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Rudel: Celebrating Beano, legend and friend

Commentary

October 13, 2012
By Neil Rudel (nrudel@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

Beano Cook always used to joke that "once you hit 70, you're in overtime."

The entire college football sports world - and much of the sports world, really - stopped Thursday when it was learned that Cook, the lovable and glib college football historian, passed away in his sleep at 81.

He lived 11 years of overtime.

He's been called a legend - and he was, a pioneer of the concept of the pre-game show while working at ABC.

ESPN labeled him "the pope of college football," and, indeed, no one talked about Frank Leahy's teams at Notre Dame (1946-53) with the same knowledge and passion as today's SEC, last year calling the league "better than the NFC West."

I met Beano 30 years ago while covering the Pirates for the Beaver County Times.

On Sundays, he'd hold court in the Pirates' media room behind a stack of Sunday newspapers. Surrounded by the likes of Bob Smizik and Stan Savran, giants in Pittsburgh sports media history of whom I had been in awe, Beano welcomed me to their table to share the many laughs.

When it was time for the first pitch, the guys would filter out.

"Where you going?" he'd wonder. "This [shooting the bull] is better than the game."

He knew I had gone to and covered Penn State, which was part of his playful motive.

"They're arrogant," he'd blare in his deep voice. "Sanctimonious."

Beano, you see, was a Pittsburgh native who spent 10 years (1956-66) as Pitt's sports information director, thus his love-hate relationship with Penn State.

He had returned to Pittsburgh after stints with CBS and ABC (Howard Cosell emceed his going-away party) and spent the last 25 years as a regular on TV and radio in Pittsburgh and on ESPN.

His commentary, funny and blunt, favored political and military references, outside-the-box predictions and, definitely, home underdogs. He'd regularly pick Penn State and Notre Dame, and if they won, it wouldn't sting as much because, well, he picked them.

He loved storytelling - in print or in press boxes - and lived for someone (usually him) to say, "That's a good line!"

For several years, I was the ghost writer of his national notes column - first for the Football News, then ESPN.com - and we spoke on the phone often.

He loved the crime dramas and after always answering, "McGarrett" or "Columbo," it was largely a monologue, and if you didn't have 30-plus minutes, you practically needed a doctor's excuse to end the conversation.

"Ahn-believable," he'd say - his signature phrase - before adding something more unflattering.

But he was good to me and the Mirror, often mentioning us in some kind of Penn State context during an ESPN segment. Consequently, my parents would get calls from relatives around the country, saying, "They were talking about your son on the radio."

They weren't. Beano was, for which I was appreciative.

He never forgave Joe Paterno or Penn State for ending the football series - and more recently he's carried on, correctly, that the basketball teams, men's and women's, should still be playing.

Back in the day, he liked coming to Rec Hall for basketball and wrestling, still loved the lobster bisque at the Nittany Lion Inn and conducted an ESPN sitdown with Sue Paterno about 10 years ago.

He respected Joe Paterno but thought he had too much power and was saddened by his death.

That didn't stop him from, as he'd say, "sticking the needle in."

Shortly after the NCAA sanctions were announced in July, he interrupted dinner. Too drained to engage, I relayed that I'll call him later. He couldn't resist telling my wife, Dianne, "Just ask him how the Grand Experiment is going."

A half-dozen years ago, he made good on a promise to come to Altoona for a Saturday night summer dinner - "you're buying!" he said. Another protege, John Lukacs, drove him over since Beano had no car, and we convened the family, including my father-in-law Joe DeLeo (Pitt grad) and Mike Irwin, close friend and 1966 Penn State captain.

"My junior year, we opened up with Michigan State," Irwin started telling Beano.

"Yeah," Beano interrupted, "23-0 [Michigan State win]."

Everybody but me was stunned by his amazing recall.

His physical health declining due to diabetes (part of his foot was removed several years ago), Beano's recent communication was mainly limited to the phone. We did have lunch in late August, a couple of first downs from his apartment in the Midtown Towers in Pittsburgh.

Pitt SID E.J. Borghetti joined us. Like me only more so, he had been mentored by Beano, and he ceremoniously bowed on one knee to appropriately honor the moment.

Beano was not an advocate of marriage, often bragging, "I don't have a car, a wife or an ex-wife," and several years ago, when E.J. announced his engagement, his father, a former Pitt football captain, said, "How are you going to tell Beano?"

Beano was upbeat during our lunch, saying recent cataract surgery had allowed him to "read the agate type" and he was looking forward to another football season.

He was hospitalized a week later.

As recently as Saturday, on my way from the Penn State-Northwestern game, he sounded good, wanting to know details, attendance figures, and, of course, who was in the press box.

Beano always said he wasn't afraid of dying, "just of being infirmed," and he never wanted to die during the football season.

"I'm asking [God] once the season starts, wait until the championship game is over," he said of a parting wish several years ago. "I want to know who is No. 1."

Among the sport's ambassadors and all-time classic characters, he is easily No. 1, advocating the college game over the NFL, feeling like there's nothing like an autumn Saturday with all of its traditions - be it at Notre Dame, Army, Pitt, Penn State, Yale, LSU or, as he would rave, "the USC song girls!"

Never married - and chiding friends who were - Beano had no children, no siblings and no close relatives, and yet he left a nation of friends throughout college football.

I'm very proud and grateful to be one of them.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com. You can also follow him on Twitter@neilrudel.

 
 
 

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