Chuck Noll’s death on Friday at the age of 82 was hardly a surprise. He had been in poor health for a number of years.
But couldn’t he have had just one more Father’s Day?
Noll was more than just a football coach. Unlike many of today’s NFL coaches, he wasn’t working 18-hour days and suffering heart attacks and mini-strokes because of it. He had other interests. He was a pilot, a sailor, an orchestra conductor, a wine connoisseur and a handy man. He was even educated as a lawyer and a history teacher.
Most importantly, he was a father.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Noll’s only son, Chris, came home from high school football practice one afternoon and told his dad that the team needed a long snapper. So Noll took him out into the driveway and taught him how to do it.
Noll did for his son that day what he was paid to do for his players, and that drilling of fundamentals is one of the reasons the Steelers won four championships in the 1970s.
That 1970s dynasty was built through the draft. Noll’s inept predecessors traded away draft picks for washed-up veterans in the 1960s. The Steelers had no picks in the first seven rounds of the 1963 draft and just two picks in the first seven rounds of the 1965 draft.
Buddy Parker, the Steelers’ coach from 1957 to 1964, couldn’t be bothered teaching rookies. Noll, teacher that he was, changed that organizational philosophy. Just 10 days after he was hired in 1969, he used his first draft pick as Steelers coach on Mean Joe Greene, who turned out to be the greatest player in Steelers history.
Five years later came not only the greatest draft in Steelers history, but in NFL history.
The Steelers drafted four Hall of Famers in 1974, partly because Noll was wise enough to defer to his personnel men.
Noll liked John Stallworth more than he liked Lynn Swann, and seriously considered taking him with the 21st pick of the first round. But according to “Their Life’s Work” by Gary M. Pomerantz, Steelers scouting director Art Rooney Jr. and scouts Dick Haley and Bill Nunn Jr. convinced Noll that Stallworth would be available in the fourth round, and that this was their only chance to get Swann, a star at USC.
The Steelers chose Swann, and as Haley and Rooney predicted the lesser-known Stallworth was still there in the fourth round.
As it turned out, the Dallas Cowboys were all set to take Swann with the 22nd pick, but the Steelers chose him with seconds remaining on the clock.
Forty years later, the Cowboys were ready to take Ryan Shazier, but the Steelers grabbed him one pick before them.
While this has been a spring of repeated history when it comes to the Steelers draft, it’s also been one that has claimed two architects of the Steelers’ glory days. Not only has Noll passed away, but Nunn died two days before the draft. Nunn forged connections with historically black colleges, helping the Steelers get players like Stallworth, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell.
Even though he’s the only coach to win four Super Bowls, Noll is underappreciated in NFL history because he didn’t make himself a celebrity. He wasn’t a motivator. He figured his players were professionals and it was their job to motivate themselves.
One of the few times that Noll used bulletin-board material to inspire his team, it worked to perfection.
According to Pomerantz, after the Oakland Raiders vanquished the two-time Super Bowl-champion Miami Dolphins 28-26 in an epic AFC divisional playoff game in 1974, Raiders coach John Madden said that those were the two best teams in the NFL who went at it on that field.
So at a meeting during the week leading up to the AFC championship game at Oakland, Noll told his players that no matter what Madden said, the best team in the NFL was right there in that room.
Less than three weeks later, the Steelers were Super Bowl champions for the first time.
It was the first of four Super Bowls the Steelers won in six years. Because of that success, the Steelers gained fans far beyond Pittsburgh. It was a cultural tidal wave that is still felt today.
A decade after he last raised the Lombardi Trophy, Noll put one more feather in his coaching hat. The 1989 Steelers lost their opener 51-0 at home to the Cleveland Browns, then lost 41-10 at Cincinnati the following week. Somehow the Steelers made the playoffs with a 9-7 record and came within a point of visiting Cleveland in the AFC championship game, losing 24-23 to John Elway and the Broncos at Denver in the divisional round.
Craig Wolfley, an offensive lineman on that 1989 Steelers team, told me on Black N Gold Central in January that Noll would not allow that team to “slide into the abyss.”
“Chuck told us … all the answers to all the questions that you guys have are to be found in this room,” Wolfley said.
The Steelers had gone four years without making the playoffs. If the franchise’s sails needed a small puff of wind to maintain the momentum from the 1970s, Noll’s work with that 1989 team provided just that. It rekindled hope for a fan base waiting for the Steelers to have a realistic chance at winning One for the Thumb.
Noll stepped down after the 1991 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Unlike Tom Landry, his two-time Super Bowl adversary, Noll went out voluntarily with the franchise in respectable shape.
Had Noll not retired when he did, the Steelers might not have been able to hire Bill Cowher. Noll’s successor led the Steelers to six straight playoff appearances and that long-awaited fifth championship in 2005. Mike Tomlin, the Steelers’ third head coach in 45 years, won a Super Bowl just like Noll and Cowher before him.
Cowher didn’t match Noll’s accomplishments, and Tomlin probably won’t either. But they’ve done enough to maintain the tradition of winning that Noll started. It makes it easier for Noll to rest in peace.