By In Football, RIP

Chuck Noll

Most coaches coach. That’s obvious, I guess. Their success and failure depends on coaching stuff — how they strategize, how they organize, how they accumulate talent, how well they teach and so on. Their jobs come down to their words and their plans and their decisions. That seems so self-evident that it feels silly to even bring it up.

Except for this: For some, success and failure doesn’t come down to such things. Most coaches coach. Some coaches, though — a rare few — just ARE. They aren’t triumphant for their gameplans or preparations or their communication skills. Their success radiates from the person they are.

Chuck Noll was just such a coach.

Charles Noll — who best anyone can tell was never called anything but Chuck — grew up on Montgomery Avenue in Cleveland, about six miles from where I did. Of course, he was 35 years older than me so he grew up in a different Cleveland … but maybe not that different. His father was a butcher, my father worked in a factory, both our parents believed education was the key to a better life. When Noll was in the seventh grade, he began saving up so he could attend Benedictine High School on what is a street now named after Martin Luther King Jr. Back then the street was called Liberty. Noll was born almost exactly three years after MLK.

Noll was an undersized offensive lineman at Benedictine and then at the University of Dayton, where they nicknamed him The Pope because he never seemed to do anything wrong. He didn’t like the nickname, but then he didn’t seem to like very much at all that was frivolous and pointless. After college, he wanted to teach, but the Cleveland Browns were offering more money. So he played pro football. He met his wife in Cleveland — she worked at the Cleveland Clinic. He used to say that their courtship revolved around playing cards and Michelob.

He happened to play football in the greatest coaching hatchery in the history of the NFL. His head coach, of course, was Paul Brown, the man who more than any other invented professional football as we know it. In fact, Noll’s job as an undersized guard was to be one of the messengers who brought in the plays from Brown on the sideline – this long before other coaches had wrestled away play-calling duties from the quarterbacks. Others who played or coached for Paul Brown included Don Shula, Weeb Ewbank and Bill Walsh.

Noll brought much of his papal reputation to Cleveland. He did not talk back, did not complain, did not get into fights, did not back down. I remember Galen Fiss, the great linebacker, telling me a story about trying to get under Noll’s skin at practice once. Fiss was actually six months older than Noll, but he said Noll just seemed older. “I know what you’re doing,” he remembered Noll telling him after one too many cheap shots. “Stop now.”

After a few years of playing, he left the Browns to become a coach. He still had a few playing years left but he figured it was time to get on with life already. Noll coached for Sid Gillman in the AFL for a while, coached for Shula in Baltimore – he was the defensive backs coach the year the Colts lost to Joe Namath in the Super Bowl – and then he was offered the Steelers head coaching job because Joe Paterno turned it down. His first Steelers team in 1969 beat the Lions 16-13 on a late touchdown by Warren Bankston. They promptly lost their final 13.

Well, that was typical Pittsburgh Steelers football when Noll got the job. They Steelers had been founded in 1933 by a minor-league baseball player and son of a saloon keeper named Art Rooney – and in 35 years they never came close to a championship of any kind. They lost 61% of their games until Noll came along. His first three years, they went 12-30.

But Noll was building something — as it turned out, it was something that would last long after he stopped coaching. He was building something that would become known as Pittsburgh football — pounding defense, power running attacks, deep passes. Noll’s greatest football gift might have been his ability to identify talent. In his first year as head coach, the Steelers drafted future Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene, and key players L.C. Greenwood and Jon Kolb. The next year they took two more Hall of Famers: Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount. In 1971, the Steelers drafted five key players, the best being Hall of Famer Jack Ham, one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history. In 1972, the key draft pick was Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris.

Then, in 1974, the Steelers had what I believe was the greatest draft any team has ever had – any sport. They drafted FOUR Hall of Famers – Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. Certainly no team has ever had a run like that. That’s nine Hall of Famers in six drafts — and the Steelers could hardly help but go from NFL joke to the first NFL team to win four Super Bowls.

Don’t get me wrong: Noll was a fantastic coach. Noll was innovative – he helped develop trap plays for Harris that tore up the NFL. He was certainly organized. He was very demanding. he was, at heart, a teacher.

But, as I said at the top, when it comes down to it most coaches coach. And some coaches are. Noll just was. There was something in the way he lived his life that guided those great Steelers teams. Some players didn’t like him: Bradshaw, among others, did not hide his distaste for Noll. But they all PLAYED for him.

See: He despised attention. He loathed credit. He mistrusted shortcuts and people who would talk as if they knew.

“An expert,” he used to grumble, “is a guy who doesn’t have to back up what he says.”

He was the first NFL coach to start a black quarterback, and he did that because he thought Joe Gilliam was the best man for the job. He was the first coach to make players proud to be Pittsburgh Steelers because he treated them all like men. He would go over the most basic details – such as how to properly snap the football – because he believed those were the details that won games. He would leave work every single day at a reasonable hour because he believed football was supposed to be a part of life, not the other way around.

“If the players aren’t ready by now,” he would grumble at coaches he caught working too late, “they will NEVER be ready.”

Noll had a fierce temper, and he did not readily admit he was wrong. He was not a screamer, and he was not a swearer, and he was not a particularly inspiring speaker. He led by being Chuck Noll. The players would sometimes talk about how they didn’t know him. But that’s different. They didn’t know him personally because he didn’t talk much about himself – he once told Sports Illustrated Paul Zimmerman that the mouth is the mind’s mirror and “if you keep your mouth shut, people don’t know what’s on your mind.”

