Myron Cope

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008, 12:18 pm

I was a sophomore at Penn State and writing sports for Daily Collegian. We’d covered PSU’s season-opening destruction of Virginia and I was in the car with Jim and Wogo and Jill heading back to Happy Valley. We drove north along back roads that wound through small towns and farmland and at times it felt like we’d fallen off the face of the earth. We set the radio of our rental car to SCAN and tried to pick up a radio station that didn’t feature a preacher shrieking about the coming Apocalypse. There were long stretches where the digital dial cycled from one end to another, an endless loop of white noise that we were all too tired and bored to interrupt.

Finally the receiver locked on a signal I certainly approved of–the Steeler-Redskin game. Even though we were driving through Virginia (or maybe we’d hit Maryland by this time) we’d picked up the Steeler broadcast. And so the mellifluous tones of Myron Cope filled our tiny space.

Of course Myron Cope’s voice wasn’t exactly the most pleasing to the ear–unless you’re from Pittsburgh. To the trained ear Cope’s needle-across-the-phonograph screech was the sweetest music, his bizarre cadences and jargon pure poetry. Everyone who grew up listening to Cope loved that voice, that "Yoi!" and "Double Yoi!".

Thing is, Jim and Wogo and Jill hailed from the eastern part of the state. Wogo started ripping on Cope from the get-go, but I expected that from him and as Cope was an icon even then I had no trouble parrying his insults. But Jim, a mild-mannered guy (and a fabulous writer) surprised me. "How can you stand this?" he said–and turned off the radio. He really couldn’t stand it. Oh well–some people don’t like oysters. It is their loss.

Today, the loss is Pittsburgh’s. Myron Cope died today at 79. He left the broadcast booth three years ago and had suffered from a variety of health problems in that time, but his passing still came as a bit of a shock when I saw the headline. I didn’t know how seriously he’d been ill these last few years. It’s sad to think that we’ll never hear that voice again, except when we watch highlights of past Steeler glory. When the Steelers marched to victory in Super Bowl XL I was terribly disappointed that Cope wasn’t in the booth providing his sublime commentary. What would he have made of Big Ben’s season-saving tackle, of Randle-El’s touchdown pass to Hines Ward?

Long before he sat down before a microphone Myron Cope was an award-winning sportswriter. Good Lord, if only they’d had blogs when he was in his heydey. These days you can’t turn on ESPN without having a half-dozen sportswriters screaming at each other–I guess I know now how Jim felt on that drive back from Charlottesville, because I can’t stand that stuff. Can you imagine Skip Bayless or Woody Paige jumping in the broadcast booth and providing color commentary for your favorite team? I shudder at the thought. Though I’m somewhat comforted knowing that there would be an angry mob holding torches and pitchforks outside the stadium at halftime.

It’s hard to imagine someone like Cope getting on the air these days. He was all wrong–that sing-song, squeaky voice, his loony locution and shameless cheerleading. And yet it worked so well.

I almost forgot about Cope’s other great legacy–the Terrible Towel. You don’t just see them in Heinz Field–you see them twirling in every stadium where the Steelers play. A silly little gimmick of Cope’s creation that has become the symbol of the Steeler Nation. And Cope arranged for the proceeds from his great invention to go toward the Allegheny Valley Schools, which serves kids who are mentally and physically disabled.

It’s a sad day for Pittsburgh, but as Gene Collier wrote, "…it was confidently said of Myron Cope that he enjoyed life immensely and had little patience for those who didn’t." From all accounts he had a hell of a good time. The whole city loved him. And he did it his way.

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