From The Pitt News to the Terrible Towel,
Myron Cope Has Talked--and Written--a Great Game.
"Everything is Cope-Aesthetic"
Written by Mark Collins
The cable news network brodcasts 24 hours a day, covering
Congress and the White House, poverty and tyranny, stocks and
bonds--and sports scores that run nonstop at the bottom of the screen.
("Look, honey, a plane just crashed in Chile. Oh, and Holy Cross beat
Temple, 76-70.") Baltimore's Cal Ripken earns banner headlines by
showing up for work every day--not an unusual feat for, say, a
homemaker. Michael Jordan pulls up lame, and Bosnia disappears from
the front page of USA Today. This is the uncomfortable game
that our culture plays with sports. We relish the athleticism, yet
rebel against the crushing overexposure. We cheer the grace of the
human body in motion and are repelled by the salaries those bodies
enjoy. Late at night, watching
a rerun of SportsCenter, we ask ourselves: Is sport an
entertaining diversion, or is it infantile lunacy, played by
grown children and watched by same?
It's fitting, then, that this is the field in which Myron Cope
triumphed. He, too, is a dichotomy. Despite the public persona of a
hammy, irrepressible sports nut, Cope (Arts and Sciences '51) is
actually a careful, deliberate thinker and writer. His voice is kindly
described as grating, yet he himself is anything but. He's often
sought out for his insight. Yet a few--a very few, thank you--see him
as a caricature, a 5' 4" parody of a sports analyst who only works for
the money, gags, and exposure."
" This last
perception is a false one, the price Cope pays for working in the
reflected light of celebrity: If you serve in the transmission tower
of sports reporting, you become a lightning rod."
" There is much
that's memorable in Cope's sportscasting career--three decades as
Pittsburgh's premier radio and television commentator, a quarter
century (and counting) as the Steelers' color man, and inventor of the
Terrible Towel. But what one remembers is the voice."
freelance writing for Sports Illustrated and other magazines,"
he says, "and the program director at WTAE radio said, 'We'd like you
to do commentary for us.' I said, 'Don't try to kid me. I've heard my
voice on tape.' And he said, 'That's okay. Obnoxious voices are coming
" Cope laughs as
he retells the story. "So they put some equipment in my home, and I
started in. But I couldn't believe that I could talk at home and
people on the Parkway miles away could hear me, so I started shouting.
And I've been shouting ever since." The station heard from its share
of angry listeners. ("How can I wake up in the morning listening to
that voice?" he says, mimicking a typical call.) But his star began
its rise. By 1970, he was doing color for the Steelers and
commentaries on WTAE-TV. In 1973, he began hosting his own radio talk
""They had a
fella doing a talk show, and he wasn't succeeding," Cope remembers.
"We had a new general manager, and he spent his first day ensconced in
a hotel, listening to the station and jotting down ideas. I found out
years later that the first thing he wrote was Fire Cope.
That's usually the reaction to my voice. Anyway, he decided to drop
my friend's sports slot and give it to me. I didn't want it. For one
thing, it would be more of an incursion on my writing; secondly, I
didn't like talk shows. One host on another station used to insult
callers and hang up on them. I was brought up with some manners. And I
didn't want to knock my friend out of a job. Well, the station manager
put his foot on my chest, figuratively speaking. So I said, 'We'll try
it until January. If it doesn't work, okay.' But come January, I liked
" If he came to
broadcasting by fluke, he stayed there thanks to hard work. "I didn't
like having to say 'I don't know,'" he says. "I was a bear about
preparing myself. I suppose it stems from wanting to be sure that the
show was a continuing success. It's a competitive business." "
" Competitive or
not, Cope's career thrived. Partly it was his expertise: "Once people
become inured to my voice, they listen to the content." And partly it
was his honesty: "If the football team stinks, I'll say, 'They
stink.'" Mostly, however, it was his persona--the slightly wacky
sportscaster who would mug for the camera, who would agree to be
filmed on a roller coaster wearing a raincoat and holding a rubber
duck, who would dress as a doctor and peer into the "Cope-ra-Scope" to
divine the Steelers' prospects."
""I guess I
found I had natural ham in me," Cope says in stunning understatement.
"I wasn't aware of it. I think it started with the talk show. You're
ad-libbing all the time." Soon terms like "Yoy!" and "okel-dokel"
wormed their way into Pittsburgh's lexicon, as did Cope's first name,
twisted by local vernacular into a single syllable: Marn."
" And soon
national offers came as well, but the Pittsburgh native has never
left. "I lived here all my life, and it's by choice," he says. "I had
a number of offers to leave, but I'm happy here.""
" Now retired
except for Steeler broadcasts, Cope spends his time being entirely too
busy. Although his golf game gets a better workout, he's still filming
commercials and working for his favorite charities, the Pittsburgh
Autism Society and Allegheny Valley School. "One thing I really looked
forward to when I retired was reading books that have nothing to do
with sports," he says. "I became an ignoramus because I concentrated
so much on preparation for the talk show. So I pictured myself
spending the whole day reading at the township library. I haven't done
" To those either
unaware or under a certain age, there was Cope the writer before there
was Marn the dialect-bound sports icon. There were nine years with the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a stellar career as a feature writer for
national publications, plus four books and a host of articles for
" And there was a
family and two kids. And decisions to be made."
