Starkey: Noll the ultimate winner
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Where do you start?
You are attempting to write a meaningful piece about iconic Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who died in his sleep Friday at home in Sewickley, and you are at once honored and tortured by the assignment.
This is, after all, a man who permanently transformed not only the culture of the city's football team but also the culture of the city itself.
So where do you start?
You have long been intrigued by the Noll legend. Maybe it's the inscrutability his ex-players speak of that rivets you. Or the fact that he essentially disappeared from public view — like the NFL's version of Greta Garbo — after his coaching days ended.
Maybe it's stories like the one former Steelers PR man Joe Gordon told you about Noll's incredible unflappability on even the biggest days. Like the day of the 1978 AFC Championship Game against the Houston Oilers.
Noll walked into Gordon's office that morning, as always, to shoot the breeze.
“I had a broken cabinet — a cheap plastic flap was sitting on top of it — and Chuck says, ‘Let me see that thing,' ” Gordon recalled. “So there he was, two hours before the AFC Championship, on his hands and knees fixing a cabinet.”
Maybe it's the odd fact that Noll sometimes gets lost in conversations about the '70s Steelers. As if he wasn't the chief architect and builder.
Lynn Swann, rushing to an appointment four years ago at the Super Bowl, stopped in his tracks and told you firmly: “Chuck never gets the credit he deserves for managing one of the great teams in NFL history.”
Maybe it's all of that, plus the fact that nobody has really delved into Noll's legacy — at least not with Noll's blessing. That will change when Michael MacCambridge, author of the acclaimed “America's Game,” finishes his Noll biography, tentatively scheduled for release in the fall of 2015.
It was MacCambridge who told you, in January, that even though Noll was in poor health he was “still good company.”
You met Noll only once, at a Mel Blount celebrity roast many years ago, and asked one question during a brief media session.
“Now that you've seen Dick Vermeil's second act (coming out of retirement to win a Super Bowl at age 63), does any part of you have the itch to coach again?” you asked.
Noll, then in his late '60s, smiled and said, “I had my time.”
Maybe, in the end, you make this as simple as possible: You focus on the winning. Because for all the fabulous stories about Noll's teaching ability and character and varied interests, the main reason we are talking about him in such reverential terms is that he won better than anyone else.
The beautiful thing about sports is that results easily are measured on that scoreboard up there — and when you're ranking NFL coaches of the Super Bowl era, the scoreboard reads like this:
Super Bowl wins
Chuck Noll: 4
Bill Belichick: 3
Joe Gibbs: 3
Bill Walsh: 3
Winning, or at least the notion of it, is what brought Noll to Pittsburgh in the first place. You remember interviewing his wife, Marianne, and asking her to take you back to her husband's hiring, when he was the 37-year-old defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Colts in the winter of 1969.
Noll had other options. Buffalo and Boston were calling. As Marianne recalled, “He was the hot ticket that year.”
Why the Steelers?
“Chuck took that job because he felt (the Rooneys) wanted to win — sincerely and honestly wanted to win,” Marianne Noll said. “That was enough for us.”
You just know that somewhere beneath Noll's stoic exterior a bonfire raged. How else could he survive seven years as an undersized NFL guard and linebacker?
So you find Terry Hanratty, the old backup quarterback, and he confirms it.
“You could see at times where Chuck actually wanted to play,” Hanratty says. “You'd see that fire.”
Then you dial up Dan Radakovich, a former Noll assistant, who remembers Noll's competitiveness emerging in the coaching staff softball games.
“(Assistant coach) George Perles organized those games,” Radakovich recalled. “And he always made sure Chuck played third base. Chuck thought he was a pretty good third baseman.”
You also recall, from a Paul Zimmerman Sports Illustrated piece, a story about Noll's time as an assistant with Don Shula's 1966 Colts. It was told by former Colts director of player personnel Upton Bell, remembering the coaches' pickup basketball games.
“Chuck was the kind of guy who always guarded you very closely,” Upton said. “One day he got very mad at me, and we were pushing and shoving. Then I ran him into a pick, and he grabbed me. Shula had to step in and break it up.”
Yup, that is where you start. And where you finish. The Pittsburgh Steelers were a joke before Chuck Noll arrived. Founded in 1933, they had never won a playoff game. Within 11 years of Noll's arrival they were four-time Super Bowl champions.
The best line you heard all day was from a long-ago NFL Films piece that ended this way: “Pittsburgh knows now how it feels to win. Chuck Noll taught them. That's his legacy.”
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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