The Terrible Towel
Towels & Points Delight - By Myron Cope
The Man behind The Towel

Not long ago, Dan Rooney the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers handed me a copy of the Sports Business; The Management Newsletter for Sports Money Makers.

The Terrible TowelHe pointed to an item he knew would interest me. Under the Advisory for Fans, Sports Business confided to the Moguls who subscribe to it: "Special, almost unclassifiable gimmick like the Steelers Terrible Towel are a fan turn-on. The keys to the most successful of these devices seem to be 1)Color, and 2)Motion. Crowds dressed in the same color clothing can make an impact, but it is passive. Color plus motion in the stands creates a kind of framework for the content itself, making the entire experience more memorable for the spectator. We suggest a look at the Japanese and British sports crowds for examples of dynamic display of color and motion."

I, as creator of the Terrible Towel, and instrument with which Steelers fans had flogged their team to victories in Super Bowls X and XIII (the Steelers won Super Bowl IX without it), could not decide which impressed me more - Sports Business' expertise in determining that color plus motion had made the towel a success, or my audacity in creating the towel while ignorant of the fact that I was mixing a precise formula that would produce a "special almost unclassifiable gimmick."

During the NBC telecast of Super Bowl XIII, Curt Gowdy had referred to the towel as the "dirty towel" an allusion that had not especially annoy me inasmuch as Gowdy had boched the names of the legions of professional football players. Let him know that Sports business which gets $60 for 24 issues from Sports Money Makers, preceives the impact of the Terrible Towel, which, dirty or laundered is held to be good reason for the Money Makers to take a close look at Japanese and British crowds. Lord, that I had known all that at the beginning.

"Your ideas was pure genius," said Rooney. "But you were too stupid to know what you were doing."

Here I should explain that I'm a Pittsburgh radio/television sports commentator and an alayst of Steeler games on the radio. Late in November of 1975, I received a call from the secretary to the vice president and general manager of WTAE Radio who said, "Can you step over to Ted's office?"

Crossing the hall, I found the burly figure of Ted J. Atkins. He was huddled with the vice president for sales, Larry Garrett. Atkins said, "The Steelers are going to the playoffs. As you know the first game will be here in Pittsburgh. As the Steelers flagship radio station, we think we should come up with some sort of gimmick that will involve the people."

Then Atkins barked, "Come up with a gimmick!" "I'm not a gimmick guy," I replied. "Never have been a gimmick guy."

"You don't understand," said Garrett. He explained that were I to promote some kind of object that the fans would wave or wear at the playoffs, advertisers would be so impressed by my hold on the public that they would clamor to sponsor my various shows.

"Beside," said Garrett, "your contract with us expires in three months."

"I'm a gimmick guy," I shrugged.

Advertising salesmen were hurriedly summoned to Atkins' office. Brainstorms erupted. "I've got it!" cried a salesman. "Chuck Noll's motto is 'Whatever it takes,' right?" Totally sober, the salesman proposed that we dress the 50,000 fans entering Three Rivers Stadium in black costume masks upon which Noll's motto would be painted in gold lettering. A phone call to a supplier of novelties revealed that 50,000 black masks could be obtained at a cost of 50 cents a piece. Total cost, $25,000. Vice presidents Atkins and Garrett incisively concluded that black masks were not the crowd pleaser we were looking for.

"What we need here," I said, "Is something that's lightweight and portable and already is owned by just about every fan."

"How about towels?" Garrett said.

"A towel?" It had possibilities.

"We could call it the Terrible Towel," I said.

"Yes, and I can go on radio and television proclaiming, The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!"

"Gold and black towels, the colors of the Steelers," someone piped.

"No," I said, "Black won't provide color. We'll tell them to bring gold or yellow towels."

"Yellow and gold will fly," cried a sales voice. "Tell 'em if they don't have one, buy one, and if they don't want to buy one, dye one!"

"I'll tell 'em they can use the towel to wipe their seats clean," I said, "They can use it as a muffler against the cold. They can drape it over their heads if it rains."

Another great concept in broadcasting having being born, Ted J. Atkins sent out for champagne. Later, when the Terrible Towel advanced for final approval to Franklin C. Snyder, vice president and general manager of the Hearst Broadcasting System, he ordered only one change: "We must have black towels too," he said gravely. "If we exclude black, we'll be asking for trouble from the Human Relations Commission and the FCC."