But they KNEW him. They knew what mattered to him. Effort. Loyalty. Family. Education. Doing things right. That was how he lived. Tony Dungy said just being around Noll taught him how to coach – not so much from what he said but from something larger and not easily spoken. Marty Schottenheimer said more or less the same thing. Bill Cowher said more or less the same thing.

Noll just was. Pat Summit was like that, Sparky Anderson, Scotty Bowman, John Wooden, Phil Jackson too. Something about their presence and the way they carried themselves galvanized their players and made them believe. Chuck Noll died this week, and I have a personal memory. I grew up a Cleveland Browns fan and my entire childhood was blacked out by Noll’s Steelers. I used to write down scores on notecards; Noll’s Steelers beat the Browns 13 of the first 14 times after I became football conscious. The one victory happened in 1976 when a dentist named Dave Mays came off the bench to quarterback the Browns to an unlikely 18-16 victory.

But 1980 was different. By 1980, the Steelers were old. The Browns were better. Finally, it was time to exact some revenge. The Browns beat Pittsburgh in a wild game 27-26 in Cleveland and then they went into Pittsburgh with a chance to bury the Steelers mystique once and for all. They had never won in that nightmarish Three Rivers Stadium; this was to be the year.

That game in Pittsburgh was crazy. Cleveland’s Don Cockroft missed three field goals and an extra point. But the Steelers couldn’t do anything against the Cleveland defense. With a little less than two minutes left, the Browns led by six and on third down, for reasons I could never explain, quarterback Brian Sipe threw the ball out of bounds, which stopped the clock. The Browns then took a safety to make the score 13-9.

The Steelers got the ball back with 1:44 left – I see it all still. Bradshaw threw a long pass to Theo Bell to move the ball to the Cleveland 30. Then a penalty pushed the Steelers all the way to the Cleveland 3. With 11 seconds left, Bradshaw rolled left and threw the winning touchdown pass to a wide open Swann in the left-corner of the end zone. He was apparently wide open because Pittsburgh ran the most obvious pick play in the history of mankind. Not that I’m bitter.

But what I remember most was that after the play, the camera flashed to Noll. And there was no emotion on his face. Nothing. No joy. No excitement. No sense of celebration whatsoever. He just glared out on the field like he always did, that Cleveland glare of his, that granite face of his. I remember thinking just one thing: Damn, I wish he was my coach.

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11 Responses to Chuck Noll

  1. NevadaMark says:

    The most underrated great coach in NFL history? From 1972 thru 1979 he won 4 Super Bowls yet was never named NFL Coach of the Year during that time.

    • Jake Bucsko says:

      Underrated and overrated are the most overused words in sports, but can’t help but agree. People often forget (usually because they’re not old enough to remember) that the Steelers weren’t just bad pre-Noll, they were a laughingstock. Carson used to joke about them the way Letterman would about the Mets. In nearly 40 years before the Immaculate Reception, the team won one playoff game.

      Imagine the Lions, only they didn’t have Stafford, Megatron, or Suh. Their new coach struggles for three years but the team shows improvement every season. In 2017 the Lions win a famous playoff game on a legendary play. In 2019 they win the Super Bowl, and in 2020 they do it again. By 2024, they have won four titles and everyone agrees the Lions are one of the greatest teams in history. People would fall over themselves declaring this coach the greatest ever.

      Often, a big knock on Noll is that the second half of his career was just average, as if it would have been better for his career to retire in 1980. I’m sorry, how many all time dynasties did he have to build? I feel like one was enough. It’s true that he went 93-91 with just four playoff appearances his last twelve years, but also only four losing records and never worse than 5-11.

      In fact, that 5-11 season in 1988 is the only Steelers season worse than 6-10 since 1969. The Steelers might not be title contenders every year, but they are always, always competitive. That’s Noll’s true football legacy. He took the worst team in football over 40 years and turned them into the best team over the next 40 years. Thanks, Emperor Chaz.

  2. otistaylor89 says:

    The last 3rd of the story reminds me of another coach that won a lot, but never looked overjoyed while doing it. In New England we have a saying, “In Bill We Trust”.
    There is no doubt that you need talent to win in the 4 major sports, however there are plenty of teams that don’t win and have enough talent. Those teams generally don’t do the right thing at the right time. Coaching really is teaching players how to do the right thing at the right time with the talent you have. Chuck Noll seemed to be especially good at doing that.

  3. With no disrespect intended, shouldn’t Noll’s legacy of success include a discussion of the rampant use of steroids by the 1970s Steelers?

  4. Marlin Briscoe and James Harris were both black QBs who started before Joe Gilliam. Gilliam didn’t start any games until 1973. Harris started a game for Buffalo in 1969 and 2 in 1971 before starting 9 games for the Rams in 1974, and 41 games during his career. Marlin Briscoe started 5 games for Denver in 1968 and is often forgotten. He was switched to wide receiver the next year. Joe Gilliam only started 7 games in his entire career. Sorry, Gilliam was not the first.

    • DC says:

      Joe wrote that Noll was the first NFL coach to start a black quarterback. Briscoe started for Denver in the AFL prior to the merger. Harris started for Buffalo in the AFL prior to the merger (but also post-merger), so it’s true that Gilliam was not the first black NFL starting QB, but it’s not quite as simple as you made it sound. Briscoe was indeed a pioneer but never started an NFL game; Harris was the first black NFL QB but he only started two post-merger NFL games prior to Gilliam starting for Pittsburgh.

  5. Tonus says:

    The ’76 Steelers must have been mighty put off by that 18-16 loss to Cleveland; they won their next nine by an aggregate score of 234-28, including five shutouts.

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