Under Noll, Steelers enjoyed unparalleled success
Chuck Noll wasted little time stamping his impression on the Steelers franchise.
Hired the day before the 1969 draft, Noll insisted on selecting Joe Greene with the fourth overall pick despite considerable sentiment inside the organization to draft Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty, a Butler native.
Noll, then just 37 years old, discovered Greene the year before while watching North Texas State's spring drills as a Baltimore Colts assistant. He was convinced teams won with defense, and Greene was college football's best defensive lineman in 1968.
“They were all set to take Hanratty,” said Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who allowed the Steelers to hire Noll from his Colts staff before the draft, breaking from the accepted practice of the day because he knew Noll was eager to accept the job. “Chuck got there and said, ‘Wait a minute. I know this big defensive lineman that I scouted the past few years. We would be better off taking him.'
“You know how tough it was talking the Rooneys into taking Joe Greene instead of Hanratty of Notre Dame? Chuck had the courage of his convictions.”
Noll won twice that day: He drafted Hanratty in the second round.
Then he won a lot more, going on to become one of the most successful coaches in NFL history.
Noll died Friday night at his home in Sewickley. He was 82.
Noll coached the Steelers for 23 seasons from 1969-91, winning Super Bowls after the 1974, '75, '78 and '79 seasons. His 209-156-1 record and record four Super Bowl titles earned him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann said he has applied some of Noll's teachings to his present position as co-owner of the Pittsburgh Power Arena Football League team.
Asked what Noll taught him, Swann said: “Basically, dedication. Be an adult. Be a man.
“Chuck always said: ‘If I have to go in here and motivate you and get you up, there is something wrong. You are a professional football player. Be a professional football player.' ”
The Steelers hired Noll after owner Art Rooney Sr. failed to lure Penn State's Joe Paterno to Pittsburgh.
Noll's first Steelers team finished 1-13. But by the end of Noll's fourth season, the Steelers had advanced to the AFC championship game. Two years later, they were Super Bowl champions.
Through it all, those around him said Noll's demeanor and approach never changed.
“Chuck had no highs and no lows,” said close friend and Jeannette native Dick Hoak, who played and coached under Noll with the Steelers. “What you saw in Chuck, that was him. He was the same every day.
“On a Monday after a game, you couldn't tell by Chuck's actions and disposition whether you won or you lost.”
Said Gil Brandt, former personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys who lost two Super Bowls to Noll's Steelers: “Here is an unassuming guy who accomplished a lot without bragging about it.”
Noll was a perfectionist, something longtime Steelers publicist Joe Gordon saw for himself when Noll got down on his knees to fix Gordon's filing cabinet in his Three Rivers Stadium office a few hours before kickoff of the 1978 AFC championship game.Shula said Noll impressed him with his knowledge of the techniques of every position.
“He took the time to write them down and teach from that,” he said. “How you lined up. What foot was up. What foot was back. Turning and running and how to play the ball when it was in the air. You could see immediately he was a great teacher.
“I always said about Paul Brown that he brought the classroom into pro football. Chuck was a disciple of Paul's. He was pretty much that way.”
Laying a foundation
Noll was hired Jan. 27, 1969, to take over a team that didn't win a championship in its first 36 years.
After a six-year career as a guard with the Cleveland Browns, Noll served as an assistant for nine years under Hall of Fame coaches Sid Gillman (Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, 1960-65) and Shula (Colts, 1966-68). He was defensive coordinator in 1968 when the Colts were upset by Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, but that season, the Colts set a then-NFL record for fewest points allowed (144).
After his one-win rookie season, Noll began a roster purge that cost several veterans their jobs. Among those who didn't make it through the purge was two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Roy Jefferson, who was traded to the Colts prior to the 1970 season after several run-ins with Noll.
But Noll's way proved successful.
With the help of Art Rooney Jr., who headed the Steelers' scouting department from 1971-86, Noll built a winner through the draft.
Gordon said Noll had more influence over the draft process than coaches such as Shula and Tom Landry. Noll earned that right by evaluating college players as carefully as a scout. In fact, he often flew his own plane to campuses to work out prospects.
“Chuck would not have taken the job if he did not have that autonomy and total control when it came down to the final (draft) choice,” Gordon said. “If there was a dispute, Chuck would prevail, but there were occasions that he would defer to his scouts.”
In 1970, the Steelers had the first overall choice, and Noll was sold on Terry Bradshaw, a strong-armed quarterback from Louisiana Tech. The night before the draft, the St. Louis Cardinals called Rooney Jr. in his office on the eighth floor of the old Roosevelt Hotel to offer four starters, including All-Pro safety Roger Wehrli, in exchange for the pick. Wehrli had been the Cardinals' first-round draft choice the year before and went on to become a seven-time Pro Bowler and Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Gordon said Noll wasn't interested.