A few days later, on the heavily watched Sunday night 11 o'clock television news, I introduced Pittsburgh to the Terrible Towel, making a damned fool of myself by hurling towels at the anchorman, the weatherman, and everyone else. Public response was instant and pleasantly flabbergasting. One of the few resisters was a co-captain of the Steelers, linebacker Andy Russell.

"What's this crap about a towel?" he growled at me in the locker room several days later. We're not a gimmick team. We've never been a gimmick team."

His words had the ring of familiarity. But I fell back upon bravado. "Russell," I said, "You're sick."

Mind you, I did not see the Terrible Towel as witchcraft to hex the enemy. It would be a positive force, driving the Steelers to superhuman performance. Unsure of my own sanity, almost daily I intoned on radio and television, "The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!"

The very morning of the playoff game, against Baltimore, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette warned that I was trying to turn Three Rivers Stadium into a tenement neighborhood, yet at least 30,000 spectators turned up for the game waving Terrible Towels. It was a fine start. In foul, wet weather, wide receiver Frank Lewis wiped his hands with a Terrible Towel, then made a scarcely believable one-handed catch of a Terry Bradshaw bullet. Later, Bradshaw went down, his leg injured, and did not emerge from the locker room tunnel when his teammates took the field for the second half. Only seconds before play resumed, the crowd exploded, filling the air with towels, for Bradshaw had reappeared.

Could Russell remain a nonbeliever? A young woman named Lisa Benz beheld the towel's effect upon him (Russell scooped up a Colts fumble and, through playing on an injured leg, lumbered 93 yards to a touchdown) and later mailed me the following verse:

He ran ninety-three
Like a bat out of hell,
And no one could see
How he rambled so well.
"It was easy," said Andy,
And he flashed a cooked smile,
"I was snapped on the fanny
By the Terrible Towel!"


Yeah, verily did infidels cast aside their skepticism as the Steelers and the Terrible Towel whipped their way through the Oakland Raiders to the American Conference title, and through the Dallas Cowboys to victory in Super Bowl X.

Last year Pittsburgh again earned home-field advantage for the playoffs. That dictated the Terrible Towel's resurrection, its use being reserved exclusively for post-season games. And if I say so, this set a standard of commotion worthy of the Beatles and Elvis. The Denver Broncos came out on the field at Three Rivers and found themselves trapped in a vortex of yellow, gold and black terry cloth whirling against the bitter December sky like the swords of 50,000 Cossacks.

Lynn Swann, answering his introduction by the P.A. announcer, loped out to the goal line, leaped 4 feet into the air and snapped a Terrible Towel overhead, whereupon from the crowd there came a thunderclap of a roar such as I had never heard at an athletic event. Swann then presented his towel to his fellow wide receiver, John Stallworth, who proceeded to catch not three or four passes (a good day's work) but 10. Later as the Steelers put the finishing touches to a 33 - 10 trashing of the Broncos, an evesdropping NFL Films microphone caught Swann and Stallworth on the sideline taking inventory of their prospects for going all the way.

"We've got the offense," said Swann. "We've got the defense. We've got the QB. We've got Franco. We've got Joe Greene. We've got Chuck Noll." Slapping hands mightily with Stallworth, Swann concluded, "And we've got the Terrible Towel."

Next, Earl Campbell and the Houston Oilers came to town for the AFC Championship game. Multitudes of Western Pennsylvanians who had been unable to get ticket to the game draped towels over their television sets and radios, even over their dogs, cats and children. Towels hung from windows, lampposts and roofs. A department store chain that offered Terrible Towels at $6.50 each, with a charity earmarked as the beneficiary, had run out of them in four hours; it then ordered another shipment and had run out in two hours.

As the Steelers and the Oilers lined up for the opening kickoff, a yellow towel suddenly descended from the deck above the WTAE broadcasting booth, and as if by magic, jerked to a halt in midair 15 feet in front of the booth.

My binoculars revealed that painstaking Steelers fans had strung fishing line from the top deck clear down to the end zone to our left, their plan having been to release the towel at kickoff and let it slide by means of a pulley to the end zone. But then fishing line, so fine it had been invisible to the naked eye, had become coated with ice in the freezing rain that whipped the stadium, and that arrested the towel before our very eyes.

"What is that damned towel doing out there?" cried my broadcast partner, Jack Fleming. A large deep-voiced man and a football purist who from the outset had been hostile to my Terrible Towel. Fleming now found that the one before him removed half the gridiron from his vision as he was about to begin his play-by-play.

"Somebody get that towel out of here," he bellowed.

