The Legacy Of Chuck Noll

By Alex Kozora

It was a chaotic overtime in the Stanley Cup Finals. Gregory Polanco was about to hit his first career home run, lifting the Pittsburgh Pirates to an extra-innings victory. Running the gamut of emotions. All that excitement came to a halt after the news of Chuck Noll’s death. The games didn’t matter to me anymore. The only thing I cared about was the legend lost.

This article, along with many other reactions, will be sentimental in nature. Ironic perhaps given Noll’s demeanor; a tactician whose calculated logic was rare for his era. But I’d like to think Noll would forgive us if we shed a tear or two. It’s difficult not to.

The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise is identified with the start of the 1970s, the dynasty Noll built.  But tucked back in the minds of fans is the realization the organization began nearly 40 years earlier. Art Rooney purchased the franchise on July 8th, 1933. During that time, it toed the line between incompetence and indifference. In the 36 seasons before Noll walked the sidelines, the team appeared in only two playoff games, losing both, and had a record of 161-256-19, less than 39%. Noll’s career record: 209-156-1, 57%.

It was an eclectic group of coaches, each with their vices that were ultimately too much to overcome. Some, like Buddy Parker, too stubborn. Others, like Bill Austin, too focused on emulating previous greats.

Noll was Noll. There was a process, a blueprint to be followed, and as he famously put it, geography wasn’t the issue. Talent was. It was a slow process in the beginning, winning just 12 games in his first three years. But the group was being assembled.

It was led through Noll’s obsessive desire for the details. Undoubtedly a result of being a tiny offensive guard, even for the 50s. He was smart, savvy, forced to be in order to survive, and played under one of the NFL’s pioneers in advancing the game, Paul Brown. As author Gary Pomerantz wrote, Noll was called “The Pope” by his college coach because “he could do no wrong” on the field.

Noll was intelligent off the field too, attending law classes at night after practices during his time playing in the league. That was just who he was, and his quest for knowledge and willingness to pass it on was a hallmark of his unparalleled success.

Prior to his hiring, the previous 14 first round selections provided scarce results, if any. Six times the Steelers didn’t even have a selection. Those lack of picks may have actually served as a blessing. Because when they did draft, the selections ranged from players the team knew next to nothing about – Gary Glick – to Hall of Famers traded away before their potential realized – Len Dawson.  In the 60’s before Noll, only one of the Steelers’ five first rounders spent more than two years with the club.

Under Noll, Bill Nunn, and the rest of the front office? 1969, the crown jewel. Joe Greene. The foil to The Emperor. Ferocious, out of control, once ripping an opposing high school’s bus doors open with his bare hands, but brimming with talent. Noll harnessed that and turned him into the franchise’s star. Terry Bradshaw, who like Noll didn’t have immediate success but became a valuable gunslinger and one of two quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls.  Franco Harris in 1972 and Lynn Swann in 1974, the latter being part of one of the greatest draft classes in history. Even in later years, after the dynasty was just a memory, there was Louis Lipps in 1984 and Rod Woodson three seasons later. Combined, that’s five busts bronzed in Canton.  In all, a whopping 11 Steelers who spent part or their entire career with Noll were elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After just six years, a franchise starved for success won its first Super Bowl. Pete Rozelle passed the Lombardi Trophy to The Chief, making the long wait well worth it. Mel Blount would say he had never seen Noll so in awe. Three more trophies would be added to the showcase by the end of the decade, making Noll the only coach in history to go 4-0 in the big game. Greene once said Noll wanted perfection. They achieved it.

Under him, the Steelers’ shed their label of the lovable losers. They were transformed into remarkable winners.

Noll handled the immense talent he had well. Jack Lambert called Noll the “ideal coach to play for.” Knowing Lambert, that is praise of the highest order. The players’ had a sauna in the locker room they would retreat to after games; their version of Mecca, a weekly visit to vent and discuss the game just played. Noll never went near there. There was that type of mutual respect between player and coach.