“Art (Rooney) Jr. relayed the information to Chuck, who said, ‘Absolutely not. Our goal is to win a championship. This (deal) will just be more mediocrity.' We had to continue what we are doing and go through the draft.”
One of the few times Noll compromised was in 1972. He wanted to draft running back Robert Newhouse, but the scouting department preferred Franco Harris. The scouts convinced Noll to take Harris, who became one of the all-time Steelers greats.
In 1974, Noll and the Rooneys put together what is considered the greatest draft class in NFL history when they selected eventual Hall of Famers Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster on the same day.
Noll never took credit for the Steelers' success.
He won his first two Super Bowls by emphasizing defense and the running game. He was so sure of his defense in the 21-17 victory against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X that he gambled the game's outcome on it. With the Steelers facing a fourth-and-9 at the Cowboys 41-yard line and 1:28 left, Noll decided against a punt and went for the first down. The Steelers failed, and the Cowboys took possession. Five plays later, the game was over. The defense had saved the victory.
For Super Bowls XIII and XIV, Noll allowed Bradshaw more liberties, and Bradshaw repaid Noll by twice being named MVP. Noll also did not tolerate mistakes or acts that were outside the rules of the game.
In two games against the Steelers — the AFC championship game after the 1975 season and the opener in 1976 — Oakland Raiders defensive back George Atkinson leveled Swann with shots to the head area, causing concussions both times. At a news conference the day after the second incident, Noll angrily referred to Atkinson as part of the NFL's “criminal element” and insisted he should be kicked out of the game.
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle fined Atkinson $1,500 and Noll $1,000, but Atkinson filed a defamation suit against Noll, who was vindicated after a 10-day jury trial held near the start of training camp in 1977. During cross-examination, Raiders attorney Willie Brown coaxed Noll, who studied law in college, to include the Steelers' Greene, Mel Blount and Glen Edwards in the same “criminal element.”
As a result, Blount filed a $5 million lawsuit against his coach and said he never would play for him again. Eventually, Blount dropped the lawsuit and returned to the team, but the Steelers (9-5) had their worst record in six years and were eliminated in the first round of the 1977 playoffs. A decade later, after a game against the Houston Oilers, Noll famously wagged his finger and scolded coach Jerry Glanville for what he perceived to be illegal hits by Glanville's players.
After the Steelers began winning, Noll pulled aside Rooney Jr. to praise him for helping to improve the team's speed.
“But now the important thing is you have to do something about the team's intelligence,” Rooney Jr. remembered Noll telling him.
Noll suggested the Steelers start requesting players' college transcripts — something the Colts had done when Noll was with them — and Rooney Jr. quickly complied.
“I wanted to show Noll we were just as good as the Colts,” he said.
Noll's style worked well for that era of the NFL.
“At that time, coaches had much greater control over players,” said Gordon, noting there was no free agency. “As a result, coaches would be more intimidating, and Chuck had that look, that stare. When he stared at a player, he could be very tough.”
The Steelers went to their last Super Bowl under Noll 12 years before he retired and missed the playoffs in six of his final seven seasons.
Players and team employees related many sides of Noll, through good and bad times.
Former offensive lineman Brian Blankenship said his best memories were of Noll's ability to know something about everything.
“We were in the weight room at old Three Rivers (Stadium), and a janitor was mopping up some water that had leaked from the stadium above,” Blankenship said. “Chuck could not resist going over and showing the clean-up man that having the mop a certain angle was the best way to remove the water. Always coaching.”
After a 45-3 loss to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day 1983, Noll stood with reporters in an airplane hangar, telling stories and jokes while the Steelers' flight was delayed. Those who traveled with the team that day said the game never was mentioned.
Former Steelers quarterback Rick Strom recalled Noll's sense of humor late in his coaching career when quarterback Bubby Brister fumbled a snap.
“Blankenship picked up the ball and continued back to pass as if he was the quarterback,” Strom said. “He quickly looked downfield then threw the ball incomplete to the tight end. Let's just say tension was running very high.
“In the evening film review meeting, Chuck Noll was sitting in the back of the room. As soon as the play ran on film, Chuck spoke up: ‘Hey, Blankenship.' There was a brief pause. ‘Your first read is out in the flat.' Laughter erupted and tension was diffused.”
Noll coached his way, but he never held a grudge, Hoak said.
“You could have an argument with Chuck and argue back and forth,” Hoak said. “And when you walked out of the meeting, it was over.
“I always described him this way: If something happened to you, who would you want to take care of your family? It would be him.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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