It might be a story about how he hitchhiked from Providence, where he was a student at Brown, to see Army play Navy in Philadelphia. It might be about why Stanford and Arkansas opened the 1970 season against each other. It might be about my children.
You see, Beano may have been an expert on the history of college football from 1930 to 1990, but he showed his real expertise in friendship. He collected friends like some people collect stamps. He didn't marry -- even though he might have given up college football for Stefanie Powers, the 1980s television star -- and never had children.
But Beano cared about the people around him. He asked questions. I am not the only one at ESPN who had that kind of relationship with him. Mel Kiper Jr. did. Howie Schwab did. I am sure there are others.
He always asked me what other writers had been at the game I covered the previous Saturday. "I don't miss the games," he said. "I miss the hanging out."
“He was special,” Ditka said in a statement. “We became really good friends the years I was in school at Pitt. I don’t know that anybody loved that job and loved Pitt more than he did.”
His wealth of knowledge about college football and memory for details made him an irresistible storyteller, as well a passionate pundit.
He wasn’t always right, but he wasn’t afraid to make bold pronouncements, such as when he predicted Notre Dame freshman quarterback Ron Powlus would win at least two Heisman trophies. Powlus never even won one, but Cook’s prediction made him famous forever.
"In Beano's era, Pitt played a big-time schedule, and he had to fight for [news] space," said Ernie Accorsi, one of Mr. Cook's best friends who worked his way up from sports publicist to top executive with two National Football League teams. "In those days the writers were in the office and you had to sell ideas to the papers. You really had to work at it. He was probably one of the all-time best with story ideas.
"What you were doing basically was trying to sell tickets. And no one was as good as Beano with story ideas."
One of his best ideas never made it into print. He brainstormed getting Pitt basketball All-American Don Hennon and Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, together for a picture in 1958. The headline of the picture would have been: "The World's Two Greatest Shot Makers."
But Dr. Salk would not agree to pose for the picture, much to Mr. Cook's chagrin.
"The picture would not have made every paper in the country, it would have made every paper in the world," Mr. Cook told the Post-Gazette in 2006.
Explaining Beano Cook was far more difficult than appreciating him. All you really needed to fall in love with Beano was a set of ears, a sense of humor and some sort of affection for American sports. How did he get to be the nation’s voice of college football? He didn’t play, didn’t coach, didn’t spend decades covering the game. He knew the game and its history better than anyone, and he was quick with an opinion or a quip. And ESPN was wise enough to put those qualities to excellent use.
Cook died in his sleep Thursday morning at age 81. He was, like me, a Pittsburgh native. In my first decade in this business he was a constant presence at the city’s athletic events and often would arrange to lunch with members of the sports staff of The Pittsburgh Press, where I worked from 1983 to 1992. Those afternoons explained a lot about how Cook got to where he was. Smart and funny will take anyone a long way in life; smartest and funniest is better still.
• You’ll never have a 16-team playoff in college football. The most that could happen would be four teams in the next century. But after that, I’m dead, so who cares? (1992)
• Colleges spend more money on the promotion of the Heisman than the Pentagon spends on toilets. (1990)
• Argentina invaded the Falklands because they had ESPN and the Argentines wanted to get the late scores. (1986)
• ESPN is like your family, it’s always there. The networks are like your mother-in-law. They are there on the weekends. (1988)
• When they list the great things of the 20th Century, they’ll say, penicillin, Sophia Loren, jet travel and ESPN. (1992)
• Known for his fear of flying, he would often point out that the first word you see at an airport is “terminal.”