Kovacevic: Noll made us all Steelers
A building is reaching for the sky from the heart of Downtown. It's still just skeletal steel, that PNC headquarters on Wood Street, but it might cast an even more powerful image in this prenatal phase than once it gets pretty.
See, Pittsburgh isn't just booming. It's bursting at the seams. They say a city's only as vital as the cranes it's got in motion, and we've got $4.8 billion in recent and planned development within the Golden Triangle. Population has finally leveled. People are moving into the core. Unemployment is negligible. Offices are packed. The 34-story PNC skyscraper is our first in three decades. Our Market Square and Mellon Square, our roads and bridges, our trails and waterfronts, even the long-sputtering Point State Park fountain are better and brighter than ever.
Funny, but we might just as easily have wound up like Detroit. Or Buffalo. Or some other Rust Belt ruin.
If not for Chuck Noll.
‘We're from the town'
If you don't see a correlation there, chances are excellent you don't have first-hand familiarity with what truly made those Steelers of the 1970s so Super.
It was a terrible time. The steel mills that employed nearly half the city were closing en masse. The surrounding businesses were failing with them. Pittsburghers were out of work, out of luck and, soon, out of town: From 1970-80, the city's population was slashed by 96,179, per the U.S. Census. Almost 20 percent! Some fled for the D.C. area and government jobs, others for new economies in the South and West, others just for sanity's sake.
We were Beirut without the bombs, Chernobyl without the radiation.
I was a child, but I felt it, too. Shops were boarded up in places you'd never thought possible. “For Sale” signs sprouted in every other yard. Your friends in school were there one day, gone the next. The grown-ups who stuck it out spoke bitterly about what was happening, but more so with resignation. This was just how it was going to be, they'd say. Pittsburgh had its time. Now that was done.
Crazy thing would happen every Sunday during football season, though.
Yeah, on those days, all was well. Because Pittsburgh ruled. All those cities that were supposedly superior the other six days of the week were weaklings in the presence of Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and all the rest. Our brand didn't just win. It dominated. It humiliated.
And we didn't just root for the Steelers. We lived through them. We were them.
Chuck Noll gave us those Steelers.
“The thing that gets kind of lost about that period is that Pittsburgh wasn't even a pro football town before Chuck Noll,” Mayor Bill Peduto, a native Pittsburgher and self-described sports nut, was saying by phone over the weekend. “All of that really took root in the ‘70s.”
It couldn't have come at a better time, as Peduto added: “I still joke when giving speeches about how that was the decade we were winning championships while our city died. That's how it felt. Everything was falling apart around us except the Steelers.”
It was unlike any relationship between city and team, as outsiders soon noticed.
When the Charlie Daniels Band took to a national TV stage in May 1980 to debut their country-rock anthem, “America,” the United States as a whole needed a pick-me-up from the Iran hostage crisis, long gas lines and other malaise. So the man sang with a defiant tone:
You just go and lay your hand
On a Pittsburgh Steelers fan
And I think you're gonna finally understand
Daniels meant to express that no one had better mess with Americans, that we're done getting knocked down. In an interview years later, he explained that he chose our city because, “I just felt like if you want to go to war, let me take some Steelers fans with me. You're gonna find out what American anger is.”
He was right. We were angry, young and old alike. We wanted Pittsburgh to hang tough. We wanted the city's legacy to push through all the sadness surrounding us.
Chuck Noll's Steelers gave us that spirit.
The late, great mayor Richard Caliguiri seized upon it. He rallied the community and, more visibly, the corporations to send a signal to the world with a wave of skyscraper construction Downtown. And for all the effort and money that took, the engine behind the civic sense of duty was that, as Caliguiri wrote at the time, “The Steelers are a tremendous source of pride for Pittsburgh.”
Chuck Noll's Steelers gave us Renaissance II.
‘Winning's a habit, not only a dream'
Noll won not just by being the greatest coach in football history, with all due nods to Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Bill Belichick and all others whose ring count is lower than four. He did so by being the quintessential Pittsburgher.
He punched the clock and sought no praise. He was the Icy Ball Man, the “Dear Heart” Cheese Lady, the guy who takes your parking ticket or picks up your trash, only with a fancier title. “The thrill isn't in the winning,” he once said. “It's in the doing.”
He had no time for drama or theatrics or, on the football field, anyone who would celebrate what he considered a day's work. “Act like you've been there before,” he'd admonish any receiver doing an end-zone dance.
He was the calm in the storm, not just in high-intensity football settings, not just because he could handle even the overheated Bradshaw, but also in our city, in our lives. One look at the head coach, even on TV, was all any of us needed to wonder what we were just worried about.
As Art Rooney II offered beautifully over the weekend, “Chuck knew where he was, where he was going, where he wanted to go and how to do it. He had a very, very strong moral compass.”
One that led the football team to still-unrivaled glory.
And yes, one that put our city back on course.
Now, we're getting honors and recognition from all over, whether for livability or tourism or education or being photogenic or, most powerfully of late, for shrugging off the recent Great Recession that crushed most of the of the rest of America. We're made of strong, sturdy stuff. If we can survive — no, thrive — after the loss of big steel and US Airways and every other body blow dealt, we can handle anything.
What's more, the recognition still comes for the right reason. Go anywhere in the world, and tell someone you're from Pittsburgh. They might not know exactly where that is, but nine times out of 10, as any traveler will attest, they'll come right back with “Pittsburgh Steelers.”
That's who we are.
The mayor knows.
“Pittsburgh is identified, even today, more than anything, with the Steelers,” Peduto said. “We have a lot of great things going and other growing brands, whether it's our emerging businesses or Andy Warhol, but we're still about the Steelers in the eyes of the world.”
‘Chuck Noll and all his friends'
People have fun with these “Mount Rushmore” water-cooler debates, the ones where you pick the top four all-time figures in a given category. Well, here's mine for Pittsburghers who have represented us best to the rest of the world: Andrew Carnegie, Jonas Salk, Fred Rogers ... and Charles Henry Noll.
Because no matter what other good fortune might lay ahead for our little corner of the world, no matter how else we might become appreciated, the opening line from that old Jimmy Pol polka will always have it right:
We're from the town with the great football team
Mr. Noll died Friday, but he gave us a gift. It was both timely and timeless.