" His early
decision--to be a writer--was easy. "I always wanted to be a newspaper
man," he says. He worked for Taylor Allderdice's high school
newspaper, then as sports editor of The Pitt News. "I was a
voracious reader," he recalls. "A. J. Liebling. The New Yorker.
And Ring Lardner. I used to stay awake as a kid 'til 3 a.m. reading
Ring Lardner, laughing out loud and waking up my family. Not too many
years ago, I picked him up again--and I thought, 'Why did I enjoy this
guy?' Tastes change, I guess.""
" Cope began his
newspaper career at The Erie Daily Times. "Thirty-eight dollars
and 50 cents a week, after taxes," he says, smiling. "I was the low
man on the totem pole in the sports department, right out of college.
So while the other guys went out to dinner, I'd answer the phones when
the bowling league scores came in. I had to take these names down, get
them spelled right. It must've taken an hour and a half every night.
Once I woke up in a cold sweat in the room I rented at the YMCA across
the street. I had a nightmare: Someone called me and said, 'This is
the Polish Falcons. We have 80 bowling scores for you.' I went in the
next day and asked for a transfer. I had to get out of the sports
" He ended up at
the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and, not long after, began selling
stories to True, The Man's Magazine, and other publications.
After nine years at the P-G, he still had no beat: "I was frustrated.
So in 1960, I told the boss I was leaving to take a chance on
freelance writing. He said, 'You'll be back in six months, kid. You'll
starve.' Kid? I was 30 years old. I didn't have a wife or kids yet, so
I didn't have a whole hell of a lot to lose. 'Well,' I said, 'we'll
see.' Not too long after that The Saturday Evening Post asked
me to sign a contract with them.""
Evening Post was the pinnacle for any magazine freelancer in 1960,
but Cope soon tired of their predictable style. "As a mass magazine,
their sports stories were invariably about superstars. And most of
them were bores. Another editor had dubbed me 'the Nut Specialist,'
and I wasn't getting a chance to write about nuts.""
" He went to the
magazine's office to tell them he wouldn't re-sign his contract. After
that, he stopped by to see friends at Sports Illustrated--and
they hired him on the spot. "I was listed as 'Special Contributor' in
their masthead. I was proud of that because the only other real writer
with that title was George Plimpton. So I was in pretty good company.""
" Cope is
credited with writing the definitive profiles of many sports legends,
including boxer Muhammad Ali, Pirates' broadcaster Bob Prince, and
Howard Cosell. "Cosell hadn't had a major magazine profile done on
him, and he kept calling me when I was writing the piece, saying 'This
article will make your career, Cope.'" But when the profile ran, Cope
heard nothing. "I knew he would be angry for three days after the
story appeared, and then I'd hear from him. His ego was such that as
soon as they started calling to him on the streets of Manhattan--'Hey,
Howard, I saw you in SI'--I was positive he'd love it. Sure enough, he
called. My attitude was, if you're sent out to write a piece, you do
so objectively and you have fun with it and point out the
flaws--without invading anyone's personal life, which we didn't do in
" Cope remembers
when "sensational" and "sports journalism" weren't synonymous.
"Nowadays," Cope says, "you find the dirt, you put it in print. It's
writing for the sake of profit. I hear this excuse from the
practitioners of this crap that 'we only give the public what they
want.' That's a lot of bull. It's an abdication of responsibility.""
" His passion for
good writing was not enough to keep him in the business. Despite his
success, radio could offer one thing that a freelance career couldn't:
major medical insurance, a rarity then. Cope's son, Daniel, was born
in 1968 with brain damage, a condition that soon required full-time
care. The insurance offered with his radio contract was a lifesaver
amid the flood of medical costs. "I was trying to continue writing
after the talk show started," he recalls. "But one day I said, 'I'm
not going to get home at nine at night and put a piece of paper in the
typewriter and start trying to think.' Writing came very hard to me. I
could spend an entire morning working on a lead paragraph. So I guess
it was a relief to give up writing in that I was no longer killing
" There's a
certian wistfulness in Cope's voice as he remembers his pieces, his
profiles, his favorite subjects. But a phone call in the middle of his
reverie interrupts his train of thought. It's a sports writer from New
York, seeking Cope's opinion on erstwhile Steeler quarterback Neil
O'Donnell. And once more he's in present tense, his great, grate voice
peppered with strong (and positive) opinions about O'Donnell's arm and
the lofty expectations of Steeler fans, yet balanced with a rational
awareness of market forces and the lure of big money. The sports
writer--one of several who will call today--thanks Cope for the
quotes, and Myron answers, "Okel-dokel. My pleasure.""
" He's sought out
as a source because he's quotable and he knows his subject. But he
knows something else: Myron Cope knows how seriously, and unseriously,
to take America's passion for sport. He knows, in this sports-crazed
city, his hometown, what's important versus what's entertaining,
what's faddish versus what lasts. Games come and go, memories fade,
but certain figures--Ali, Cosell...and Cope, for that
matter--transcend the moment, becoming fixed stars in our
ever-changing sports horizon."
" It's an ironic honor for a man whose voice
sounds better suited for writing, but, as Myron Cope himself once said
in explaining his success on the radio, "There's no accounting for