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Farewell to The Emperor

Struggling with the loss of someone to whom I owe a debt that never can be adequately repaid.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I got the email from Hombre de Acero after midnight. Had I heard? No I hadn't. I had just returned from a graduation party for the son of a friend, was going to try to finish a humorous (I thought) piece on Maurkice Pouncey's extension and then start assembling the Checkdown.

And then I couldn't do anything.

Let us be clear about something here. The reason that I am writing this and you are reading it is due in great measure to Chuck Noll. The reason why the Steelers are such a big piece of so many lives, that it is the source of our joys, our sorrows, our obsessions is in great measure due to Chuck Noll. The reason why we have the nerve, the audacity, the unmitigated gall to get our panties in a bunch over going 8-8, in believing, EXPECTING that we will get, indeed are entitled to another Lombardi when nearly half the franchises in the NFL don't even have one is due in great measure to Chuck Noll. The standard is the standard. Well guess who established the damn standard.

Guess who made the Rooneys look like sages? Think Joe Greene is the greatest Steeler? Guess who scouted him and then insisted that the team draft him when the consensus was to go for Terry Hanratty? I can go on. How much time do you have?

And it is hard to avoid feeling that we are witnesses and perhaps unwitting accomplices to a cosmic injustice: Chuck Noll, the greatest head coach in the modern era of the game-based on the bottom line winning championships, nobody has more than Noll since the merger-living in Florida with a bad back and consigned to being an afterthought  to the Walshs, Belichicks and Parcells of the world. Increasingly, I feel the meaning and significance of Noll is fading from within the collective consciousness of Steeler Nation itself. He succeeded, perhaps too well, at deflecting the accolades,

I wrote that as part of an article on Bill Nunn who also recently passed away. I wrote it almost exactly three years ago in fear of this very moment. We sit now perched on the edge of that 'cosmic injustice'.

I visit Bryan DeArdo's article on Noll's passing and in the comments section some idiot shows up and wants to argue that Walsh was the better coach. Looking beyond the obvious issues of disrespect and self absorption that such behavior reflects, it does have the benefit of providing an opportunity to understand that the legacy of Noll is about more than that "bottom line". We make a grave error if we believe that the qualities of the man that aren't easily quantifiable to winning games are merely personality quirks, idiosyncrasies that are largely irrelevant to the success of the man and that of the team that he led.

A couple of examples.

Part of the standard is Noll's perfectionism. He toed a very fine line between caring very deeply about life (he seemed to know something about everything) yet he avoided that level of attachment that leads to sentimentality. Pursuing greatness demands a certain degree of ruthlessness. That perfectionism passes down to us when we turn up our noses at 8-8 and sneer "Not good enough".

An acquaintance, an African-American woman related a conversation she had with an accomplished white woman who was explaining why she was dating a black man. "Racism is a luxury I can't afford". Noll, like his mentor Paul Brown, like the Rooneys, like Branch Rickey understood that when pursuing greatness that racism is not a luxury you can afford. When I had the honor of spending an afternoon speaking with Bill Nunn he reiterated again and again the deep and abiding respect he had for Noll in that fair treatment went way, way beyond that of empty rhetoric; that he owed so much of his position with the Steelers to Noll as much as the Rooneys. You can be a white man or a human being. You can't be both. You have to choose. You can be a black man or a human being. You can't be both. You have to choose. Noll, Art Rooney, like Branch Rickey, like Paul Brown chose humanity. The Dodgers of the 40s and 50s, the Browns of the 40s, 50s and 60s, The Steelers of the 70s to this day achieved unprecedented levels of greatness. you think that's just some sort of coincidence?

One of the things that is shared throughout the Steelers organization is a genuine sense of humility. The foundation of humility is respect. You can't achieve greatness without respect for how hard it is to achieve the sustained level of excellence which is the operational definition of greatness. You can't rest on your laurels, you can't afford to disrespect your allies or your enemies, you can't afford the luxury of self congratulation or self promotion because that would mean you've lost sight of the fact that the challenge never ends. Yes, we won today, but the sun is setting. What about tomorrow?

You want to honor Chuck Noll? You say you bleed Black and Gold? Then take the time to study the man and the legacy that he has left us to this very day. Understand the how and why of the greatness of this franchise, because if you don't, if you let ESPN or the dilettantes and fair weather fans among us to define and interpret the standard then the day may come when the standard will be gone and there be no one to remember what it was or where it went.

One of Chuck Noll's sayings I believe is particularly appropriate for this time as we move from two somewhat disappointing seasons and aspire to something greater in 2014. Noll liked to say that things were not as bad as they seemed when you were losing and not as good as they seemed when you were winning.

Perfectionism in action.

Thank you Coach. Until we meet again.