Chuck Noll: Always more than just a coach
By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer
The file cabinet in Joe Gordon's office had not worked properly for a long time, always getting jammed on the metal tracks that protruded from the wall. Chuck Noll had seen the cabinet many times when he came into Gordon's office at Three Rivers Stadium, never noticing a problem.
But one Sunday morning, before a Steelers home game, Noll walked into Gordon's office and saw the filing cabinet off its tracks.
"He could see this thing was askew," Gordon said. "It wasn't on right."
So here was Noll, the only coach in National Football League history to win four Super Bowls, doing what he does best -- fix something that's broken. He did it with the Steelers' franchise, shortly after becoming their coach in 1969. Now he was doing it with the public relations man's filing cabinet. Two hours before kickoff and he's lying on the office floor, screwdriver in hand, putting the darn thing back together.
That was Chuck Noll. Part Vince Lombardi, part Bob Vila. "Some writer from New York comes in my office and Chuck Noll, two hours before the game, is fooling around with this cabinet," Gordon said. "But he fixed the damn thing."
There is little Chuck Noll can't do, or can't talk about, or hasn't attempted. He flies planes, sails boats, gardens, cooks and knows wine so well that nobody else at his dinner table thinks they will make the night's selection. Just don't ask him about football. He was never comfortable talking about the game he coached for 39 years, first as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers, then with the Baltimore Colts, before coming to the Steelers. But fixing a filing cabinet? Nothing for a man who had taken a moribund National Football League franchise and turned it into the most dominating team of the 1970s.
"He's an extremely bright person and can talk about any subject," said Steelers president Dan Rooney, the man who hired Noll Jan. 27, 1969, to replace Bill Austin. "He wasn't just tied down to football. There was never a question about him burning out because he had another life. There was more to him than just football."
There are many facets, many dimensions, to Charles Henry Noll, and they go beyond the specter of what he accomplished in 23 seasons as the most successful coach in Steelers history. Sure, he could win Super Bowls -- four of them in a six-year span of the 1970s -- and, sure, could he teach. He once said if he wasn't a football coach he would have been a history teacher. But he was indeed a teacher, a professor, and his classroom was the football field. He gave his players the "how to" -- his words for teaching them the way to block, the way to pull, the way to trap, the way to run. And they gave him a dynasty. But Noll was so much more than that, and only now are the people for whom he lends his time and service -- Pittsburgh Vision Services and the University of Dayton, his alma mater -- discovering what those close to him knew for years: Chuck Noll is one of the most fascinating figures in sports history. "A renaissance man," said longtime Steelers radio announcer Myron Cope. "I used to tell the players that professional football is a part-time profession," Noll said. "I used to tell them it gets you ready for your life's work. Well, after 39 years in the NFL, I'm in my life's work, and it's called fund-raising."
Tonight, in an honor long overdue, Noll will be inducted into the Pittsburgh Hall of Fame as part of the ceremonies surrounding the Dapper Dan Dinner at the Hilton Hotel and Towers, Downtown. There has never been another coach like him in Pittsburgh, not on the field, not off. Other franchises have now won more Super Bowls than the Steelers. But no coach has ever been able to match Noll's feat of winning four Super Bowls. For that, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, two years after he retired.
"He was, by far, the most focused person I've seen," said Gordon, who remains one of Noll's closest friends. "Now, since he's been off for 10 years, he has an appreciation for how the rest of the world functions.
"There were two people -- one was Chuck Noll, the coach; and one was Chuck Noll, the person. When you're with him in a non-football environment, he's a charming individual, a great conversationalist on a variety of topics. And a very caring person. That never came out when he was coaching, but when players had problems off the field he was always very concerned in a very quiet manner. He just never made a big show of it."
Noll bought the first house he looked at in Upper St. Clair 33 years ago and sold it shortly after he retired in 1991. But he and his wife, Marianne, still own a condo in Sewickley, splitting time between there and their home in Williamsburg, Va., because they love the people here so much.
"They're very, very friendly," Noll said. "I've been from coast to coast, and if you're family hasn't been in that area for a couple decades, the people weren't quite as friendly. It wasn't that way in Pittsburgh. We were received with open arms."
And yet, despite his feelings for the people, most of Pittsburgh, even his players, always viewed Noll as cold, distant, an enigma. He shunned the limelight, almost never making a public appearance and doing only one commercial in all his years in Pittsburgh. That was for a good friend, Merle Gilliand of Pittsburgh National Bank, and all it amounted to was Noll appearing on a billboard, wearing a golf shirt. Noll couldn't wait until the billboard promotion was over.
After Super Bowl X, Nestle's called with an offer: $15,000 for using Noll's picture on one of their chocolate products. That's it. No appearances. No commercial shoots. No speeches. Noll didn't even have to leave the office. Just his picture -- for $15,000.
"See if they'll use one of my assistants."
And that was that.
"He never made a decision based on money," Gordon said. "He was very comfortable and satisfied with being a football coach. And he was very comfortable with his compensation. And that wasn't him. Obviously, he was a very private person at that time."
Noll keeps busy with what he calls his life's work, frequently making the five-hour drive between Williamsburg and Sewickley to help with fund-raising for Pittsburgh Vision Services. Ironically, he's probably more visible in Western Pennsylvania now than when he was winning 209 games and nine AFC Central titles with the Steelers. Noll also is a member of the board of trustees at Dayton and helps raise money for the school with speeches and charity appearances.
But he stills finds time for his other passions. The other day, when a reporter called, Noll was cooking dinner -- at 11 a.m. He has never looked back on the profession he left 10 years ago.
"I've always said the three people I saw look the best three to four months after they left their position was President Ford, Pete Rozelle and Chuck Noll," Rooney said. "They were really a different person -- relaxed, talkative, enjoying life. Chuck looks like he is relaxed and comfortable."
Noll and his wife also never miss a chance to visit their son, Chris, and two grandchildren near Hartford, Conn. Like his dad, Chris is a teacher (computer art, history,English) and coach (basketball, soccer) at a private girls' school in Farmington, Conn.
Noll's degree was in secondary education. He also went to law school for two years before beginning his coaching career as an assistant with the Chargers. "I tried to look around to see what I wanted to do," Noll said. "Football was something I knew the most about. So I called [Chargers coach] Sid Gillman and, fortunately, he hired me."
Don't be fooled.
Noll knows a little something about a lot of things.
Cope remembers the time Noll came to his house in Upper St. Clair to tape the pregame radio show. Cope had a radio studio in his basement, and Noll lived only a couple blocks away. A couple of days earlier, Noll had recommended a stereo system Cope was seeking to purchase. When Noll walked in the door, "He right away said, 'How's the stereo?' " Cope said. "I told him I haven't been able to hook it up. Well, out came the spectacles from the pocket and for 20 minutes he sets up the stereo. From them on, I called him my handyman."
That was Chuck Noll.
Handyman. Super Bowl-winning coach. Fascinating.
Chuck Noll Up Close
NAME: Charles Henry Noll
BORN: Jan. 5, 1932, in Cleveland, Ohio
PLAYER: 1953-59 with Cleveland Browns
COACH: 1969-91 with Steelers, retiring with 209 wins, nine AFC Central titles and four Super Bowl championships
HALL OF FAME: Inducted into the Pro Football Hall in 1993