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The Big Picture: Cope, crew reminisce as WTAE bows out

Monday, December 28, 1998

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Late tonight, WTAE-AM signs off as the Steelers' flagship station after 29 seasons, 10 AFC championship games, eight Hall of Famers, four Super Bowl championships, two head coaches, too many yois to count and a Terrible Towel.

In the radio business, this constitutes Immaculate Reception.

"When a contract runs that long with one station, it's almost like it's an institutional thing," said Bill Hillgrove, the play-by-play voice. He understands now that one year shy of 30 seems to be the current expiration date on institutions. Pitt's relationship with the station came to an end last June after the exact same radio tenure, with the university taking its games to KQV-AM.

The Steelers' singular relationship with the station known as Sports Radio 1250 is expected to close any day now, with the games heading to either WDVE-FM or KDKA-AM - from whence they came three decades ago.

On the morn of this Steelers-Jacksonville sign-off, we celebrate the storied history between a football team and its flagship by spinning the favorite memories of the broadcast booth's three veterans.

For auld lang syne, my dears. . . .

J.D. Fogarty: He first came to the radio booth in the summer of 1968, the fourth exhibition game, against Green Bay at Milwaukee. He was expecting to once again work the sidelines for the team that employed his father but was told to report upstairs to toil as a radio spotter. Having come unprepared for such duty, he had to borrow Rocky Bleier's glasses. The glasses went back. The job remains Fogarty's..

"There wasn't that much interest in the Steelers at that time," Fogarty said, noting that KDKA used to play the Steelers' games on tape delay after Pirates broadcasts. By 1970, the Steelers took their broadcast rights along with play-by-play announcer Jack Fleming to WTAE-AM, where the transistor-radio world was first subjected to a colorful-commentary diet of Myron Cope. "He was refreshing because he was well prepared and well read. He was sort of a surprise early on, and there was a chemistry between him and Fleming that was unbelievable. It was one of those things you can never imagine happening, and it happened.

"Anyway, we go to the second Super Bowl [X in 1975, at Miami]. Cope's Terrible Towel goes to another level. NBC asks Cope to come to the field to do a spot. We're on our way down through the Orange Bowl seats, and all the vendors [mimicking Cope's worst warble] say, 'Hey, Mahrn,' and they all have Terrible Towels. They were all the vendors from Pittsburgh; they came down to work so they could see the game.

"It has been one of the greatest rides. It's going to be hard [ending the WTAE-AM years], but ... these are the times. You sign off as the best, and you'll be the best, no matter what the call letters are."

Hillgrove: In 1970, WTAE parked Hillgrove's posterior in the Pitt play-by-play chair and Cope's in the Steelers' color-commentator chair. They shared a friendship even before they shared a Pitt season together, in the 1970s when Johnny Sauer had a heart attack. They became Steelers sidekicks in 1994 upon Fleming's departure.

"I remember listening to one game in the '70s," Hillgrove began. "Fleming and Cope were going at each other pretty good, waging a war of words. Myron always left the booth with two minutes left so he could get to the locker room for postgame interviews, unless the game was still close. This time, he said, 'Well, Jack, I'm going to head downstairs.' Fleming came back, 'Why don't you leave through the front of the booth?'

"Just being in the booth for Super Bowl XXX was a trip. We went to check out our booth early that week, and it was a security booth that they were turning into a radio booth. Myron saw the glass in there, and he wanted his half of the window taken out because he has this thing about hearing the crowd noise. So he called the NFL, Joe Browne, the commissioner's right-hand man. I figured that would be about 10th on their list of priorities. But we go in there the day of the game, and half the window was taken out - my half. He's still behind glass, 'cause he always sits to the left. We were doing the pregame show, and there was a knock at the door. It was Paul Tagliabue. The commissioner said, 'Mr. Cope, is everything in this booth to your liking?' I just fell out."

Cope: He has worked with two head coaches (Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher), two play-by-play men (Fleming and Hillgrove), two analysts (Merril Hoge and Tunch Ilkin) and five Super Bowl teams. Does he consider himself fortunate that three decades ago the folks at WTAE decided to put his sandpaper voice and his henh henh humor on Steelers' broadcasts? Youbetcha. Asked to jot down his Steelers-station memories, he apologized a few days later by saying, "I only have four pages.

"Dec. 23, 1972. I took myself out of the booth unintentionally. I figured the ballgame was lost, and I didn't want to get stuck in that crowd with the national media. Franco Harris ran right at me, in the corner of the end zone. In the films, you can see me: a little guy in a trenchcoat and a bald spot. Fleming did a great job with the call - that's the one you hear on all the replays. But I would have liked to have been in that booth.

"That day, Franco was the last guy in the locker room. Joe Gordon, the PR guy, he delivered a telegram. It was from Corporal Francis Sinatra - he forgot we made him a colonel in Franco's Italian Army. Anyway, I tried to get on the radio newscast to mention that. I was on a microphone in the locker room and I can hear the newscast. We had our biggest audience in history. The newscast went on and on without me, and it sounded like they were wrapping up. I didn't know my mike was on, and I said, 'What the ...,' and it got on the air. My wife wouldn't sit with me later on. I heard a story later that the station manager was driving home with the program director. He heard me say that and told the program director, 'You will fire that man Monday.'

"I remember we were in Cleveland for a night game. Noll came to my hotel room that morning to tape his pregame show. The engineer said there was static everywhere in that room, so we kept changing places. Finally, he found a place where there wasn't any static. I sat on the edge of the bathtub, and Noll sat on the toilet, and I said, 'By God, the Emperor is on his throne.'

"Super Bowl XIII against Dallas. George Halas was taken to midfield for the coin toss on one of those motorized vehicles. Somehow, the electrical lines got crossed, and the TV audience across the country, instead of listening to the coin toss, they're hearing me yell, 'Mark my words, Sam Davis is gonna trim Randy White today.' [My voice] had to scare the country half to death.

"By the way, Sam Davis did."

Whatever you say, fellas.

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