Steelers Hall of Fame coach Noll remembered as 'standard-setter'
Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer paused, rested a hand on Chuck Noll's casket and paid final respects to the man who made the Pittsburgh Steelers what they never were before he arrived.
As Noll was laid to rest Tuesday, the players who won those four Super Bowl trophies in the 1970s said it mattered not that Noll never won the NFL Coach of the Year award. Or that he isn't always mentioned with coaching greats Vince Lombardi, George Halas and Don Shula.
To them, the legacy Noll left behind lives today not only with the Steelers but Pittsburgh, too.
As Bishop David A. Zubik said during an hourlong funeral Mass at St. Paul's Cathedral in Oakland, Pittsburgh became known worldwide as the City of Champions largely because of Noll, who died of natural causes Friday night at age 82.
“Everybody who's been around him knows what a factor he has been for this league and this city,” said Mike Mularkey, the former Buffalo Bills head coach who played for Noll. “To this day, this team is built around what he started.”
Some of those current Steelers — coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and players Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward and Ike Taylor — gathered with Noll's former players to pay respects to the only coach to win four Super Bowls.
“He is the standard-setter — not only for us but the people in our profession,” Tomlin said.
The former Steelers included Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Joe Greene, John Stallworth and Mel Blount, plus Rocky Bleier, Merril Hoge, J.T. Thomas, John Banaszak, Louis Lipps, Mike Wagner, Andy Russell, Tunch Ilkin, Craig Wolfley and Dick Hoak. Most sat together in a group that included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney. Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw was a no-show.
The pallbearers were Greene, Russell, Steelers President Art Rooney II, former Steelers publicist Joe Gordon; family friends Michael, John and Patrick Manning and family members Chris Mikut and Jerry Deininger.
Noll was not only a good coach — his 209 career wins are evidence — but also a man who taught his players how to live life properly, Greene said. Noll often told them how they raised their families — not their playing careers — would define their lives.
“There's not a day that goes by — not many days — that I don't reflect back on Charles Henry Noll,” Greene said.
It's apparent that others do, too, given how many succeeded in their post-football careers, including Stallworth, Harris, Bradshaw, Russell and Jack Ham. Some made far more money outside of football than in it, Stallworth and Bradshaw among them.
“He was a great coach — and a great man,” said Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame guard for the rival Houston Oilers and now a Steelers assistant coach.
Blount relies upon Noll's advice daily as he works with troubled youth at his Washington County ranch.
“I think every day there's a lesson because Chuck has instilled that in us that we're a reflection of him,” Blount said. “You try to take all that knowledge and wisdom and share with someone.”
Mularkey does. A Tennessee Titans assistant coach, he has Noll sayings plastered all about his meeting room. Among them: “Stress is when you don't know what you're doing” and “I wasn't hired to motivate players, I was hired to coach motivated players.”
To Zubik, Noll motivated nearly everyone he touched, directly or indirectly, before and after the Steelers won Super Bowls during the 1974, '75, '78 and '79 seasons.
Zubik recalled that as a young Catholic priest, he asked Noll many months in advance to speak about leadership at a Catholic youth retreat. Unbeknownst to Zubik, the retreat turned out to be the day after the Steelers arrived back from Pasadena, Calif., from their fourth Super Bowl win, in January 1980.
Regardless, Noll showed up and spoke as scheduled to a group that coincidentally included future Hall of Famer Dan Marino, a player Noll later passed on in the NFL Draft.
Zubik also invoked the name of another Hall of Fame coach in relating how “our dear coach Chuck” made Pittsburgh special. Recalling how Lombardi wanted his backs to run to daylight, Zubik said Noll showed the Steelers the light after 36 years of mostly losing.
Noll made sure those memorable teams won with dignity and respect, and by relying upon preparation rather than coach-delivered motivation.
“He exuded confidence,” said Carnell Lake, a Steelers assistant coach and former player. ”He didn't speak very many words but, when he did, you listened.”
As the estimated 500 who attended the funeral filed out into the bright sunshine — several brought Terrible Towels, and there were a few Steelers T-shirts among the dark suits — some walked by nearby Oakland Catholic High, where a sign carried a message for Noll: “Heaven's team is waiting for you.”