Chuck Noll: An Appreciation

chuck-noll.0As best I can piece together, the first football game I ever watched was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV. In 1980 I was still a fairly tiny thing, pure as the driven snow, and life was interesting to a degree I found almost overwhelming. From what I could tell, everybody sure seemed excited and invested, practically over-awed, by what was happening on this particular field. There are surely few athletic feats more impactful for an impressionable youngster to witness than Joe Greene engulfing a cowed quarterback or the sick thud of Jack Lambert concussing a tight end. It was striking. Oh, and I liked the black, and I liked the yellow (we fans so often insist on calling it gold, but “black and gold” are, honestly, New Orleans Saints colors…this is the only point on which I’ll defer to Wiz Khalifa), and I really liked the game. It moved fast and had variety. I couldn’t grasp strategy at that age, or even really the rules, but I could tell that every player had a role, and that each was capable of doing something (breaking a long run, tackling for a loss, making a juggling catch, or an interception) that brought the fans out of their seats with joy. And, even back then, there seemed to be so many fans. I decided then and there, sitting in front of a television at the age of five, with no parental input (if you’ve ever met my father, the thought of him cheering a football game might trigger convulsive laughter) that I was going to be a football fan, and that my team would be the Pittsburgh Steelers. So it has been ever since.

Chuck Noll assumed the mantle of Steelers head coach several years before I was born, and I spent the zenith of his tenure – arguably the best six-year stretch in NFL history – unable to properly appreciate his team’s greatness because of my own stubborn insistence on being somewhere between zero and five years old. It’s one of the only real regrets of my childhood, which I feel had fairly serendipitous timing otherwise. I might’ve missed the heyday of Led Zeppelin and the dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers, both behemoths of their time, but I was alive and blissfully conscious for ‘80s pop and ‘90s grunge, the halcyon days of thrash metal, and had the good fortune to see The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II, Ghostbusters and Gremlins (among many others) in their original theatrical runs. I learned about movies from Roger Ebert and HBO; I learned about music from MTV (strange but true) and underground metal magazines; I learned about the Steelers by buying preseason guides and memorizing the roster, running around the backyard fantasizing I was Mike Merriweather or David Little, but, strangely enough, rarely from watching them on television. Northeast Tennessee was a pro football wasteland in the 1980s, and certainly no place to be a Steelers fan. The first time I actually remember watching Terry Bradshaw play quarterback, in a nationally-televised late afternoon game against San Diego, also sadly proved to be the last time. Bradshaw threw what seemed like 11 picks before leaving the game with an anticlimactic injury. His Steelers, so mighty a scant few years earlier, had by that time lost several key personnel from their Super Bowl runs, had others succumb to age’s unanswerable criticisms, and ambled along the sidelines in seeming shock at how far and fast they had fallen. There was no comeback in the offing that day. As a proud veteran of the Mark Malone and Bubby Brister years, I know too well they had farther yet to fall, but even then, as a dejected eight-year-old, I was a bit taken with their coach, who stood up straight and placid as the sea of ennui roiled around him, pulling individual players aside and talking to them calmly, encouragingly, before sending them back in for more lumps.

