Is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terrible Towel actually a terrible towel? We tested it

Apologies to Myron Cope.

Her serious side eye says everything you need to know about this test.

Her serious side eye says everything you need to know about this test.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE
colindeppen

I’ve never given much thought to the towels in my life, and there have been many: The embroidered bamboo bath set I bought my mother for Christmas and somehow never saw again; The bleach-stained and biologically diverse samples found hanging in the bathrooms of Airbnbs; The ancient and threadbare heirlooms that burst forth, Jack-in-the-Box-like, from my kitchen drawers at home.

All are towels and all absorb water to some extent … at least presumably, Mom.

But what makes a towel bad or good anyway? Bad or good relative to what? How could you determine if Pittsburgh’s ubiquitous Terrible Towel is in fact a terrible towel? Apologies to Myron Cope.

I could almost hear Cope’s disembodied voice urging me on, telling me that, same as with the search for life on Mars, the answer was simple: “Follow the water. Double Yoi!”

Suddenly I knew what I had to do.

I was ready, and with a bag of donated Terrible Towels in hand, I got to work — but not without first googling the phrase “Double Yoi!

The ‘Science’

Let’s agree that, clinically speaking, absorbency is the most important basis on which to judge a towel. Let’s also agree that I have no clinical knowledge or direct expertise to apply here, just a lifetime of first-hand towel experience to fall back on.

For the sake of this article, I am working with six Terrible Towels, all more or less structurally identical, though aesthetically different:

  • The 2011 Winter Classic version
  • The Myron Cope “original”
  • The Myron Cope “official”
  • The 2009 Super Bowl champions towel
  • The inverse black with gold lettering version
  • And the Six-time Super Bowl champions Terrible Towel

My point of comparison is a similarly sized and identically priced hand towel, one the Bed Bath & Beyond clerk agreed to describe as “excellent” for the purposes of this article.

The thinking goes like this: If the Terrible Towel performs as well or nearly as well as the Excellent Towel, it will be considered good or excellent, and therefore “not terrible.” If it performs half as well, or thereabouts, we’ll go with “somewhat/mostly terrible.” And if it somehow actually adds water instead of picking any up, then “truly terrible” it is.

Flawed and unscientific premises aside, I dig in.

TERRIBLE TOWEL TEST 2
COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE

Absorbency

The first experiment involves pouring 6 ounces of water on a bathroom counter and seeing which towel does the best job of soaking it up.

Concerned that this might come off as a rather subjective endeavor, I establish some ground rules: Each towel will get five seconds atop the puddle and one counterclockwise swipe/scoop after that to finish it off. Towels are single thickness and not folded.

The Excellent Towel goes first. After five seconds, the water has mostly disappeared. After a quick counterclockwise swipe, it is all but gone, nothing left to report aside from the streaking left behind by an unsteady hand.

Next up is the Terrible Towel.

It is truly astonishing how badly it performs here, and I mean that with all due respect. After five seconds, the water has soaked through the upside of the towel and collected there in the center around the “r”s and “w.” Also, the puddle beneath hasn’t so much been absorbed as it’s been displaced into a thinner, wider pool.

Things only get worse with the swipe, which sends water spilling out across the edge of the countertop and onto my floor.  At that point, I need to punt. I grab the quicker picker-upper.

My lease is up at the end of the year.

PASSER RATING: Mostly terrible

Drying dishes

I take a medium-sized Tupperware container, fill it with water, empty it of water and then proceed to dry it. The Excellent Towel has the inside of the container licked dry after 5 seconds of me rubbing it like I’m trying to start a fire.

After 5 seconds with the Terrible Towel, the container is still wet. Again, the water’s mostly been pushed around and thinned out, but the towel seems to have done better here based on my eyeball test.

RATING: A charitable ‘somewhat terrible’

Her serious side eye says everything you need to know about this test.

Some serious side eye.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE

Drying dogs

For any Steelers fan offended by the mistreatment of the team’s flagship symbol — mistreatment for the sake of science, that is — avert your eyes now. In this section I use the Terrible Towel to dry off my dogs, Spencer (a yellow Lab) and Zola (a tiny Golden Retriever with Napoleon’s personality), after a muddy walk in the woods. Again, my apologies to Myron Cope.

As always, the Excellent Towel goes first. I should start by saying that, in my experience, you don’t clean a dirty dog with a towel so much as you just diffuse the dirt. In this case, the mud on their legs is pushed around until it fades into the color of their coats. The Excellent Towel is filthy.

The Terrible Towel is also filthy after a matter of seconds. On a side note, the Terrible Towel is lighter, wispier and harder to get a grip on. As I struggle to adjust my grip in a light breeze, Spencer makes a break for it. By this point, both dogs have escaped and are running around the yard. I see a stray cat struttin’ down the sidewalk and panic.

RATING: Let’s call this one a wash.

A recreation of our car drying test.

A re-creation of our car drying test.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE

Drying the car

Unable to corral my pets, I drop two rawhides in the yard and wait for the inevitable return stampede. While I’m waiting, I speed wash the towels. By the time they’re done, the dogs have returned, and the stray cat has moved on.

Next up on my testing list is the drying portion of a car wash. This one should be easy, I think. If the Terrible Towel resembles anything, it’s a shammy (chamois) cloth. So I figure it should be ideal for the purposes of drying a car, right?

Wrong.

The relatively thin Terrible Towel fills up quickly and requires frequent wringing. It wrings awkwardly, which I realize is a weird thing to say, but it’s also an accurate thing to say.

The towel just moves the water droplets on the car around, almost drunkenly, from side to side. Much of the water is thrown to the ground. Eventually the car is mostly dry, perhaps due as much to the combination of time + air as anything else. In short, the towel is better than a newspaper, but not by much.

In fact, both towels left streaks and swirl marks aplenty, but my dad chalks this up to issues with my technique as opposed to problems with the hardware.

DAD’S RATING: “You’re doing it wrong.”

Window cleaning

Again, cloth hand towels are probably not the weapon of choice for this, but here we are. And while both towels took the liquid off my kitchen windows, neither did so admirably or efficiently. But if your goal is sparing bird carnage brought on by overly pristine window panes, then mission accomplished. Either will do.

RATING: Not terrible by comparison

Hand drying

More of the same here. The Excellent Towel performed as expected, leaving me with smooth — and most importantly dry — hands worthy of a Nivea ad. The Terrible Towel left my hands slippery and wet after the same amount of time. I used my jeans to finish the job.

RATING: Mostly terrible

Cooking pierogis

Yes. The Terrible Towel is a perfect location to rest handmade pierogies before putting them in the fryer — or directly upon taking them out — but I’m sure you already knew that.

RATING: Excellent

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers
Philip G. Pavely / USA TODAY Sports

Violently waving a towel at a football game

In short, when it comes to spills, you can do better than a Terrible Towel and get far more bang for your buck. But that’s also missing the point entirely because the Terrible Towel isn’t a towel, per se, it’s a piece of sporting folklore.

Concocted by Cope, a former Steelers radio announcer, during the ‘75 playoff run that led to a Super Bowl win, the Towel is omnipresent. Babies are wrapped in them at birth. I’m sure people have been buried with them, too.

The Towel is a symbol and a ritual and a canary yellow battle flag.

Meanwhile, the Excellent Towel in this experiment was an uninspiring taupe color and not at all conducive to gesticulative declarations of war.

RATING: Excellent, singular, arguably unparalleled. Double yoi.