His coaching tree was impressive, too. Bud Carson created the Cover 2 in the 70s. Tony Dungy and Tom Moore got their first NFL coaching gigs working with Noll. The two would reunite years later to a win a championship with the Indianapolis Colts.

I know I’m under-qualified to speak to what Noll did. I was never alive to see him coach a single game, let alone the dynasty he built. But what I have gotten to see is the byproduct of his teachings. Not only did he plant the seeds to creating a winning culture, he became the catalyst that made them blossom. Draft well. Care about the details. Create an environment of stability. Be a man, one with integrity and professionalism. He built the foundation for the two Super Bowls I did get to witness.

As is the title of Pomerantz’s book, Noll consistently stressed doing “life’s work.” Living a life after and outside football. An important lesson and a testament to his goal of molding not just players but men. At the same time, it gave the city of Pittsburgh and its citizens, living life’s work, something to root for. Noll brought them along for the ride. And what a journey it was.

I’ve only watched one of the team’s four Super Bowl victories. I need to go back and find the other three. To watch Bradshaw throw to Swann and Stallworth. Harris and Bleier carry the rock, Webster paving the way. Greene, Greenwood, White, and Holmes dominate in the trenches. Lambert terrorize the middle. Blount and Shell patrol the secondary.

A team unlike any other.

Led by a coach unlike any other.

Senior in college, blogging from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • 804Stiller

    Well said…………..I started loving the Steelers around SB XIII as a 6 year old. In Richmond, VA, at the time, you were either a Redskin (hometown), Cowboy or a Steeler. Ironically, to this date, other than the Skins, Steelers games get preferred treatment in central Virginia due to the fan base in the area.
    On a side note, I couldn’t believe Coach Noll never won AP coach of the year………..

  • Bill

    I listened to and watched Steelers from the mid fifties ’till now and I remember how we felt when we knew this was going to be special team. For me, it was the 1972 season. Green was unblockable and Franco fooled all the experts with 7 hundred yard games. I also watched during the pre Noll era as they cut people like Unitas and kept Ted Marchibroda, let Dawson go and drafted local players who did not deliver. Then came Chuck Noll: he didn’t win right away and at times I thought he should have been fired for the way he handled Bradshaw. But I was wrong! Chuck was a detail obsessed coach and you did it his way or you didn’t play. He understood the players of his time and handled them accordingly. He didn’t believe a head coach should make motivational speeches. He was consistent and never cracked under pressure. The players he drafted knew that if they did what he said, they would be winners. He made one great mistake in his career, and it was him who did it, when he passed on Dan Marino. (Before you all chime in with the negative gossip about Dan, he was not using drugs and everybody in the Steelers front office knew that.) Everybody gets a pass for one mistake and I, as fan from the Jim Finks at QB era, place Chuck Noll at the pinnacle of NFL greatness. Thank you Chuck; you were indeed the best!

  • James Kling

    I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, midway between Philly and Pittsburgh. We’d play backyard football and emulate the 70s greats, and it was easy to look up to Joe Greene and all of the Steel Curtain guys as we were running around, reedy thin and halfassed in our enthusiasm. The appreciation of Noll followed, as we learned about the game. There was a magic to the Noll era, when Dan Rooney was becoming more a part of the operations, when Bill Nunn came aboard, and when we started stacking up an amazing roster of talent.

    But there have been many talented NFL rosters that have come and gone without winning the ultimate prize. No one has won 4 Lombardis in 6 years, except Noll’s boys. No coach has won 4, period. And somehow Noll is almost an afterthought to Landry and Shula, to Johnson and Belichick. The conversion of Steelers from losers to the proud franchise they are today is completely thanks to Chuck Noll. He set the standard. There’s a lot more that went into that standard, bringing in guys from small colleges, and really putting our money where our mouth was with racial equality, that transformed our Steelers from a parochial presence to national domination.

    Rest in peace, Emperor. Long live Noll.

  • CrazyTerry

    Nunn and Noll – two of the giant contributors to the dynasty lost in quick succession. Surprised at the inadequate coverage on PG