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
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREA LONDON
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.
"I was 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 into style.'"
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 show.
"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 it."
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 that yet."
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 other magazines.
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 department."
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."
The Saturday 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 those days."
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 myself."
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 public taste."