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Chuck Noll and his living legacy

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Ex-Steelers players Andy Russell and John Kolb tell BTSC's Homer J. about Noll's final moments, and the legacy he forged before passing on this June.

Photo and graphic by Bill Crowell
Photo and graphic by Bill Crowell
Bill Crowell

Originally run July 24 as part of The 2014 Renegade, BTSC's season preview issue

"It was December 26, 1991, the day after Christmas, when he called me. I remember it as if it happened yesterday."

"I picked up the phone."

"‘Jon," he said.

"‘Yes,' I answered."

"‘It's over,' he said."

"Vintage Chuck Noll."

"I knew what he was saying. After 23 years, it was over. And I said, ‘okay.'"

"My next response was, ‘what are you gonna do?' And he said he was going to get on with his life."

"I have always remembered that," says former Steeler offensive lineman and coach Jon Kolb. "I was 21 when I came in, and 44 when I left. 13 years as a player and 10 as a coach. I was blessed to have him in my life."

Chuck Noll's coaching career may have ended that December day, when he retired after 23 seasons, but the changes he brought to the Pittsburgh franchise endure. His success was such that nearly all NFL teams emulated Noll and many of the innovations that he brought to the Steelers are now standard operating procedure throughout the league.

"Chuck Noll had a vision," says Kolb. "He had a plan, and he would implement it."

His first change - and perhaps the most lasting - was in assembling the roster.

"He was totally committed to building through the draft," says longtime Steeler media director Joe Gordon, "and no shortcuts."

When Noll took over in 1969, he inherited a franchise that had fumbled through the worst decade of first round draft choices in NFL history.  From 1958 to 1968, they didn't have a single first round draft pick who panned out. The main failure was their dreadful habit of trading top picks for veterans. Six of those years, they traded away their first pick, and another year, their first pick signed with the rival AFL.

And even when the Steelers had a pick, it didn't seem to work out. The four number one picks they kept and signed were Bob Ferguson of Ohio State and Dick Leftridge of WVU, two running backs who were total busts, and Paul Martha of Pitt and Offensive Tackle Mike Taylor of USC, both journeymen ballplayers. Oh-for-eleven-years on first rounders, no wonder they were going nowhere.

Noll did a 180 on the Steeler habit of mortgaging the future.

"His first move was to draft Joe Greene," recalls Joe Gordon, "even though there was a lot of sentiment here to draft Hanratty, who was a Notre Dame graduate out of Butler High School. But we got Hanratty in the second round, and Kolb in the third."

"And the next year, with Bradshaw, a lot of teams made offers, and he said no. He said they were offering players that could make us mediocre. Noll said no.

"In ten years," Gordon recalls, "he made only one trade to get someone - for Tom Keating from the Raiders.

It could be added that in 1973, he traded away a player, Tight end Bob Adams, to the Patriots for a fourth round draft pick in the 1974 draft. He used that pick to draft a little known wide receiver from Alabama AM&N named Stallworth. That was the greatest draft class ever, with four Hall of Famers.

"One year," says Gordon, "we won the Lombardi, and every player on that team had played only for the Steelers."

Chuck Noll picked Joe Greene as his first draft choice in 1969, four days after Noll assumed the head coaching job. And from that moment on, the focus of the Steeler organization has been to build through the draft, with no shortcuts.

Another change Noll made was with a simple question to Dan Rooney. Noll understood that many teams had a quota on the number of black players they would keep on their roster, and black players would generally play certain positions.

Noll asked Rooney if there was a limit to the number of black players he could sign, and was told no. The Steelers, with a tradition going back to Ray Kemp in 1933, and including Lowell Perry and now Bill Nunn, signed all the black players they could who were capable of making - and improving - the team. They even started a black quarterback, when Joe Gilliam temporarily beat out Bradshaw for the starting job at the start of the 1974 season.

Race has never been an issue for the Rooneys, and Chuck Noll's success in Pittsburgh forced other teams to drop those unspoken quotas and hire more black players and coaches and scouts.

Another change Chuck Noll brought to the Pittsburgh franchise was legendary job security, but it wasn't because of his success out of the gate. In fact, it was just the opposite.

"Remember, this guy won his first game in 1969 and then lost 13 in a row, and then he lost the first three games of 1970," says Joe Gordon. "He lost 16 games in a row. But the Chief said, ‘he never lost the team.'"

The fact that the Rooneys stuck with Noll through that painful start and were rewarded with the greatest team of the decade helps explain why there have only been three head coaches in 45 years, and no head coach has been let go since the end of the 1968 season.

The stability that began when the Rooneys hired Chuck Noll continues today, and is the hallmark of the franchise.

Noll also brought an attention to detail that had never been seen before in Pittsburgh.

Linebacker Andy Russell was with the Steelers before Chuck Noll, back in the days when they had no home and held their practices in South Park. Noll came aboard just as the team was ready to move into Three Rivers Stadium.

Russell recalls his first meeting with Noll.

"He called my office where I had a job in the off-season and said to come over to his office. He said I've been watching game film. You're too out of control. I'm going to change the way you play. You're going to be better."

"He changed everything. Attention to detail, work on technique. He'd take All-Americans and change their technique."

