By Bob Hertzel
— Normally, the death of sports celebrity from Pittsburgh, even a legendary one, would not be quite as personal here in West Virginia as is the death of Carroll Hoff Cook.
You knew him as Beano.
And I say you knew him with confidence that you did. Everyone knew Beano Cook.
If you had anything to do with college football, you knew this rumpled pundit, usually in a black suit that looked as though it needed a quick trip to the dry cleaner, wadded up pieces of newspaper crammed into the suit pockets.
And, if you were from West Virginia, you really knew Beano Cook.
After all, it was he who picked West Virginia University to win the national championship in 1998 on national television, just as he predicted two Heisman Trophies for Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus.
WVU didn’t get its title, still hasn’t, and Powlus is still awaiting that first Heisman … but people talked about it and debated it, and Beano knew he’d done just what he set out to do.
For 10 years, from 1956 to 1966, he was the sports information director at Pitt, days when the rivalry really flourished, and a legendary SID he was. Even after his days being employed by Pitt, when he was living alone in a downtown apartment, showing up here and there, holding court in a corner of the press box in Three Rivers Stadium or with just someone who recognized him on the street, he was promoting college football.
Yeah, he was the enemy if you were from West Virginia, but coach Don Nehlen once called him “one of the only Pitt guys I like.”
The press room at Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh is named for him.
That he made it big time in television was something of a tribute to the two things TV lacks — honesty and reality.
His was not a face made for TV and his body … well in his tribute to him last week the great writer David Kindred described him as a “graying, pasty, lumpy” man. And another great writer, Tom Callahan, described his voice as “The voice of a plumbing fixture gargling Drano.”
With Beano Cook, though, it was what he said, not how he said it, that mattered.
At the height of his popularity, Beano Cook was to college football what Dick Vitale was to basketball.
He was a cult figure, less enthusiastic, perhaps, than Vitale, but no less involved, and it didn’t matter if he was working for Pitt, for ABC, for the Miami Dolphins or CBS.
His influence was enough that when he died at 81 last weekend after battling diabetes for a number of years his obituary found its way into no less a newspaper than The New York Times, which pointed out that his nickname was “The Pope of College Football.”
His secret to success was quite simple. Beano was what he was. That guy you saw on TV, that was no television persona … he was just Beano.
And being Beano meant that you worshipped at the altar of Rockne, that Vince Lombardi may have earned his fame at Green Bay but never was better than when he was one of Fordham’s “Seven Blocks of Granite” and that the greatest invention of all time was USC’s “Student Body Right.”
But, with it all, he being a Pitt guy, it still came back to the Backyard Brawl. He was an expert on the history of the Brawl, a history that was dominated in the early days by Pittsburgh and in the later days by West Virginia.
He had many favorite games, but none more than the 1955 Pitt 26-7 victory over West Virginia that put them in the Sugar Bowl. He called it “the most important win for Pitt since the 1938 Fordham game. It put Pitt back in the national picture.”
But he liked it for another reason, too, and that was what writer Bill Evans wrote down this way about the procession of West Virginia fans driving home from Pittsburgh.
“The longest funeral procession in the history of mankind,” he called it.
In recent years, Cook’s failing health slowed him. He wasn’t out of his downtown Pittsburgh apartment very much and, to be honest, he didn’t see much reason to leave.
His world was changing, and his world was college football.
“Nobody has fun anymore,” he noted. “College football is now a business. The kids go to summer school. Freshmen come early, the spring semester — the last free time anybody has is your senior year of high school — and a lot of kids miss that now. Football’s year-round. And everybody hates everybody. Nobody laughs anymore. Members of the media think that everything they write or say is more important than the Ten Commandments.”
That is a far cry from the quote of Beano’s that greeted every media member at his press box seat at last Saturday’s Pitt game, a quote from Beano a number of years back, one that sums up the one love affair he had in his life perfectly:
“Why do I love college football? The passion,” it read. “A lot of us who follow college football are like Walter Mitty. We dream of being the Saturday hero. 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.
“When people study this civilization 10 thousand years from now, historians are going to be baffled about why more people followed pro football than college. They are going to decide that it was a weakness of this civilization that more people wanted to watch pro football on Sundays rather than college on Saturdays.
“Many things have changed about the game during my lifetime, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the passion.”
Bob Hertzel is a columnist for The Times West Virginian in Fairmont, W.Va. Contact him at bhertzel@hotmail.