Minutes later, the roof above Fleming sprang a leak, and in an instant he was soaked. "Give me one of those damned things," he yelled reaching into an assortment of Terrible Towels at my elbow. While he mopped his spotter boards, I wondered. "Is the towel punishing an unbeliever?" I sat less than 3 feet from Flemming's left, yet no water fell on me. Meanwhile, our producer produced an umbrella, Fleming, livid, clutched it in a white-kunckled fist throughout the first quarter, craning to follow ballcarriers and receivers as they disappeared behind the yellow towel suspended before us, and roaring during every timeout for workmen to cut down the infernal rag.

That done at last, Fleming settled into a mood of controlled churlishness striving to find enjoyment in the fact that the Steelers were thundering toward a 34 - 5 win. Without warning, however, a Steelers fan named Larry Opperman, a one time unsuccessful candidate for the State Legislature, leaped from the stands across the field as the Oilers deployed to receive a kickoff. Opperman wore two Terrible Towels over a bathing suit, and he twirled another towel overhead. He raced past the Oilers' bench to the 50-yard line. He then zigzagged his way downfield through the entire Houston team, whooping like a madman. The crowd roared "Idiot," snapped Fleming.

Two days later, Opperman popped into my office unannounced. "I thought you might like to have this," he said. He handed me the towel he had worn. It was still slightly damp but was obviously a memento to e cherished. "How kind of you," I said.

But the impending Super Bowl showdown against the Dallas Cowboys at Miami troubled me. "The Terrible Towel does not like to travel," I cautioned the faithful in my radio and television commentaries. "The towel breathes life from the support it gets from the fans in the stadium, but Steelers fans are finding Super Bowl tickets hard to come by." Those fans, I had forgotten, had demonstrated at two previous Super Bowls involving their team that when it came to procuring tickets, John D. Rockefeller was no more adept at unearthing oil. They showed up in the Orange Bowl at least 20,000 strong, flying their Terrible Towels, and at game time, the towel gave a sign to the nation that it was ready.

On the Steelers first play from scrimmage, center Mike Webster hunkered over the ball wearing a yellow Terrible Towel tucked into his wristband. "I believe," said Bradshaw as he lined up over Webster. He touched the towel and proceeded to bombard the Cowboys dizzy firing four touchdown passes. The Steelers were ahead by 18 points, with some seven minutes remaining, whine I trotted down from our booth to the Pittsburgh bench to be nearer to the locker room, where I would conduct postgame radio interviews.

"Here," Webster said to me. He handed me the game towel, soggy by now. "I guess we don't need this anymore."

I stuffed the towel into my briefcase and zipped it closed. With that, the Cowboys awakened. They rallied for a quick touchdown to draw within 11 points. Steelers fans having had to lay 4 1/2 points and more, because uneasy. The towel, I was to realize later, cried out to be turned loose from my briefcase, but I did not hear its plaints above the din that filled the Orange Bowl. As the Cowboys drove to yet another score to reduce the final margin to a calamitous four points, the towel shrieked till its fibers popped, but it went unheard.

"How could you suffocate the towel when we needed it most? A fan demanded afterward. "I'm laughing for the Super Steelers but I'm crying inside to the tune of a hundred and a half."

Still the Steelers triumph prompted the information of the Terrible Towel bandwagons. From Ohio State, Purdue and the University of Iowa, reports came to me of basketball crowds twirling towels. The pro bowling tour stopped near Dallas where a transplanted Pittsburgh woman approached her favorite bowler, Marshall Holman, and handed him a Terrible Towel. Using it to wipe the perspiration from his hands, Holman won the $15,000 first prize. A distraught woman sent me a check for $6.50, beseeching me to send her a towel; the department store had been sold out when she tried to buy one. She explained that her nephew, injured in an auto accident weeks earlier, lay in a coma. "He's a Steelers fan," she wrote. "When he wakes up, the first thing we want him to see at his bedside is the Terrible Towel."

Mind you, being high priest of a towel does not turn my head. I have published four books and, before that, learned to play the clarinet, saxophone and piano. Yet it now appears certain that when my time comes, they will say to me in Pittsburgh, my longtime hometown, "Oh, he was the fellow who had that towel." Indeed in the aftermath of Super Bowl XIII, I received notification from the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio, that a set of three Terrible Towels was to be enshrined there for all to behold. I must remember to visit the Hall of Fame to see if the towels hang along side the busts of Bronko Nagurski and Sammy Baugh, or in a lavatory. Either way, I still remain composed.