We saw very little of Coach Noll in recent years, but - in retrospect - we never really saw that much of him. Chuck Noll never, ever sought the limelight. His private life, and his family life, were private, and that privacy was to be respected.
Even as Coach, he never sought to do commercials and public appearances. He let the players do that. I think he did a series of bank commercials at one point, and did some public service announcements, but he turned down a fortune in endorsement money when the team won four Lombardi Trophies. It wasn't something he wanted to do, so not even all that money could make him sell cars or tires or whatever.
He did interviews as part of his job, and was kind and cooperative when having to put up with young reporters, but Noll preferred to spend time on pursuits other than talking about himself. He had an endless curiosity about nearly everything and loved food, wine, history, and other cultures. He had no time for self-promotion.
Chuck Noll was a teacher and a role model, and he took those pursuits seriously. At a time when other coaches might leave a young reporter with a couple sentences and a cliche or two, Noll would treat a 24-year old kid with the same earnestness that he would his players or a nationally-known sportswriter. He would give you the same life lessons that he would give his players. The same "Chuck-isms," as one former star recently called his favorite turns of phrase. Even at the most famous moment in Steeler history, he was Chuck the Teacher, explaining to reporters that Franco made the Immaculate Reception because he kept hustling. "Good things happen to people who hustle," said the Professor.
Chuck Noll might have regaled you in how he loved the fact that Pittsburgh - an inland city - had an ample supply of high-quality fresh fish in some very good restaurants. He might have read something about some long-forgotten culture, and then mention it in conversation. And he lived down the street from Myron and Mildred, and would fix anything over at their house that might break. He was a complex, curious, and intellectual man, with a blue collar ethos.
Chuck also had a strong sense of fairness that led to much of his success. When he was named coach, one of his first questions to Dan Rooney was if there was a quota on the number of black players he could hire. When told there was no quota, he hired as many as could make the team. The Steelers, like other NFL teams at the time, had numbers and symbols on the draft board for their prospects. In addition to height, weight, position, and college, there was a symbol for black or white. Chuck saw to it that was removed from the Steeler board.
The great teams of the Steeler dynasty were populated by many black players who grew up in the segregated south. Many were products of their troubled time, and came to Pittsburgh with a sense of anger and impatience. None, moreso than Joe Greene. These young men came here and were exposed - often for the first time in their lives - to white authority figures who looked beyond race. It started with the Chief, and included his sons and Chuck Noll. Joe Greene still remembers those sweet days when he'd drop by the Chief's house and smoke a cigar with Mr Rooney in the front room. And he speaks lovingly of his respect for all that Chuck Noll did for him, and of their deep and abiding friendship.
Noll often said he wasn't much of a half-time speaker or a great motivator. He wanted guys who were self-starters. If they couldn't motivate themselves, he said, perhaps they should get on with "their life's work." He wasn't much for hand-holding. He was, in the final analysis, a teacher and not a hand-holder. He was the grown-up in the room, even at age 35.
Chuck built that dynasty from the ground up, with draft picks and free agents. His 1979 championship team was the only team in history composed entirely of draft choices and UDFA's.
In recent years, he has "been ill," and "not feeling well," and missed such events as the naming of the street after him. The Steeler family said very little about the Coach’s health in recent years, and they guarded his and Marianne’s privacy. At a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, I asked one Steeler legend about Chuck's health, and made a brief remark in passing about my concern, and got a quiet but serious two word reply; "radio silence."
His obituaries refer to Chuck being treated in recent years for "an undisclosed ailment," and the P-G uses the word "Alzheimer’s."
It would have been difficult – and perhaps awkward – to do an NFL Network hour long show on Chuck – while he was still alive – while respecting his privacy yet not raising all kinds of red flags among those who didn’t know that Chuck was not well. How could you do such a show without having a recent interview with The Emperor? The dignity and privacy of the Noll family were key here, and they were preserved.
It was clear to me in my very limited dealings with members of the Steeler family that there was to be absolute radio silence about Coach Noll’s health. The Steelers are a family business, and – in the final analysis – a large, extended family. One of the patriarchs of that family was ill, and they protected him like a great offense protects its quarterback.
It took more than the efforts of the Steeler family to protect the privacy of the Noll family. This was a situation like the illness of Aaron Smith's son. Many people knew Aaron was missing practice because Elijah was battling leukemia, but the story didn't come out until the Smiths were ready to tell it. Pittsburgh, thankfully, is far, far away from the Thirty Mile Zone (TMZ). Nobody went peddling any stories about Chuck Noll's health, hiding behind "the public's right to know." I am especially grateful and proud that our Pittsburgh media - who knew much more than they wrote - didn't write or speculate about Chuck's well-being.
There is more, much more about Chuck’s final years, and about the courage that he and Marianne showed, and how the Steelers’ family closed ranks and protected them from the media and from the curious. And those stories will come later. For now, there are still confidences to be kept. There has been a death in our family.
Now is a time to mourn and to console his loved ones and share their grief, and a time to celebrate a life’s work that was splendid, indeed.
Here’s to the best coach we ever had, the best coach we ever will have, and the smartest guy in the room. RIP.