The History of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Terrible Towel

Fans holding The Terrible Towel at a Pittsburgh Steelers football game
SteelCityHobbies/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Every self-respecting Pittsburgh Steelers football fan has a bright yellow towel with the words "Terrible Towel" emblazoned in black on it, but where this towel got its start might be a mystery to some fans.

Since it began at a 1975 playoff game between the Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, the tradition of bringing a bright team-colored towel, or "rally rag," to the game to generate fan excitement has long been a crowd favorite at Pittsburg games.

If you're in the city during a home game, don't miss the chance to see this championship-winning NFL team play ball—and don't forget to bring a Terrible Towel with you to Heinz Field on game day so you'll fit right in with the home fans.

Getting Fans Excited: The Origins

The idea for marketing yellow towels was the brainchild of Myron Cope, a broadcaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Terrible Towel was a gimmick he created to excite the fans during a 1975 playoff football game between the Steelers and the then Baltimore Colts.

A towel was chosen because it was small, portable, and something that just about every fan could own. It's nothing fancy—just a bright yellow towel. But when those towels started waving at Steelers games, the stands turned into a sea of yellow that presented a strong, very visible show of support for the team, rallying the already-loud Steelers fans to a fever pitch.

History of the Official Terrible Towel

Initially, any yellow or black towel brought to the game was considered part of the fun, but a marketing team in the mid-1970s decided to start branding towels with the "Terrible Towel" to sell as merchandise at the games.

According to a 1995 story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, before the towels were branded, people would come to local department stores and buy out all the yellow and black hand towels, but leave the matching bath towels behind. Since manufacturers shipped both according to a fixed ratio of hand to bath towels, this left quite a surplus of bath towels for local stores.

To remedy the towel dilemma, an early, special souvenir version of the Terrible Towel was created in 1975 bearing the slogan "Official Myron Cope Terrible Towel." Fans soon flocked to the stores to buy up the official team swag, and the stands were filled with waving yellows and blacks.

The official towel is now available in many official versions and can be purchased from the Steelers Pro Shop, and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Terrible Towel benefits local Pennsylvania charities. In 2009, a pink Terrible Towel was launched promoting Breast Cancer Awareness.

While you don't need to have an officially-branded Terrible Towel to be part of the fun now, having one was certainly a big deal when these towels first made an appearance in the late 1970s. You can make your own terrible towel at home, though, with a bit of black fabric paint or bleach—depending on if you want to write on a black or yellow hand towel, that is.