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The Last Word: Pittsburgh Game Program

Nov 1, 2012, 1:32 PM EDT

Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The following column, written by Senior Associate A.D./Media & Broadcast Relations director John Heisler will appear as “The Last Word” in this weekend’s football game program.

I wish Beano Cook could have been here today.

First of all, today is National College Football Day, as designated annually by the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.

And every day was National College Football Day for Beano.

Second, as a former sports information director (1956-66) at the University of Pittsburgh (he took that job just two years after his graduation from Pitt), Cook would have loved to have sat in the Notre Dame Stadium press box this afternoon, watching his Panthers take on Notre Dame.

Beano, who died Oct. 11, was anything but a Notre Dame fan. When you are employed by the University of Pittsburgh, you aren’t in a position to ever root for your rivals, like Notre Dame and Penn State.

Beano, who joined ESPN in 1986, made it clear that if Notre Dame and Russia ever competed against each other in anything, he would always root for Russia.

Yet, there was a reverence about Notre Dame football for Beano, an Irish Catholic who moved to Pittsburgh at age seven and spent most of his life there. In that old-school way, he always pronounced it NO-truh Dame. He would tell you story after story about John Lattner and John Lujack and the glory days of the Frank Leahy years at Notre Dame. He had great (though somewhat grudging) respect for Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz and what their teams accomplished. Why? Because, for Beano, Parseghian and Holtz represented the sort of figures that made him adore college football.

As much as Beano revered college football, baseball prompted his disdain.

In 1981 when the United States hostages returned from Iran, Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn provided them with lifetime passes to MLB games. Responded Cook, “Haven’t they suffered enough?”

Beano despised flying, often noting the fact that most airports involved use of the word “terminal.”

Beano said, “You only have to bat a thousand in flying and heart transplants. Everything else, you can go four for five.”

Over the last decade or so, Beano generally would be a once-a-year guest on the Notre Dame athletic director’s radio show. With Beano, you never knew for sure what you were going to get—but you knew it would be entertaining and often a tad irreverent.

Human resource officers would have a field day with Beano, because he didn’t understand the meaning of the phrase “politically correct.” There was no reason to take offense—that was just Beano.

Understand that Beano came from a different era. When he worked as SID at Pitt, he had to fight and claw for every inch of newspaper space, particularly in a pro sports market like Pittsburgh. So Beano’s job was to charm the sportswriters into writing something about his Panthers—and he did it by being creative.

There were no e-mails or Internet or fax machines back then. You did your job by creating and maintaining personal relationships with the media. You picked up the phone and talked to them on a regular basis.

As Beano said, not long ago, “I don’t miss the games. I miss hanging out.”

Beano didn’t endear himself to Irish fans back in 1994 when after Ron Powlus made his Notre Dame quarterbacking debut by throwing four touchdown passes against Northwestern at Soldier Field, Cook suggested Powlus would win two Heisman Trophies. That albatross-like comment followed Powlus the rest of his career, yet he never complained about it. How could he? It came from the “Cardinal of College Football.”

Cook loved to tell anyone who would listen that the three toughest jobs around were President of the United States, mayor of New York City and football coach at Notre Dame.

In 2010, Cook received the Bert McGrane Award from the Football Writers Association of America. You don’t win that honor unless you’ve devoted a lifetime to covering the college game.

His humor and wit were legendary. He once offered that colleges spent more money promoting their Heisman Trophy candidates than the Pentagon spent on toilets. He complained about the length of college games, saying many lasted longer than marriages.

The magazine Editor & Publisher described him as “as forthright as a bayonet.”

Beano tried for a 1958 photo shoot with Pittsburgh basketball star Don Hennon and Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine while at Pitt. Salk refused to cooperate. Beano’s proposed caption was, “The world’s two greatest shot makers.” Beano was convinced that if the photo had been taken, it would have been printed by every newspaper in the world. He might have been right.

Beano once said, “When God created college football, he intended it to be played on grass at 1:30 in the afternoon. If God comes back and plans to attend one game, it won’t be the Super Bowl. On Sundays they play for money. On Saturdays they play for passion, for the love of the game. I think that’s why it’s our greatest sport.”

Beano once toured with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), serving as a sort of parole officer for a man released from jail in Florida. The man committed another crime and was sentenced to 15 years in jail. Beano’s reaction? That meant the man would miss the next 15 Ohio State-Michigan games.

Longtime ESPN contributor Ivan Maisel, who in recent years produced a weekly podcast with Beano, said of his colleague, “He collected friends like some people collect stamps.”

“Beano Cook was an American original,” said ESPN’s Chris Fowler.

Said Beano once, “I’d like to do the last scoreboard show and then go. I don’t want to die in the middle of the football season. I have to know who’s No. 1 in the last polls.”

Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Still, say a little prayer for Beano as you watch his beloved Panthers face the Irish today.

We may not see anyone like him come around this way any time soon.

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