one of the dominant teams in the NFL. However, they still couldn’t get over the hump and back to the Super Bowl. They lost the AFC Championship to the Colts in 1970 and got shocked by the upstart Steelers in the 1972 Divisional Playoff on Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception. In 1973, they beat the Steelers in the Divisional Playoff and made it back to the AFC Championship game, where they faced the Dolphins in front of 75,000 hanky waving fans at the Orange Bowl. The Dolphins crushed the Raiders 27-10 and advanced to their third straight Super Bowl, while the Raiders dropped to 1-4 in conference championships.
In 1974, the Raiders won another division title with a 12-2 record, and the Divisional Playoff game was a
much anticipated rematch against the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dolphins. This time the game was at the Oakland Coliseum. In the week leading up to the game, Raiders captain Gene Upshaw called on fans to bring black handkerchiefs to the game to taunt the Dolphins. According to Upshaw, “There was nothing more disturbing than walking into the Orange Bowl last year and have 80,000 screaming people waving those white hankies at you. You feel like your with the only 47 friends there are left in the world… We’re asking all the fans to give the Dolphins a taste of what it’s like to feel like you’re the only people here from your home town.” It was Oakland defensive end Horace Jones who came up with the idea for black handkerchiefs. In the 1973 AFC Championship game against the Dolphins, Jones was ejected in the final minutes, and when he left the field Dolphin fans all he could see were thousands of fans waving their white hankies at him. The Women’s Oakland Raiders Booster Club responded to the Raiders request and set up booths throughout the stadium where they handed out 5,000 black hankies to fans.
Not to be outdone, the Raider’s radio network came up with the promotion “Sock it to the Dolphins Day” and asked listeners to bring black socks to the game to wave. This was retaliation against their Miami radio counterpart Rick Weaver and his white hanky gimmick. The response was so great that there was a shortage of black socks in Oakland, so fans were asked to bring anything black to wave, including rags and under garments. The Oakland Tribune declared the day of the game “Black Flag Day” and again urged fans to wear black and bring something black to wave.
Raiders fans responded, and the stands were full of waving black hankies and twirling black socks. The game would go down as one of the greatest in playoff history, and became known as the “Sea of Hands” game. Trailing the Dolphins 26-21 with two minutes left in the game and the ball on their own 32 yard line, Ken Stabler led the Raiders down inside the Dolphins 10 yard line with 35 seconds left. On 1st down and goal from the 8 yard line, Stabler dropped back and looked for star receiver Fred Biletnikoff in the right side of the end zone, but Biletnikoff was blanketed in coverage. Stabler stepped up in the pocket, and as he was being dragged down from behind by the Dolphins defensive end Vern Den Herder, he floated a desperation pass into the left side of the end zone to Raiders running back Clarence Davis. Davis was surrounded by three Dolphins, but fought through a “sea of hands” to make the catch, and held onto the ball as Dolphins defensive end Manny Fernandez put a final hit on him as he went to the ground. The Raiders come-from-behind 28-26 victory ended the Dolphins dynasty and sent the Raiders to their second straight AFC Championship game.
The Raiders hosted the Steelers in the AFC Championship, and Raiders fans once again waved black socks and handkerchiefs. The Raiders held onto a 10-3 lead entering the fourth quarter. But the Steelers dominated the final quarter and cruised to a 24-13 victory, advancing to their first Super Bowl in franchise history. In 1975 the Raiders advanced to their third straight AFC Championship, but once again lost to the Steelers. Finally in 1976 the Raiders would get over the hump, defeating the Steelers to win the AFC Championship and advance to Super Bowl XI against the Vikings, which they won 32-14. Their rivalry with the Steelers during the 1970s was one of the fiercest in NFL history. The teams squared off in the playoffs in five consecutive seasons from 1972 through 1976, including three straight AFC Championship matchups. In the end, the Steelers went 4-2 during the 1970s in AFC Championship games and won all four Super Bowls they played in. Despite appearing in five straight AFC Championship games from 1973 through 1977, the Raiders only had one Super Bowl appearance and victory to show for it.
The Terrible Towel
The Dolphins white hanky created during the 1971 season spawned the Raiders black hanky and socks in the 1974 playoffs. And both gimmicks undoubtedly influenced the creation of The Terrible Towel for the 1975 playoffs. Myron Cope and the Steelers saw first-hand how these gimmicks galvanized their respective fanbases and created a level of enthusiasm in the stands unparalleled at other NFL stadiums.
In Week 12 of the 1973 season, the Steelers traveled to Miami to face the defending Super Bowl Champion Dolphins on Monday Night Football. It was a rematch of the 1972 AFC Championship game in which the undefeated Dolphins beat the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium, and eventually won Super Bowl VII and capped the only perfect season in NFL history. It was the Steelers first trip to the Orange Bowl since November 14, 1971, which was just one week before Rick Weaver called on Dolphins fans to wave white handkerchiefs during the November 21, 1971 divisional showdown with the Baltimore Colts. Dolphins fans waved their white hankies for the Monday Night Football cameras and unnerved Steelers third-string quarterback Joe Gilliam, who in his second season, was making his first career NFL start. Terry Bradshaw had been benched in the second half of the Steelers Week 6 matchup with the New York Jets. Trailing 14-12 entering at the end of the third quarter, backup quarterback Terry Hanratty (Terry No. 2) replaced Bradshaw and brought the Steelers back for a 26-14 win. The following week in a divisional matchup against the Bengals, Bradshaw assumed his starting role, but dislocated his shoulder in the second quarter and missed the next four weeks of action. Hanratty stepped in and guided the Steelers, but in Week 11 against the Browns he sprained his wrist on the third play of the game and was replaced by Gilliam.
