Starkey: Revisiting Noll's legacy
By Joe Starkey
Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
Chuck Noll's name came up this week. It often does — sometimes only does — in the days leading to the Super Bowl.
Turns out Denver Broncos coach John Fox, then a Steelers assistant, learned something about leadership when Noll's 1989 team lost its first two games by a combined score of 92-10 and rebounded to make the playoffs.
The storyline last year was the San Francisco 49ers aiming to tie the Steelers for most Super Bowl wins. A year earlier, people were measuring Bill Belichick against Noll; the year before that, the Steelers were shooting for ring No. 7 against the Packers.
Before that game, I spoke with several NFL luminaries about Noll, who had long since disappeared from the public eye. I wondered why his name only seemed to arise on special occasions and what sprang to mind at the mention of it.
Gil Brandt, who shaped those great '70s Cowboys teams, provided the best answer.
“Four Super Bowls,” he said. “But what really pops into my mind is, here is an unassuming guy who accomplished a lot without bragging about it.”
Maybe that could help explain the relative paucity of Noll-related material out there: Noll himself wasn't interested in assisting with any. It's just strange that in a golden age of sports nostalgia — consider ESPN's spectacular “30 for 30” series — I feel like I know everything about, say, Vince Lombardi, but so little about Noll.
And what a fascinating subject. Noll remains the only coach to win four Super Bowls — and he won them with an air of mystery about him.
Thankfully, there seems to be renewed interest in Noll, who turned 82 on Jan. 5. He is known to be in declining health, though one of his acquaintances tells me Noll “is still good company.”
Two recently published books have tackled Noll's legacy, albeit without his blessing. They are Jim O'Brien's “Chuck Noll, A Winning Way,” and Gary Pomerantz's “Their Life's Work,” a study of the '70s Steelers then and now.
Pomerantz's title is derived from a line Noll used in various forms with players, including this: “Maybe it's time to get on with your life's work.”
O'Brien's work is a compilation of personal recollections, musings of men who worked for Noll and many wonderful photographs (including one of a pensive Noll at his introductory news conference in 1969).
Noll wasn't the sentimental sort, which is why this quote O'Brien culled from an event years after Noll's retirement stood out: “When I think of players on our football team, I think of them as they looked when they first showed up at St. Vincent College.”
Pomerantz dug up valuable nuggets and captured the point that even if Noll loathed motivational speeches, he studied his players' backgrounds to the point where he knew precisely which buttons to push.
As former Steelers cornerback J.T. Thomas told Pomerantz, “He could question your parenthood just by looking at you.”
Next up is Michael MacCambridge, author of the acclaimed “America's Game,” a study of the NFL's rise to dominance. He has targeted the fall of 2015 for his Noll biography, one that will be unique in that MacCambridge has secured the cooperation of both the Steelers and Noll.
MacCambridge politely declined to discuss his project. Suffice it to say, there will be plenty of interest.
Pomerantz painted this scene from a 2011 autograph show in Virginia, at which Noll made a rare appearance. When Noll walked in, people clapped “as if honoring a passing former head of state,” Pomerantz wrote.
Pomerantz, however, never could secure an interview with Noll, whose wife, Marianne, shields him from visitors.
I want to know more about this man. I'm guessing you do, too, as we stare at the puzzle pieces strewn on the floor.
MacCambridge, hopefully, can put some more of them together.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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