The debate about the greatest NFL coach often starts with Vince Lombardi and quickly goes to Bill Belichick, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Tom Landry or Joe Gibbs. If there's a senior citizen in the discussion group, perhaps the names of Paul Brown, George Halas or Curly Lambeau may get mentioned.
Inexplicably, it takes way too long to get to the only man who won four Super Bowl championships and did it in a dynastic six-year period — CHUCK NOLL!
With Noll's recent passing, the basics of his legacy have been well documented:
Four Super Bowl victories, in IX, X, XIII and XIV; 209 wins vs. 156 losses and 1 tie; 23 consecutive seasons as Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach. But there is so much more to the man.
A low-keyed, self-assured person, Chuck (as he was known to and called by all) was a teacher of "life's lessons." Almost to a man, his players will tell you, "I learned more from Chuck about life off the field than on." The later-life success of so many of his former Steelers is testimony to this.
Personally, of the experiences I had working in and around the NFL for 15 years (1970-85), nothing surpasses the time exposed to Chuck Noll. To some, he seemed distant and aloof. That is mainly how others viewed his relationship with his players, but there was a reason for this. Noll didn't want to be buddy-buddy with a player he would have to cut at a later date. He cared, but he didn't outwardly show it. Later, his players knew just how much they meant to him. Just ask a Joe Greene, a Tony Dungy, a Rocky Bleier, or an Andy Russell.
Those describing Noll invariably use two words — "prepared" and "consistent." No detail was so small as to escape his attention. Russell tells of a meeting with Noll in which the coach, after studying film, suggested that Russell "move his right foot two inches to the right and one inch back."
Never inflexible, Noll listened to Art Rooney Jr. (head of scouting) when Rooney was touting Penn State's Franco Harris over Noll's preference for running back Robert Newhouse in the 1972 draft.
One day at Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Noll was instructing punt returners on how to catch the ball. When most teams' returners were using a variation of a Willie Mays basket catch, also using the chest to cradle the ball, Noll wanted his returners to catch the ball above their head in their hands. To add a little levity, Noll then made several catches behind his back. He also stressed returning all punts — "if only for inches." During the 1977 season, the Steelers’ punt returners never signaled for, nor made, a fair catch.
One of Noll's "Chuck-isms" was: "If you want to win, do the ordinary things better than anyone else does them day in and day out."
A duty of mine, as game day sideline worker, was to line up the players for pregame introductions. It was a late-season game in 1974-the year Noll had drafted Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster (all Hall of Famers) — and the starting wide receivers would be rookies Swann and Stallworth instead of the usual starters, Ronnie Shanklin and Dave Smith.
The team had already been out for pregame warm-ups, gone back to the locker room, and was coming out again for kickoff. I was standing off in a side tunnel. I didn't want to get stampeded by 47 thundering Steelers. Noll followed the last players out of the tunnel leading to the field. Then he noticed me and backtracked several steps, and said, "Jim, you know we're going with the kids (Swann and Stallworth) at wideout?"
No detail too small…
Like Lombardi, Noll stressed proper priorities — faith, family and football. In that order. He believed that pro football was a stepping stone to one's life's work. His life included so much more than football. He was well versed on a multitude of subjects, and if he weren't, he'd read several books on the subject and become so. He was a wine connoissseur, gourmet cook, licensed pilot (Rocky Bleier said, "Chuck's so confident, he bought a plane before he took a flying lesson."), scuba diver and lover of classical music (he once conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra).
While Noll was rebuilding the downtrodden "Lovable Losers" he inherited in 1969 (only five players from his first team were around to celebrate the Super Bowl IX win in 1974), fans and some media thought a more animated approach, say of a Hank Stram, a Norm Van Brocklin, a John Madden or a George Allen, would be better than Noll's never-raise-your-voice magisterial methods.
In the end, he matched or greatly surpassed any accomplishments of those coaches. In the time I spent on the Steelers’ sideline, I never heard or saw him go into histrionics with a player, assistant, or game official.
Always a teacher, there were times early in quarterback Terry Bradshaw's career when I thought Noll left Bradshaw in games that could have been won, if a more seasoned Terry Hanratty took over or if Noll, like so many coaches, had sent in specific plays. But Noll seemed willing to sacrifice a game today for four Super Bowl victories and a lot of other games tomorrow by sticking with Bradshaw and letting him call his own plays. Again, it's hard to argue with the ultimate results.
Comfortable in his own skin, Noll passed up potential endorsements by saying, "Let the players have them." Once, all he had to do was give his OK to have his signature on the wrapper of Hershey chocolate bars. It would have paid $100,000. He turned it down. Had he been a different breed of cat, perhaps we wouldn't have ever seen Joe Greene's classic "Here, kid" Coke commercial. Certainly, he could have followed Don Shula and Tom Landry with national credit card commercials, but that wasn't the Chuck Noll style.
The only drawback, as I see it, to Noll's low-profile existence is that so many people missed the depth of the man.
Greene spoke for many of the man who changed lives and the Pittsburgh sports culture, when he said at Noll's funeral, "If he hadn't chosen me, maybe I wouldn't have had the opportunity to be coached by Chuck Noll. And that probably would not have fared very well for me."