According to Myron Cope's memoir, Double Yoi! , he's been asked this question more than any other. Cope cites this as proof that "I have led a trivial life -- a piece of terrycloth will be the monument to my career."
As Cope tells the story, prior to the December 1975 AFC Championship, his radio station's general manager called him into the office and asked Cope to "come up with some sort of gimmick for the playoffs -- something that will involve the people."
Cope's initial response: "I'm not a gimmick guy. Never have been a gimmick guy."
A sales rep at the meeting explained that if there were "some kind of object the fans could wave or wear," advertisers would see Cope's influence, and rush to sponsor his show.
"Besides," the sales rep told him, "your contract with us expires in three months."
"I'm a gimmick guy," Cope replied.
Indeed, Cope came up with the towel soon after. A towel had several advantages: It was "lightweight and portable and already owned by just about every fan," Cope writes. It was also practical: Fans could wipe their seats with it, "use it as a muffler against the cold" or "drape it over their heads if it rains."
As the book concedes, the towel had some precedent. Three years before, Cope writes, the Miami Dolphins, who were "charging through the 1972 season undefeated, had encouraged their fans to cheer big plays and touchdowns by waving white handkerchiefs. Tens of thousands of fluttering hankies made for a nice show of enthusiasm, but came across too dainty for the game of football."
Some 30,000 fans brought towels to the Towel's championship debut -- a Dec. 27, 1975 victory over the Baltimore Colts -- and the Towel became one of the most recognized symbols in football. As Cope wrote with typical restraint in a 1979 newspaper account, "Verily did infidels cast aside their skepticism" when they saw the towels "whirling against the bitter December sky like the swords of 50,000 Cossacks." In those early days, claims a 1995 Tribune-Review newspaper story, local department stores were vexed when fans bought only the hand-towel size of black, white, and gold towels: The habit threw off inventory managers who'd bought towels in full sets. Later, Cope introduced an official version of the Terrible Towel, with the proceeds benefiting local charities.
The Towel did have doubters early on. Cope writes that famed linebacker Jack Ham told him, "I think your idea sinks." Another defensive standout, Andy Russell, informed Cope, "We're not a gimmick team. We've never been a gimmick team."
"His words had a ring of familiarity," Cope admits in Double Yoi!
Media outlets were wary of the Towel as well. On the day of the Towel's debut, Post-Gazette sports reporter Vito Stellino opined that between the Colts and the Steelers, "It's difficult to figure out which side is cornier, what with the Colts coming up with rhymes and nicknames, and Steelers fans threatening to bring enough towels to make the stadium look like a tenement district."
But what did Stellino know about Steelers hype? Back then, journalists actually believed in restraint when writing about football. Including Stellino's article, the P-G's game-day coverage for the 1975 AFC Championship involved less than one-half of one page. By comparison, I count more than three full pages of Steelers material in my copy of today's P-G -- printed six days before the Super Bowl. (The same issue, incidentally, includes an editorial cartoon mocking TV reporters for being Steelers cheerleaders. Cartoonist, lampoon thyself.)
That's not to say Steelers fans were less intense back then. They were just goaded less. Rooting sections such as Franco's Italian Army and Gerela's Gorillas (anybody? anybody?) were largely homegrown, with accessories purchased from war-surplus stores and costume shops. Fans made do without special pull-out sections and Big Ben barbecue sauce. For today's sports marketers, by contrast, a gimmick that was "already owned by just about every fan" would be unthinkable.
In fact, perhaps the reason the Terrible Towel endures is precisely because it retains that purity. It's a symbol everyone can afford: You can still use a plain old hand towel from home, and in a world of $150 jerseys, the licensed version is cheap (under $10 in most places I've seen it).
Started as a marketing "gimmick," the Towel is perhaps the least commercialized accessory in football fandom. That's yet another reason to be proud of waving it.