Without a doubt, football has become the most popular sport in America. With that comes some of the most passionate fans in existence.
Many fans come up with their own little quirks they do to support their teams. When it catches on, the quirk becomes as synonymous with the organization as the championships they win and the players that wear their uniform.
In Green Bay, fans wear wedges of cheese on their heads. In Cleveland, dog masks represent the passionate fan, even going as far as calling their fans “The Dog Pound.”
When you live in Pittsburgh, and want to root on your hometown Steelers, then there is only one way to show your support.
The Terrible Towel!
What's with The Terrible Towel?
For an outsider, it’s hard to understand why a simple yellow towel is such a huge deal. It would be easier (and perhaps make more sense) to have an autographed jerseyor football be the rallying point.
When you hail from Pittsburgh however, you know it's not just a towel. It's a symbol of your dedication, and it's a good luck charm. That towel represents the spirit of the whole city, and if you bring one to a game, you know two things: you're part of the in-crowd, and you truly belong.
Here's the story of how it all began, and why the towel was the perfect choice for the fans.
In 1921, Hope-Harvey became a football team, named for the Hope ward firehouse where they showered and changed, and for Dr. Harvey, who treated their injuries at no charge. Art Rooney, who later became the owner of the Steelers, played and coached the team, as well as recruited new players.
After a few years, the team secured a sponsor, an electronics store that sold Majestic Radios. The store renamed the team the Majestic Radios, after Rooney convinced them to provide new leather helmets and green jerseys.
This would not last long, as the team received another new name because the sponsor couldn't afford to continue after the Great Depression. They were named for Art's brother Jim, who was becoming quite a football star.
The J. P. Rooneys
During their final years as a regional team, the J. P. Rooneys gained more and more press coverage and attracted new players. Art, who stopped playing after 1930, around the same time he got married, never stopped trying to schedule more of their games inside the city, and with professional teams.
The team went undefeated in 1931. In 1932, Jim Rooney was in a car accident that left him with lifelong pain and injuries. By the time state law finally allowed communities to decide for themselves whether sports could be played on Sundays, Art was ready to franchise his team and join the NFL. In the same year the Rooneys would join the NFL, the Chicago Cardinals, who later moved to St. Louis, and finally to Arizona in 1988, along with the Philadelphia Eagles would also join. In their first season as a professional team in 1933, the J.P. Rooneys received another new name: the Pittsburgh Pirates Football Club, taking the name from the professional baseball team already in the city.
Art had six weeks to scrounge together a team competitive enough for the pros. The man had a heart for the city, whose families were mostly down-and-out and had little to eat. Despite the frenzy to get the team ready, Art planned a benefit prize fight and donated the proceeds to those in need.
When the 1933 season was almost finished, and after playing many of their games on Wednesdays, the city voted to allow them to play on Sundays. Their first Sunday game, against Brooklyn, later the New York Giants, was a terrible loss, putting their first season's record as 3 wins, 6 losses, and 2 ties.
Only half the number of fans Art hoped for actually showed up. Professional football wasn't nearly the popular pastime that college ball was back then, and the viewers were making a political statement if they chose to come and support the team on a Sunday.
Art held an exhibition game at the end of the season to try and recoup some of his losses from the year. His big heart won out again though, and he gave half the proceeds to charity.
The National Football League was garnering more and more support. While many of its teams didn't actually make any money, they were becoming more popular. Before the season began, the league had changed some rules, which resulted in more interesting games and fewer ties.
The Pirates went through coaches quickly, seeking someone who could motivate the players, help them win, and get along with them. Ironically, Pittsburgh would become famous for only having 3 head coaches from 1969 to present day. Some of the coaches from the early days were:
Jap Douds (1933)
Joe Bach ( 1935-1936, 1952-1953)
Johnny "Blood" (1937-1939)
Walt Kiesling ( 1940-1944, 1954-1956)
Jock Sutherland (1946-1947)
John Michelosen (1948-1951)
Buddy Parker ( 1957-1964)
Bill Austin (1966-1968)
Chuck Noll (1969-1991)
It was Chuck Noll, who Art Rooney thought made the biggest difference. Even though he lost all games but one during his first year as coach, it was during his tenure as coach, beginning in the late sixties, that they finally began to turn around as a team.
Player Shortages and More Name Changes
Before they began to win, however, Pittsburgh had to make it through a few rough decades.
In early 1940, the Pirates decided it was too confusing to have the same name as the city's professional baseball team. They received a new name once again, this time settling on the Steelers, for the steel industry that was such a big part of Pittsburgh.
Two mergers changed their team name a few more times in the forties. In 1943, the Steelers joined with the Philadelphia Eagles due to shortages of players from World War II. The team was called the Phil-Pitt Eagles, although some chose to call them the Steagles.
In 1944, the Chicago Cardinals needed some help to make ends meet, and again many men were at war leaving the teams short on players. The two teams joined up, but even Art said looking back that was a bad idea.
