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The Big Picture: Home opener almost normal

Monday, October 08, 2001

At game's start, at a time to celebrate Heinz Field's regular-season debut, the radio broadcasters were watching television. They were concerned. They were confused. They were feeling a grocery list of emotions, the last being festive.

"It was, like, kind of weird," Tunch Ilkin said. "We could see that we started the bombing. We're having a football game here, and we're having a war there. We were wondering, 'Are they going to start the game?' "

The games went on. President Bush -- last seen around a Sunday afternoon kickoff a month earlier handling the coin toss -- interrupted the first 10 minutes of network NFL broadcasts so he could tell the nation about the start of the war on terrorism. His new secretary for Homeland Security, former Gov. Tom Ridge, was standing in the lush Heinz Field grass for a pregame ceremony. It was an odd juxtaposition.

The games went on. The Steelers toppled the Bengals, Myron Cope went "pish and tush," and Bill Hillgrove accidentally referred to it as Three Rivers Stadium. The first official football Sunday on the North Shore sounded like most others. During the Steelers Radio Network broadcast, however, regular host Guy Junker of Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh and the newsroom from flagship WDVE-FM provided updates from the real world.

The games went on, and maybe half the Heinz Field patrons knew about the news outside the building's walls, and 150 of them huddled in the Great Hall afterward to be entertained by Ilkin and Cope.

Nothing like the diversions of football and Mahrn.

At game's end, Cope dragged his suitcase on wheels to the Steelers locker room for the postgame interview show, when Jerome Bettis criticized the Heinz Field patrons: "The fans never even stood up. They looked like they were just watching the game." Bettis couldn't have known that their minds were likely elsewhere.

At postgame show's end, Cope dragged himself to the Great Hall, where cold bleachers and a record crowd faced his personal stage. It's a Hawaiian chupah, a Polynesian porch, or however you'd identify the thatch canopy that covers the craniums of Ilkin and the Steelers' colorful commentator of the past 32 seasons. The radio folks simply call it Cope's Cabana, and they start the show with the star crooning a borrowed theme to it. (And how do you identify that song, Barry Marhnilow?)

Terrible Towels waved and fans exulted as the Cabana's man hitched his pants and hunkered into his seat. For the next hour, he talked about the "love-ah-lee" crowd there, Aaron Smith's amazing one-handed sack, a caller watching his language ("we run a clean show here"), the quiet fans, the winter chill in the airy Great Hall. "Would somebody close the door on that darn tunnel? ... Or build a door and close it fast?" Y-y-y-y-y-yoi.

One female questioner asked Cope to "never, ever, ever retire." Ilkin responded, "I think she has a crush on you." To which Cope replied emphatically, "She should."

At show's end, off the air and back in the real world, Cope said he could hardly take any more of the terrorism news. "It depresses the heck out of me. I was in the Depression. ... World War II. ... At my age, I don't seem to have the mental resilience anymore. But, when the game started, yes, we were into it just like the fans."

For a while, the games went on and broadcasters entertained.

Hmm hah, we needed that.

Program notes

Starting today, WEAE-AM (1250) is moving Mark Madden's weekday show an hour earlier, 3-7 p.m. That not only bumps the final hour of ESPN Radio's Dan Patrick show, it also puts the station in direct drive-time competition with the 3-6 p.m. show by Scott Paulsen on WBGG-AM (1360).

The WEAE switch also gives newcomer Tim Benz a second hour, extending his show to 7-9 p.m. weeknights. Although sometimes his sarcasm and pessimism is too much for one man's taste, he does an excellent job using locker-room interviews and lengthy sound bytes as guest cameos for his show.

All right, so maybe The Big Picture was too critical Thursday of his high-school football announcing debut on a Red Zone Media broadcast the week prior. "You're a few notches below John Madden, but you're a few notches higher than Beasley Reece," said Don Rebel of the rival NSN Sports Network. Well, then, let the network bidding begin.

In addition to The Big Picture, Chuck Finder writes a general-sports column exclusive to the http://www.post-gazette.com/ every Tuesday. He can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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