Noll's team-first approach helped to make Steelers winners
To understand how good of a coach Chuck Noll was, it is necessary to comprehend how bad the Steelers were before he arrived.
From 1933-68, an era in which they hired, fired, recycled and rehabilitated coach after coach, their winning percentage was .394 — the worst of any major pro sports team.
Noll didn't change it overnight. But the transformation he brought to the Steelers — slowly but inexorably and memorably — stands as one of the great coaching jobs in any sport at any time.
Noll, who died Friday night of natural causes at age 82, made a very bad team very good. He made a city undergoing seismic economic changes proud and confident, even as heavy industry abandoned the region. He won like no other NFL coach ever won: four Super Bowls, still a record.
“He set a new standard for the Steelers that still is the foundation of what we do and who we are,” said Steelers president Art Rooney II, a one-time Noll ball boy. “He taught us all what it took to be a winner.”
One reason Noll succeeded like no other Steelers coach was that he was unlike any other coach.
He didn't sign endorsement deals. He never wrote a book. He never appeared in a national ad. He didn't become a TV analyst. He never sought another job or to move to a bigger city. He never slept on his office couch. He believed players and coaches alike deserved family time. He was rational and reasonable.
Pittsburgh never built a statue for him, either. No, with Noll, it was never about him. It always was about his players.
“They didn't make nearly as much money back then, and Chuck didn't want to take that (endorsement) money from them,” former assistant coach Jed Hughes said. “Chuck was never a self-promoter. It was always about the team.”
“He never won the (NFL) coach of the year (award) ... but he didn't care about those things,” Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said.
It was about patience, too, the kind NFL teams rarely show today.
Noll's first team went 1-13 in 1969. His record in his first three seasons was 12-30, which probably would get a coach fired today. But once the Steelers started winning in 1972, going 11-3, it lasted throughout the greatest decade by any NFL franchise.
“I played for a bunch of coaches, three or four,” said Dick Hoak, a player and an assistant coach for Noll. “You could tell it was going nowhere until he came.”
The Steelers had eight losing seasons in the 1960s. Under Noll, they had eight winning seasons and four Super Bowl wins in the 1970s.
“With all the great players — (Terry) Bradshaw, (Lynn) Swann, Franco (Harris), (Jack) Lambert, (Joe) Greene — we don't win championships without Chuck,” Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham said. “He was the guy who got all of us to buy into how to win a championship.”
Under Noll, the Steelers drafted a remarkable 11 Hall of Fame players.
Noll wasn't a big name like a Vince Lombardi or instantly recognizable nationally it seems — even on Saturday, some throughout the NFL spelled his name “Knoll” — but his coaching helped build the Steelers into a worldwide brand name.
Harris, who began the turnaround with his Immaculate Reception that produced the first Steelers playoff win in 1972, said it's a testimony to Noll's coaching that his teams won amid a shifting NFL landscape.
“We had the running game and the passing game and a defense, and that's something you don't see at that level,” he said. “We won two Super Bowls before the rule changes (that opened up the passing game) and two Super Bowls after the rule changes.”
Noll won, in part, because he earned his players' trust and, in turn, because they won his, Ham said.
“We were bouncing around between Terry (Hanratty) and Joe (Gilliam) and Terry (Bradshaw) in '74,” Ham said. “When Chuck went back to Terry and stayed with him, it all solidified.”
Bradshaw, who had feuded publicly at times with Noll before that and once wanted to be traded, said Noll's tough love made him “mentally tough. And, for that, I can never say thank you enough, because that got me through divorces, Super Bowls and bad moments in big games.”
Mel Blount and John Stallworth said they considered Noll to be a father figure as well as a coach.
Even after drafts went bad in the 1980s and the Steelers never successfully replaced Bradshaw while winning only two playoff games in that decade, Hughes said, “He never lost a team. There was never any infighting. ... His intellect, the way he thought about people, was different than everybody else.”
Noll wasn't a master motivator, though his words always commanded his players' attention. A former player for Paul Brown and a former assistant coach for Don Shula, he felt preparation and practice won games, not fancy gameday rhetoric.
“He didn't feel like it was his job to motivate,” Rocky Bleier said. “It was his job to take motivated people and give them a direction.”
Still, Greene is convinced the Steelers upset the Oakland Raiders in the 1974 AFC championship game, then beat the Vikings to win their first Super Bowl, because of the impact of Noll's words.
“He said, ‘Those people in Oakland said the championship game was played yesterday (between the Raiders and Dolphins), that the two best teams had played,' ” Greene said. “But he said, “I want you guys to know the Super Bowl is played three weeks from now, and the best team in football is sitting right here in this room.
“Chuck never said anything like that prior to that or after that, not in that way. After Chuck talked to us, they (the Raiders) had no chance of winning that ballgame.”
Noll won with a dominant running game and with a dominant passing game. He won with players at the beginning of their careers and at the end. He won with dignity, without pretentiousness, and as a player and as a coach. It often is overlooked he also won two NFL titles as a player with the Browns.
“ ‘Legendary' doesn't begin to do him justice,” Jerome Bettis said.