Noll changed Russell's stance when lining up against a tight end.

"He said move my right foot two inches to the right, and one inch back. I asked if this  would really help me take on a 6-foot-4 inch tight end. He simply said, ‘Yeah," and it did. Just that little change, and the tight end couldn't make the block on me."

"He stressed the essentials," recalls Jon Kolb, "same foot, same shoulder. The shoulder that you hit with is the foot on the ground. Eyes below the target. Run with your feet after the hit. Basics. Fundamentals."

"Some coaches are great with x's and o's, but they never really played the game. They didn't know hitting and impact. We never pushed. We hit."

"He insisted we keep our focus. Never get distracted. When you worry, he said, you've lost track of what you should be doing."

Noll was, perhaps above all else, a master teacher, and his emphasis on fundamentals and hitting remain the signature of the franchise. But there was much more to the Steel Curtain than just the legendary front four.

"He had you analyze opponents' tendencies for the past three years. Every down and yardage. Every formation," says Andy Russell.

"Our defenses were incredibly complex. The front four would do their thing and cause havoc, but the back seven, we changed our defense on every set. No matter what you called in the huddle, the linebackers and defensive backs would switch to a different defense depending on the formation and the motion before the snap. You could change five times between the huddle and when the ball was snapped, and everybody had to know what to do, because you couldn't yell out over the crowd."

Dick LeBeau's defenses are direct descendants of schemes dreamed up and executed by Chuck Noll and Bud Carson.

Noll also chose athleticism, speed, and quickness over size and brute strength. His offensive linemen were often considered undersized, but were quick, fundamentally sound, hard hitting types who were masters of the trap play. Some of the instant analyses of the 1974 draft questioned drafting a 215 pound middle linebacker from a mid-major college in the second round and an undersized center in the fifth, but Lambert and Webster worked out just fine. That trend of going with athleticism and speed over size continued with players like James Harrison, and seems to be the signature of the 2014 Steeler team.

"Noll wanted athletes who could make the plays," says Kolb. "You have to be able to do it. At the combine, he didn't go to the bench press. He wanted to see if the guy could bend his legs. If they didn't have the athleticism, forget it."

Much of what Noll brought to Pittsburgh as innovation was quickly copied and adapted by the rest of the league, but his fingerprints can still be found on Water Street and at Heinz Field.

"His fingerprints," says Joe Gordon, "are those four Super Bowl trophies. And the two that followed after he retired. The game has changed and times have changed and coaches have their own styles. Cowher was more rah-rah. Tomlin is more a cross between those two styles."

Noll stressed the importance of preparation, including preparing for your life's work, and his former players credit him with success after football. His fingerprints are there, too.

Jon Kolb, who went back to college and picked up an advanced degree, says Noll's step-by-step method in teaching technique parallels the work he does working with post-surgical patients in physical rehabilitation.

"I start with the feet, then the legs, then the knees, it's step by step. No shortcuts."

Andy Russell, a highly successful financial planner calls Noll, "a highly important mentor in my life. I took his attention to detail into my business."

John Stallworth, another one of Professor Noll's students, became a successful high-tech entrepreneur and is now part owner of the team he played for.

Others, like Franco Harris, are successful businessmen who - in the tradition of the Rooney family - give vast amounts of time and money to charities and worthwhile civic ventures.

Jon Kolb marvels at the growth of Steeler Nation and the loyalty the team commands.

"Why does Pittsburgh have a fan base all over the world? I have a picture in my office of Pakistani girls, halfway around the world, waving Terrible Towels. The Rooneys and Chuck were people of integrity who would always do things right. You don't see that today. Not always in business. Not in government. They took the right road. And they didn't waver from that. And this town is full of people like that."

Chuck Noll and the Rooneys took "the right road" because they shared the same values. Starting with the Chief, they were blue collar guys, who believed in family, faith, football, loyalty, and hard work. They were modest, charitable men who had no time for self-promotion or any kind of prejudice. Art Rooney instilled those values into the Steeler organization. Chuck Noll proved you could have them and win championships.  Those values remained firmly in place under Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher, and still define the Steeler organization under Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin.

Chuck Noll died on June 13, 2014. He had suffered from back problems for some time, and from Alzheimer's disease. The Steeler organization, his friends, and the entire city had respected his privacy and dignity during his last years. His wife Marianne, their family and close friends did everything possible to ensure his quality of life. People cared deeply about Chuck Noll's condition, but there was no gossip or speculation about his health.

Late that Friday afternoon, he helped Marianne prepare dinner. He had had several good days in a row. He picked out the wine, and they had dinner. Then he went in and laid down. A short while later, Marianne went in to check on him, and he was gone.

Chuck Noll was never one for fanfare. He never was one to call attention to himself, nor was he much of a cheerleader. "You don't win games with noise," he once told his players, demanding they quiet down. He went quietly, and in the privacy of his own home.

He coached the Steelers for 23 years, and it has been almost 23 years since he retired, but his legacy is secure and his team - and its Lombardi Trophies - will always proudly have his fingerprints on them.

For four decades, the Steelers were lovable losers. Then Chuck Noll taught them how to win, both on the field and in life. That is his living legacy.