The Quintessential Sports Journalist

Tuesday, June 21, 2005,
By Bob Labriola

He cringes visibly when someone refers to him as legendary, or as an icon, but for a generation of sports fans in Western Pennsylvania, Myron Cope was an institution. He wrote for them, he talked to them, he entertained them. When it came to all of the sports they loved, he was a part of their lives.

Myron Cope announced his retirement on Tuesday after 35 years as the color analyst for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and while that job is the one for which he's most famous, he was so much more than that. In the field of sports journalism, Cope was a triple threat.

As a writer, Cope's talent put him in the company of the best people Sports Illustrated ever had under contract, and in Cope's heyday one of those people was George Plimpton. As evidence, Cope's profile of Howard Cosell was selected by Sports Illustrated during its 50th Anniversary as one of the 50 best pieces ever published in the magazine.

As a talk-show host, Cope literally was without peer in Pittsburgh, because he was doing it well when nobody else even was attempting it. Cope's talk show aired from 6-8 p.m., five nights a week, on WTAE-AM, and it gained a reputation on the dial as a place to go for good, solid information.

As a color commentator on the Steelers' broadcasts, well, it's impossible to believe anyone could've been more colorful.

And he was good at all of it, because he worked hard at all of it.

Nobody read more than Myron Cope, and everybody returned his telephone calls. Even though he most often is associated with football, Cope didn't give short shrift to the other sports. It was common to see Cope racing over to Three Rivers Stadium on a weeknight after his talk show to catch the rest of a Pirates game and then interview the manager and some players in the clubhouse. The same thing happened in the winter, only then Cope's after-show destination was the Civic Arena for a Penguins hockey game, or maybe the Fitzgerald Field House for a Pitt basketball game.

Cope will go down in NFL history as the creator of the Terrible Towel, and over the course of its 30-year existence that magical piece of terrycloth has generated millions of dollars for the Allegheny Valley School, an institution for the profoundly mentally and physically disabled. But even though Cope always was someone who had a shtick, there also was plenty of steak to go along with the sizzle.

Myron Cope was so good at his craft because nobody out-worked him. He was thorough. He was diligent. And because he was both of those, he also was often right. Cope was so respected that in 1983 he became the first member of the broadcast media to be appointed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame to its Board of Selectors.

But Myron Cope also was one of the guys. He never big-timed the other working stiffs - whether they were newspaper guys or whether they worked in radio or television - even though they essentially were his competitors. He was always ready to buy the next round, or entertain the boys with a story in which he himself often was the foil.

Here's an example: Cope often told the story of the time when someone approached him at some function and mentioned that years ago he had gotten Cope's autograph. Then without missing a beat, the guy told Cope, "And you know, it might be worth something if you were dead."

During the news conference at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex announcing his retirement, Cope said he felt somewhat strange sitting in front of the media answering questions instead of being alongside them asking questions. But there was a microphone there, and Myron Cope always came across as comfortable when he was sitting behind a microphone.

Some excerpts:

On what he would say to the fans: "It seems like almost every time I leave the house to go somewhere people stop me, strangers you see, and they say very sincerely, it's evident; how are you Myron, how is your health, or similar words, and I say, OK, coming along. Feeling better everyday. And then they say are you going to be back this year, and I have been saying, you betcha. So in that respect if I'm disappointing people, I'm sure that they understand, but the obvious affection has been just indescribable to me. The fans have been just wonderful."

On what he believes he has accomplished: "You have to keep perspective. To me, I thought just this morning that I'm most proud of my credibility. I have always guarded it. I want people to believe that if I say something, I know what I'm talking about, at least partially, and that is what I believe. I never played devil's advocate on my talk show in the almost 22 years that I had it. I never did because I didn't want to say something and not believe it, so I think people bought me � I was on the alert all the time -- are you being credible, Cope?"

On how he would like to be remembered: "I've often thought that, when I kick the bucket, there'd be a story with the headline, 'Creator of towel, dead.' Truthfully, I was gifted and educated to be a writer. I made it as a writer. People think I went into broadcasting for the money. That's not so. (Being a writer is) what I was trained to be, and that's what I wanted to be. That's what I thought I had a gift for. I would like to be remembered as a pretty decent writer."

He also has earned the right to be remembered as a pretty decent guy.