Bradshaw suited up for the Monday Night showdown with the Dolphins, but Noll gave Gilliam the starting nod since Bradshaw wasn’t fully recovered from his injury. Between the glare of the national spotlight and the roar of nearly 70,000 hanky-waving fans, Gilliam was rattled from the start and never gained his composure. He went 0-7 with three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) in just under one quarter of play. By the time Bradshaw replaced Gilliam on the final play of the first quarter, the Steelers were facing a daunting 20-0 deficit. Bradshaw didn’t fair much better, as he threw two interceptions of his own in the first half (one returned for a touchdown). Dolphins safety Dick Anderson had four interceptions in the first half, including two that he returned for touchdowns (and another that he returned to the 2 yard line). The Steelers trailed 30-3 at halftime, but they clawed back in the second half as Bradshaw found some rhythm. The Steelers scored 23 unanswered points in the second half and silenced the hanky-waving Miami crowd, but the hole they had dug in the first half was just too deep. The Dolphins prevailed 30-26, and the Steelers lost their third straight game and fell into a three way tie in the AFC Central with the Bengals and Browns. The Steelers would finished the 1973 season tied for the AFC North lead with the Bengals. The Bengals however owned the tiebreaker, so the Steelers settled for the Wild Card berth and faced the Raiders for the second straight season in the Divisional Playoff, this time on the road in Oakland. There would be no miracles for the Steelers this time around as the Raiders bounced back from the heartbreak of the Immaculate Reception a year earlier and routed the Steelers 33-14.
The following year in the 1974 playoffs, the Steelers looked like they were going to host the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship at Three Rivers Stadium. But the Raiders come-from-behind win against the Dolphins on the “Sea of Hands” play with 26 seconds remaining in the Divisional Playoff gave them home-field advantage for the AFC Championship. For the third year in a row, the Steelers faced-off against the Raiders in the playoffs, and for the second straight season they traveled to Oakland. The Steelers were greeted at the Oakland Coliseum by an energized capacity crowd twirling the same black hankies and socks that a week earlier had been used to deliver the miracle win over the Dolphins. The first half was a defensive slugfest, with the Steelers and Raiders trading field goals and entering halftime tied 3-3. While the Steelers found success with their running game (out-gaining the Raiders 224-29 on the ground), the Raiders went to the air (out-gaining the Steelers 271-95). With just over 5 minutes left in the third quarter, Ken Stabler connected with Cliff Branch on a 38 yard bomb to the left corner of the end zone. The touchdown put the Raiders up 10-3 and injected new life into the sock twirling Raiders fans.
But the Steelers answered right back on their ensuing possession, marching methodically down inside the Dolphins 10 yard line as time expired in the third quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Franco Harris ran it in from 7 yards out to tie the game at 10-10. On the Raiders next possession, Jack Ham picked off Ken Stabler for the second time on the day and returned it to the Raiders 9 yard line. Bradshaw then hit Lynn Swann in the back of the end zone to put the Steelers up for the first time 17-10 with just under 12 minutes remaining. The Raiders would cut into the lead a few minutes later with a George Blanda field goal that made the score 17-13 with just under 8 minutes to play. The Raiders had the ball on their 20 yard line with just under 2 minutes to play. But Stabler through his third interception on the day, this time to Steelers cornerback J.T. Thomas who returned it to the Raiders 24 yard line with one minute left. The raucous Raiders crowd who moments earlier had been twirling their black hankies and socks in hopes of a second straight miracle, now headed for the exits. The Steelers were content to just run out the clock, but Franco Harris found a hole and and jaunted 21 yards for his second touchdown, sealing a 24-13 Steelers victory.
It was the Steelers first AFC Championship win in franchise history, and two weeks later in New Orleans the Steelers would win their first Super Bowl, defeating the Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX. It was the only time the Steelers won a Super Bowl without The Terrible Towel waving them on. The Terrible Towel wasn’t even a thought in Myron Cope’s head at the conclusion of the 1974 championship season, but the seeds for its creation had been planted. A year later on December 13, 1975 the Steelers beat the Bengals in Week 13 to clinch the AFC North and home-field advantage in the playoffs. During the week that followed, Cope’s bosses at WTAE called him into a meeting to come up with a gimmick that he and the station could promote for the playoffs that would get Steelers fans energized and engaged, and at the same time show how much influence the station had over its audience. Something that would turn fans from mere spectators into active participants who felt like they had direct influence over events on the field. Something utilitarian that every fan owned or could obtain easily at little cost. Something that could be invoked when the Steelers needed a boost. Something very similar to the Dolphins white hanky, the Raiders black socks and the Pittsburgh Pirates babushkas.