I don’t know if I realized that coach was Chuck Noll, or, had I, if any synapse would’ve fired within me. Noll’s own greatness was never advertised with anything approaching the same zeal as that of his legendary teams, and I’m sure the no nonsense teacher in him would’ve wanted it that way. He pointedly set himself apart from the noise of fan and media expectations and critiques, deflecting the spotlight whenever possible, keeping his focus on preparation and teaching, which, even more than defensive pressure or the power running game (what many analysts generically term “Steeler football”), were his hallmarks. Noll seen today is a throwback, of a piece with the most iconic coaches of the ‘70s, names like Don Shula and Tom Landry, Hall of Famers all. He was a private man but a giving one, tough but fair, who erupted on occasion and went to bat for his players regularly. He was demonstrative when called for but never flamboyant. Given the chance, it’s difficult to imagine him following Oakland’s John Madden, perhaps his greatest rival, into the broadcast booth. Noll spoke little and chose his words carefully. They carried inherent weight, because his players knew he had already put in the work, both as a player and, especially, as a coach, where his mantra was always preparation. A recent ESPN countdown of the top coaches in NFL history put Noll at #5, despite being the only coach in the Super Bowl era to have won four Lombardi trophies. Steeler fans, so proud and protective of the legacy Noll’s teams forged (since augmented by titles brought home by his two successors, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin), feel a twinge of reflexive agita at the thought of Noll so “low” on an all-time list, but this is reductive revisionist thinking for the most part. I do it instinctively as well, even as I concede the spot is appropriate.* The Super Bowl era still isn’t fifty years old, remember, although the Steelers are now over eighty and the NFL is older still. Halas and Lombardi matter greatly too. Somebody’s name has to be on the trophy, after all.

*The key to me is still those two little words: all-time. People are fools to think they can conceive of the totality of time, its complexity, its enormity – even a comparative blip like the history of professional football – let alone index it responsibly, but so many (myself included) nevertheless feel compelled at every turn to shrink it down to fit their own narrow views or needs. Floyd Mayweather is not Sugar Ray Robinson (nor Leonard), and, moreover, can’t be and will never be. Does it particularly matter? He’s still magnificent. Objectively, he is one of the best boxers of all time. Chuck Noll is one of the five greatest coaches in NFL history. How’s THAT for rare air? To me, it is more than sufficient.

The occasion of writing this “Appreciation” piece puts me in the slightly uncomfortable position of having to remember a man I have very few memories of personally, a man who did not play to the camera and only really cared about his locker room, a man who lives for me almost entirely in archival footage. I worry as a writer that I’m up to the task, or as a life-long fan that I pay the man the full measure of respect he is due. Recently, Ed Bouchette, ace Steelers reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, quoted a few lines from his book Dawn of a New Steel Age in his own remembrance of Coach Noll, which was written from a much more level and informed perspective than I can provide. Following his retirement announcement in late 1991, Bouchette writes, “Noll pulled on his black overcoat and moved toward the door. He shook hands with several reporters, one of whom asked him how he would like to be remembered. ‘Don’t leave anything on the beach but your footprints,’ he answered. He walked briskly down the hall, out the front door, hopped in his car, and was gone. He never glanced at the four gleaming Super Bowl trophies in the lobby as he passed them. Those (trophies) are Chuck Noll’s footprints.”

And that’s what it all boils down to, those majestic, permanent footprints. Chuck Noll is the architect and the godfather of the Pittsburgh Steelers as they have existed these past forty+ years, a young coach who took over a historically awful program and turned it, through motivation, in-game philosophy, smart player evaluation and relationship building, and, above all, preparation, into what I would argue all day is pro football’s most enduring dynasty. Mike Tomlin, like Bill Cowher before him, today drives the Steelers’ train down track first laid in 1969 by Chuck Noll. Fans delight in how the late, beloved area broadcaster Myron Cope created the iconic “Terrible Towel” as a (philanthropic) marketing gimmick intended to galvanize fans for Pittsburgh’s 1975 playoff run. Almost forty years later, the towel traditionally swaddles newborn infants in Pittsburgh hospitals and has accompanied countless fans not just to games, where it twirls in the thousands like a swarm of insects swelling in preparation to strike, but all over the world, with photographic proof including shots taken from the Vatican, the summit of Mount Everest, the Great Wall of China, and, if I’m not mistaken, the MIR space station. Without Chuck Noll at the helm, it’s unlikely there’s any playoff run to hype in ’75, nor even one Lombardi Trophy, let alone four. The Steelers before Noll were distinctly not championship material. Why should they have dramatically changed course in his absence? Without Chuck Noll, “Mean” Joe Greene might not be the greatest player in team history, or have thrown that kid his game worn jersey in a Coke commercial, because he might well have been drafted elsewhere. Noll sought him out with his first ever pick, Greene became a defensive juggernaut and cornerstone on which to build, and the rest is history. Without Chuck Noll, the, gulp, Dallas Cowboys would probably be the team with the most Super Bowl titles ever, and they almost certainly would’ve owned the ‘70s in Pittsburgh’s stead. 11 of Pittsburgh’s 25 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees played for Noll in the ‘70s and/or ‘80s, and, of course, Noll is enshrined as well.

