My brush with Chas "The Emperor" Noll was sometime in the late 80s. The Steelers were playing in Los Angeles. The Southern California Steelers Fan Club known as the Black and Gold Brigade were having a mixer at a downtown Los Angeles hotel. I headed out before the end of festivities, as the game was the next day. I had tickets. I wanted to be fresh and get to the Coliseum early and tailgate. On my way out of the ballroom and towards the escalators I spied Head Coach Chuck Noll and Steelers owner Dan Rooney stepping out of a cab from dinner and headed up the escalator. I decided to wait up top for them. From the time I was 9 years old listening to "The Immaculate Reception" on the transistor radio with my basketball team after Sunday hoops I had been transfixed by the Steelers. Noll was their architect and leader. He was a mystic, stoic enigma. This was my chance to thank him for years of entertainment, joy and lessons learned.
As Noll and Rooney reached the top I moved forward and spoke to the greatest Head Coach I would ever witness on a football field. "Coach Noll, My name is Andrew and I grew up in Pittsburgh and now live in Los Angeles. I just wanted to thank you for all the years of great entertainment and football you have provided me and Steelers Nation." I reached out my hand and he shook it. With a smile he just said "Thank you Andrew" Just then the buzz reached the ballroom and behind me dozens of Steeler Nation started rushing for the escalator. Pens and paper, camera’s in hand the Brigade was surging towards our leader. I could see the smile leave his face as he realized his cover was blown and he was about to be swarmed by frenzied loyalists. "Good evening Coach. Good evening Mr. Rooney" I said as I started down the escalator and towards home. I didn’t stay for the spectacle surely going on in the hotel lobby now that everyone realized Noll arrived. But I was content on my drive home that I had met and shook hands with a childhood hero and had gotten to thank him. Also I was proud that I was sure our encounter was a positive one that Noll appreciated as opposed to the encounter that awaited him in the hotel lobby.
The Emperor was not one for the spotlight. He left that for his players. But he was a great teacher and a great coach as well as a superb evaluator of talent. He could be brutal with his players. Bradshaw hated him for a long time. "Franco who?" was his retort when Harris was holding out late in his career. His famous line to force a veteran past his prime out the door was an unsympathetic "Maybe its time he get on with his life’s work." But there are great stories about the other side of Noll that few rarely saw. Reserve Guard Brian Blankenship told several stories that made me chuckle. On one botched play, Bubby Brister fumbled the football. It bounced to the lineman Blankenship. He picked it up, rolled right and threw an ugly incomplete pass. During the film study during the week, Noll stopped the projector and remarked "Blankenship, your first read on that play should have been in the flat." Hilarious! Noll, always the teacher was once in the downstairs weight room of Three Rivers Stadium with his players. A janitor was mopping up a puddle under a leak from upstairs. Legend has it that Noll walked over to the janitor and spent 10 minutes showing him the proper technique to mop up the puddle. Never the speechmaker or motivator (Noll looked for self motivated players to teach), Noll sauntered into a Monday morning meeting with his team in 1974. The Raiders had just defeated the Dolphins in the late Sunday playoff game with a heroic come from behind win. Many prognosticators made the statement that the two best teams in the NFL had played that day in that game. Noll repeated that statement to his players. Then he added "The two best teams in the NFL did not play in that game yesterday. The best team in the NFL is in this room." Then he promptly left the room. Guys like Mean Joe Greene later described goose bumps. He might have thrown a chair across the room? Players were ready to go to war. And war is what they waged on Oakland and Minnesota in the coming weeks on the way to their first Super Bowl title of four in six years.
My favorite Steelers team that didn’t win a Super Bowl was probably Noll’s greatest coaching job in his career. The 1989 Steelers hadn’t made the playoffs since 1984. They started off the season 0-2 being outscored 92-10. Many in Pittsburgh abandoned ship. I must admit even I was in line for a lifeboat. But Noll settled the team down. He got them "back to basics" blocking and tackling. He spouted his mantra "whatever it takes!" And the rag tag Bubby Brister/Merril Hoge led Steelers climbed back from 0-2 to 9-7 and a playoff berth in Houston. There in Houston, with the Oilers driving for the win in OT, Rod Woodson torpedoed an Oiler runner at midfield and forced a fumble. Gary Anderson kicked a 51-yard field goal and the under dog Steelers won. It would be Noll’s last playoff victory. The following week the Steelers had Elway’s Bronco’s on the ropes in the 4th quarter. But Elway was Elway and Brister was Brister and the Steelers succumbed 24-23 at Denver.
Chuck Noll retired after the 1991 season and except for his appearance at his Hall Of Fame ceremony pretty much disappeared from view and out of the spotlight. Like he liked it. He got on with his life’s work pursuing his many interests. Reading all of the media reports of Noll’s passing I was pleased that they finally have spelled his name correctly. It always perturbed me when I would see him referred to Chuck Knoll or Chuck Knox. That's what staying out of the spotlight does. No one except the most learned are quite sure who you are.
Before Chuck Noll the Steelers never won a playoff game and very rarely finished above 500. After Chuck Noll, other teams refer to "the Steeler Way." The "Steeler Way" was created by Charles Henry Noll, the architect and the Emperor of Steeler Nation. In my humble opinion the Lombardi trophy should be called the Noll. In fact every time the Steelers win that trophy in the future I will call it the Noll. In fact the Steelers have 6 Noll’s. "Coach Noll, My name is Andrew and I grew up in Pittsburgh and now live in Los Angeles. I just wanted to thank you for all the years of great entertainment and football you have provided me and Steelers Nation."