Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated & The MMQB
Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated & The MMQB

The Terrible Towel

The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project running through mid-July detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.

“Your idea was pure genius,” Steelers president Dan Rooney once told team broadcaster Myron Cope. “But you were too stupid to know what you were doing.”

WTAE was looking for a gimmick. It was December 1975, and in two weeks the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers would host the Baltimore Colts for a playoff game. The team’s flagship radio station was looking for something to both energize fans and draw the attention of sponsors. Cope, the team’s radio broadcaster, was asked to join a brainstorming session. As Cope recalled in a 1979 essay for Sports Illustrated:

“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?” [VP of sales Larry] 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 ‘em to bring gold or yellow towels.”

The concept didn’t sit well with players. (Linebacker Andy Russell: “What’s this crap about a towel? We’re not a gimmick team.”) But it was a hit with fans. Cope approximated that 30,000 towels were in attendance when Pittsburgh beat the Colts. The Steelers went on to win a second straight Super Bowl, making Cope’s gimmick a part of the team’s lore.

Before he passed away in 2008, Cope ensured that the Terrible Towel would have an impact beyond the gridiron. Cope’s son, Danny, was born severely autistic and required 24-hour care. The Copes sent Danny to the Allegheny Valley School, where he developed further than Myron thought possible. In 1996, Cope thanked the school by giving it the trademark rights to the Terrible Towel, along with the millions of dollars in royalties that come with it.

—Gary Gramling

Future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann (left) and John Stallworth show off their Terrible Towels after beating Houston to earn a trip to Super Bowl XIII. (Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated)
Future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann (left) and John Stallworth show off their Terrible Towels after beating Houston to earn a trip to Super Bowl XIII. (Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated)

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