| Towels and Points Delight
Photos of Terrible Towel
Terrible Towel Changes Livesl
By Myron Cope
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.
He 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 ore -
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 moneymakers, preceives the impact of the Terrible Towel,
which, dirty or laundered is held to be good reason for the moneymakers
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
Here I should
explain that I'm a Pittsburgh radio/television sports commentatior 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?"
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."
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.
Garrett, "your contract with us expires in three months."
"I'm a gimmick
guy," I shrugged.
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 apiece, $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."
towels?" Garrett said.
"A towel?" It had
"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
"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
"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
"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
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 dammed 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
"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,
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.
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:
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!"
Yea, 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
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 goal line, leaped 4 feet into air and snapped a Terrible Towel overhead, whereupon from crowd there came thunderclap of roar such as I had never heard at an athletic event. Swann then presented fellow wide receiver, John Stallworth, who proceeded catch not three or four passes (a good day's work) but 10. Later Steelers put finishing touches 33 - 10 trashing Broncos, evesdropping NFL Films microphone caught Stallworth on sideline taking inventory their prospects for going all 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
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 Oilers lined up for opening kickoff, a yellow towel suddenly descended from deck above WTAE broadcasting booth, if by magic, jerked to halt in midair 15 feet front of booth. >
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
dammed 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
that towel out of here," he bellowed.
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.
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."
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
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.