The Terrible Towel is a fan symbol associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers, an American football team in the National
Football League (NFL). Created in 1975 by then Steelers radio broadcaster Myron Cope, the Towel has since become "arguably the best-known fan symbol of any major pro sports team". Since its invention, The Terrible Towel has spread in popularity; fans take their Towel to famous sites while on vacation. The Towel has been taken to the peak of Mount Everest and seen on Saturday Night Live. It is widely recognized as a symbol of the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh.
Proceeds from sales of the Towel have raised over US$3 million for a Pennsylvania school which cares for people with mental retardation and physical disabilities. The Terrible Towel is credited with being the first "rally towel" and its success has given rise to similar products promoting other teams. Numerous versions have been produced; all are black and gold in color with the words "Myron Cope's Official The Terrible Towel" printed on the front.
Two weeks prior to the Steelers' first playoff game of the 1975 season, the team's flagship radio station WTAE's Vice President and General Manager, Ted J. Atkins, and President of Sales, Larry Garrett, explained that they needed Cope's assistance in inventing a "gimmick" in order to attract sponsors to his daily commentaries and talk show. Initially, Cope did not want to participate, saying "I am not a gimmick guy, never have been a gimmick guy." However, after Garrett's suggestion that a successful gimmick would be good leverage for a raise in Cope's upcoming contract renewal, Cope replied, "I'm a gimmick guy."
The three men, along with other radio station advertising personnel, began brainstorming ideas. One idea, a black mask including coach Chuck Noll's motto "Whatever it takes", was deemed too expensive. Cope said the gimmick should be something "lightweight and portable and already owned by just about every fan." Garrett suggested using towels. Cope agreed, suggesting the words "The Terrible Towel" be printed on the front. It was agreed that the towels would be gold or yellow, with the writing in black—the colors of the Steelers. Franklin C. Snyder, who was head of WTAE's radio and television stations, held the final approval of the idea. He approved the idea on the stipulation that black towels would also be allowed, in order to avoid accusations of racism from the FCC; Cope and Garrett agreed.
In the weeks leading up to the game, Cope advertised the idea of the towel to fans on the radio and evening television news, using the phrase "The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!" However, Atkins grew nervous that fans would think the towel was a jinx if the Steelers lost the game. Cope agreed to poll players on their view of the towel. Linebacker Jack Ham told Cope, "I think your idea stinks"; Ernie "Fats" Holmes was also against the idea. Also against the idea of the Towel was Andy Russell, who mirrored Cope's original thoughts, "We're not a gimmick team. We've never been a gimmick team." Cope simply replied, "Russell, you're sick." Growing nervous about the negative feedback, Cope, who had already advertised the towel on the news multiple times, polled the rest of the players with a "banana-republic vote".
The Towel made its debut on December 27, 1975 in a playoff game against the Baltimore Colts. Prior to the game, Cope watched the gathering fans through his binoculars from the broadcast booth. Cope, whose idea had been mocked by the local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, saw less than a dozen towels while players were going through pre-game warm-ups. Cope recalls the event, "Nearing kickoff, the Steelers gathered in their tunnel for introductions, whereupon the crowd exploded—and suddenly, by my estimation, 30,000 Terrible Towels twirled from the fists of fans around the stadium!" The Steelers went on to defeat the Colts 28–10. In the following weeks, the team defeated the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys, to capture the franchise's second consecutive Super Bowl victory. Even while the Steelers struggled through the 1980s, the Towel remained a large part of the franchise.
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