Hall of Fame football coach Chuck Noll passed away Friday evening.  I remember when I started following the NFL as a kid I had trouble telling the difference between Chuck Noll and Chuck Knox;  it wasn’t as bad as Frank Gifford saying that George Foreman and not Chuck Foreman was catching passes for the Vikings or, heaven forbid, Thurman Munson making tackles for the Cowboys.  In a world where coaches can often be larger than life personalities who often oversell and underdeliver, Noll was the quiet achiever.  Unlike Hank Stram, he wasn’t miked up to say “64-toss, power trap”…or anything else.  Even among colorless coaches in the 1970’s, Noll didn’t stand out:  he failed to make “silent and stoic” his trademark like Bud Grant…or even wear the quiet fedora like Tom Landry.  He taught, built, and won…while deflecting praise to his players.  In a sport where Bill Walsh went straight from winning Super Bowl XXIII to the NBC booth…Noll retired from the game and stayed out of the limelight.  In a world where Hall of Famer Bill Parcells releases the book “Finding a Way to Win” in the middle of a 6-10 season and then writes “The Final Season:  My Last Year as a Head Coach in the NFL” a few years before taking the Dallas job, Noll never wrote an autobiography.  Noll never even cooperated on a biography of his legacy as the architect of the team of the 1970’s.  In a game where a coach’s ego can often be the size of the stadium he coaches in, Noll was the quiet conscientious objector.

“Players win.  Coaches teach”– Before taking over the Steelers, Noll was a winner.  Twice an NFL Champion as a player with Cleveland (1954-55, while playing in the title game two other seasons)… an AFL Champion as an assistant with San Diego (with 4 other appearances in the title game) and an NFL Champ as Baltimore’s Defensive Coordinator in 1968 (before the Colts lost Super Bowl III to the NY Jets), winning seemed to happen around him.  Or he was an active part of the winning process. “The thrill isn’t in the winning, it’s in the doing”.

“Geese fly 75% faster in formation”– Noll took a misguided franchise that had 7 winning seasons to its 30+ year history.  The actual number of Steeler seasons in the team’s history can always be debated:  during World War II they merged with Philadelphia for one year (going by the name “Steagles”) and spent another season merged with the then-Chicago Cardinals (a less-imaginative “Card-Pitt”).  With Art Rooney, Jr. and Bill Nunn, Jr. (who passed away earlier this year), they built through the draft as opposed to trying to trade their way to respectability (as had been the case in the past with the franchise).  On the first day of training camp, Noll told the team that for the most part they weren’t any good…and a big chunk of them would be gone sooner rather than later.  But those that stayed would learn.  And from the first round picks to the free agent pickups, Noll would teach his players technique and repetition.

“The single most important thing we had in the Steelers of the 1970s was an ability to work together”— can we also say a little luck?  The Boston Patriots almost hired Noll after the 1968 season, but shied away just long enough after the Colts lost to the Jets in Super Bowl III…and hired Jets Offensive Coordinator Clive Rush.  The Patriots went 5-16 under Rush…and instead of 21 games Noll lasted 23 seasons in Pittsburgh.  The Steelers also won a coin flip with Chicago the following season that gave them the #1 pick in the draft.  If they lose the toss, the Bears get Terry Bradshaw…and the Steelers settle for Mike Phipps of Purdue (next QB taken) or Notre Dame DT Mike McCoy (next player selected)?  Two years later, Noll wanted to take a runningback in the first round–only it wasn’t Franco Harris but the University of Houston’s Robert Newhouse.  Art Rooney Jr. won that battle, and the Steelers made the playoffs 10 times in the 12 years Harris was with the team.

“Don’t leave anything on the beach but your footprints”–  we’re constantly talking about legacies and Mount Rushmores in sports and specifically football;  talking heads spout numbers and context until we realize that it’s actually sunny outside.  Noll’s legacy will no doubt be debated and held up against Lombardi, Landry, Shula, Walsh…and others for years.  But after spending 39 years in pro football…Noll simply got on with his life.  A licensed pilot who also dabbled in scuba diving… a wine connoisseur who enjoyed cooking…a jazz enthusiast who guest-conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony.  He always told his players to prepare for “their life’s work” after football.  Charles Henry Noll had a full life that wasn’t made more complete by wins or championships. 

 

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