Most teams pay lip service to the idea of their fanbase somehow constituting a “nation”, but few if any can make the claim with much credibility. There are factors which raise up and extend a sporting entity beyond the boundaries of the merely provincial and turn them into truly national teams. Some teams are indelible, obviously. There are Green Bay Packer fans everywhere in America, a throwback to their own years of remarkable success, both in the distant and recent past. There are also Cowboy fans, and New York Yankee fans, Ohio State Buckeye fans, fans of Alabama and Notre Dame football, and so on. And, yes, there are Pittsburgh Steeler fans absolutely everywhere – in Western Pennsylvania, in Central Ohio, in Arizona, Las Vegas, London and Mexico City…in your hometown, most likely, wherever you happen to live. In 1980, there was at least one 5-year-old Steeler fan in Northeast Tennessee. I crunched the numbers. I go back several times a year now and can report them greatly, surprisingly increased. It is maddening or edifying, I know, depending on which side of the fence you sit. When the steel mills that had long powered the local economy unceremoniously, heartbreakingly shut down and forced so many Yinzers to relocate years ago, they carried the Steelers in their hearts and spread the Gospel of Chuck across the country, but success is success. The force of Noll’s vision and quiet strength forged an unprecedented football success story, and from it untold millions of Pittsburgh Steeler fans over the years, many of them bandwagoneers and many more who loved the team from childhood, as I did, and never stopped. Without Chuck Noll, “Steeler Nation” would not exist. Thank him or curse him for that favor, but, either way, recognize.

Chuck Noll was remembered at Pittsburgh’s St. Paul Cathedral Tuesday in a simple, understated service the coach likely would’ve appreciated. In attendance were Steelers president Art Rooney II and Joe Greene, who both served as pallbearers, in addition to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a cavalcade of Steeler players, coaches and staff past and present, among them ‘70s stalwarts Mel Blount, Franco Harris and John Stallworth, current head coach Mike Tomlin, GM Kevin Colbert and players Ben Roethlisberger, Ike Taylor, Maurkice Pouncey and Cameron Heyward. As the guest list suggests, Noll’s influence is fairly incalculable and spans both decades and eras. No pro football coach ever precipitated such a drastic, magnificent change in fortunes for his organization, his players, their city and their fans, worldwide. He cannot be marginalized, and will not be forgotten. I was pleased to see that the Steelers will wear a patch commemorating Chuck Noll this season. His spirit needs to be alive in the minds of these young players, I think, even more than it is on normal workdays, any of which might take them on the path Bouchette described past now six Lombardi trophies under display glass. Noll’s vision, influence and care are directly responsible for those first four pieces of hardware and, it could be persuasively argued, possibly for all six, because he laid the groundwork, built the foundation where there was none, and established the “standard” that Mike Tomlin is always harping on. So a jersey patch of remembrance, at a minimum, is appropriate. Honestly, I think it trumps and should replace the previously announced patch celebrating the 40th anniversary of our Super Bowl X win. You don’t want an iconic uniform to start looking like a boy scout uniform riddled with merit badges. Simple, direct, fundamental, reverent, successful – just like Charles Henry Noll. Besides, the SBX patch is redundant in my eyes. What Steeler fan doesn’t think of Chuck Noll and Super Bowl(s) in the same, immediate sentence? That is a legacy.

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