They became the Pitt-Cards or Card-Pitt (leading to an unfortunate nickname: The Carpets) and had two coaches: Kiesling, the then Pirates coach, and Phil Handler from Chicago. According to Art, both men cared more about gambling than football. In the end, the teams couldn't get along, finishing with zero wins that season.
Still, the Steelers struggled, only playing in one playoff game before 1970.
The Steelers and Today's NFL
From 1960 to 1969, the American Football League tried to compete with the NFL. It was the fourth time a group of the same name tried to form in direct opposition with the older organization, the other times were 1926, 1936, and 1940, respectively.
The first Super Bowl was held in 1967. The then-titled AFL-NFL World Championship Game was a meeting of the champion from each league.
In 1970, the NFL absorbed the AFL, and divided itself into two conferences, the NFC (National Football Conference) and the AFC (American Football Conference). The Steelers did not want to be part of the AFC with the other teams from the old AFL, but they were persuaded when offered $3 million paid over 5 years to switch. It was important that each conference have an equal number of teams.
Chuck Noll became the Steelers head coach in 1970, although it didn't immediately turn the Steelers' fate around. In his first season the team only won one game.
Through great recruiting strategy, beginning with the number one draft pick after their terrible season, Noll helped the team on its way to greatness.
It was before the 1975 playoff game against the Baltimore Colts, today the Indianapolis Colts, that Myron Cope, a sports announcer in Pittsburgh, received an ultimatum. His boss needed him to come up with some kind of "gimmick," as he called it, for the radio station. He made sure to point out that Cope would be up for rehire soon, and implied that he would be fired if he didn't.
Not normally a gimmick guy, Cope agreed to find a way to fire up the fans. The radio station didn't want to spend the $25,000 required for black plastic masks, and so Cope came up with someone everyone already had at home. He encouraged the fans to bring a yellow or black towel to wave in the air at the game.
In the days before the big game, Cope repeated on the radio over and over that the "Terrible Towel is poised to strike!" and the gimmick worked. Yellow or gold towels were easy to get if the fans didn't already have them, and they sold out the department stores. This caused a huge disruption for the stores however, as they bought the hand towels with the bath towels as a set, and were stuck with the leftover bath towels no one needed.
The Terrible Towel
The towel was too late for Super Bowl IX, a game played in 1975 after the 1974 season. By the 1975 season however, when Myron Cope made the towel famous, the team needed some pep.
We now know that the Terrible Towel worked because a combination of motion and color together create hype and chaos that fans and teams crave. Back then however, fans claimed it worked because Frank Lewis caught a one-handed pass from Terry Bradshaw after wiping his hands on a Terrible Towel. Also, Andy Russell ran a 93-yard touchdown after someone smacked his butt with a Terrible Towel.
The towel was the good luck charm for Super Bowl X in 1976, and Super Bowl XI in 1977. Cope wrote later that his co-announcer was cursing a yellow towel that had gotten stuck blocking his view of a game, when the ceiling sprung a leak.
His co-announcer was rained on, though he was inside the building, during the entire game. Cope stayed dry, causing him to wonder if the towel was bringing vengeance on a non-believer in the towel's magic.
Fans today continue to attribute their success to the Terrible Towel, which is now mass-produced in high quantities and limited-run memorial editions today.
Myron Cope's Other Accomplishments
For a man who wanted to be known for more than adopting a towel as a gimmick, he had a lot of other accomplishments to choose from. He won numerous awards and prizes for his sports writing. Cope authored four books, including:
Off My Chest, co-authored with Jimmy Brown
Broken Cigars (a collection of articles)
The Game That Was: The Early Days of Pro Football (also has a second edition)
Double Yoi! (autobiography, also has a second edition)
He also received recognition for being the first sports announcer inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. Most notably though, was his contribution to research and care for those with autism.
Cope and Autism
Cope’s son was born with severe autism, which gave him a great personal commitment to serve on the board of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Autism Society of America. He also donated the rights to the Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania.
The school provides education for people with disabilities, and the towel has earned them over $3 million in donations from the revenue it produces.
Cope did great things for a lot of people, but he is still known as the creator of the Terrible Towel.
When Cope passed away in 2008, his daughter Elizabeth, who now serves as guardian for her autistic brother, covered his coffin with a quilt made from terrible towels. She wanted to honor the community that the towels have come to represent, and that supported her family throughout her father's considerable career.
Cope left behind a city with deep roots for supporting those in need. From the beginning near the time of the Depression and the benefits for the poor that Art Rooney threw, to the support he gave the Allegheny Valley School, Pittsburgh knows the importance of coming together.
American Football at Its Finest
Stories like this deserve to be told. The grit and determination it takes to carry a team through the Great Depression and turn it into a billion dollar endeavor is hard to fathom. To create an icon out of a simple object like a towel, means there is a ton of support behind it.
The Steelers and the Terrible Towel have a rich history, steeped in tradition and destined for success in the years to come.