You might think this is one of those “Must be a slow news day” articles. After all, it is the middle of June, and the Steelers are in the quiet portion of their offseason.
But the middle of June—June 13, to be precise—was when Chuck Noll, the Steelers’ legendary head coach who changed the fortunes of the franchise, passed away in 2014 at the age of 82.
I’d like to think someone would occasionally take the time to acknowledge Noll’s passing and contributions to the organization even if the date of his death fell right in the middle of a Steelers’ Super Bowl run. In fact, that would be quite appropriate since Noll was perhaps the most responsible for giving the organization a reason to actually build a trophy case.
One was never needed during the first 36 years of the organization’s existence. The Chief, the late Art Rooney, probably had one erected somewhere at his team’s headquarters, but it was like the broiling door at the bottom of an oven: Was there ever a reason to open it?
Most astute and diehard Steelers fans know the story after Noll was hired in 1969. He came in with a vision like no other coach had ever had before him. Noll built the team up from the very foundation, and by his sixth season, he finally gave the Chief something to put in his trophy case. Five years later, after a victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, the Chief was the proud owner of a fourth Lombardi. The Steelers went from pathetic losers who would be laughed at on the Tonight Show, to the mecca of the football world, all within a decade.
That was all because of Chuck Noll. Yes, Dan Rooney, Art’s son and the man who convinced Dad to hire Noll, was in many ways the heart and soul of the organization—and the entire NFL—during his many years as the Steelers president and then majority owner, but Noll gave the Steelers’ their blueprint on how to win.
Dan Rooney said as much after Noll’s passing back in 2014. Noll taught the Steelers how to win.
It was Noll who made building through the draft a Steelers’ philosophy. It was Noll who created an environment within the locker room where players had to be self-starters and had to hold one another accountable. “If I have to motivate you, I will fire you,” Andy Russell once said of Noll’s philosophy on fiery pre-game speeches. But it was Noll who had the vision and just the right timing to give perhaps the most important speech in the history of the franchise in the days before Pittsburgh traveled to Oakland to take on the Raiders in the 1974 AFC Championship Game: “The best damn team is in this room.”
It worked like a charm.
It was Chuck Noll who taught the Steelers about staying the course, even through adversity, and not overreacting to every little thing. This is what Mike Tomlin means when he says, “Don’t blink!”
It was Noll who believed that, before you can win a game, you have to first not lose it.
Noll believed in a ball-control offense and moving the chains years before Bill Cowher called it “Smash mouth football.”
Noll also knew defense was important—this goes back to not losing the game before you can win it. He believed that you won by outhitting your opponent.
Obviously, Cowher subscribed to that theory during his time, and Tomlin does today.
But as conservative as Noll was, he knew how special Terry Bradshaw and his stable of offensive weapons were, and he let them fly by the late-70s. This just so happened to be right when the game of football was changing into an aerial circus. Wouldn’t you know it, Noll had the Greatest Show on Earth.
Years later, Cowher reluctantly took the reins off of his young stud, Ben Roethlisberger, and it led to the team’s first Super Bowl trophy in 26 years. In a perfect world, Tomlin will have to do the same with Kenny Pickett, one day.
Noll certainly had his flaws as a head coach, and these were more noticeable over the latter stages of his career when Pittsburgh was trying to transition from the Super ‘70s into a new era that would bring about more championship success. Noll made several unsuccessful attempts to recreate the magic of the Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s by using multiple first-round picks on underwhelming to worse defensive linemen in the 1980s. Noll was quite lackadaisical about hiring assistant coaches, but he was also extremely loyal to them when it was obvious that they weren’t getting the job done.
Noll’s philosophy of not overreacting and staying the course seemed to become a negative in his last years as head coach, as the game of football appeared to pass him by.
Yet, despite the organization’s struggles over the last seven years of Noll’s tenure—the Steelers only made the playoffs once between 1985-1991—he still managed to leave the cupboard quite full for Cowher when he was named head coach in 1992.
People often talk about Tomlin winning Super Bowl XLIII with Cowher’s players, but take a look at this list of names: Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Neil O’ Donnell, John Jackson, David Little, Ernie Mills, Merril Hoge, Tunch Ilkin, Eric Green and Barry Foster. That’s quite the roster of talent for a young head coach to inherit.
Many of those players managed to stick around for the entirety of Cowher’s initial postseason run of the 1990s and were instrumental in the team’s march to Super Bowl XXX.
Noll coached 23 seasons in Pittsburgh and racked up 209 victories. Needless to say, he’s the greatest head coach in franchise history.
It’s kind of a shame that he’s not celebrated as much as he probably should be, but that was mostly his doing. Again, he wasn’t a motivator—at least not verbally. No, Noll believed that the best way to motivate someone was to show them how to get the job done. In other words, he loved to teach. The fun was in the doing.
You know how folks like to circulate memes with quotes they falsely attribute to famous people? You never see one with Noll’s likeness, because that would be ridiculous.
Noll didn’t crave the spotlight. He probably didn’t care that people often got him mixed up with Chuck Knox, a fellow head coach and a contemporary. He probably didn’t even care that many spelled his surname with a K—something a lot of fans still do to this day. Noll wasn’t a personality. He wasn’t a fire and brimstone guy. He didn’t do commercials. He didn’t work for the networks when his team was out of the playoffs.
Noll may not have cared about fame, but he sure made the Pittsburgh Steelers famous.
Dare I say, this is why millions of people own a yellow towel. It’s probably why I’m sitting here about to finish this article about my favorite sports team.
Noll is probably why the Steelers are my favorite sports team.
Perhaps nobody in the history of professional sports had a greater impact on an organization than Chuck Noll had on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rest in peace, Emperor.