Starkey: Noll following Steelers' run
DALLAS — Chuck Noll turned 79 on Jan. 5, and he isn't doing particularly well these days.
But you better believe the man who coached the Steelers to their first four Super Bowl titles will be rooting hard for them to win No. 7 Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium.
"We're excited and wish we could be there," said Noll's wife, Marianne, speaking by phone Wednesday from their home in Bonita Springs, Fla. "We'll be watching."
Noll's health doesn't allow for much travel these days, and his wife said he is not available for interviews. Friends worry about a variety of health issues, although Marianne Noll acknowledged only her husband's "horrific" back condition. She said he is eagerly anticipating the arrival of his son, Chris, daughter-in-law, Linda and two grandchildren — Katie, 17, and Connor, 11 — from Connecticut to watch the game.
Just like old times, Marianne Noll will turn on all the televisions in the house. That is what she used to do when her husband's team played a road game.
"It helps ease the nerves because you can pace from room to room," she said, laughing. "I did it during the AFC Championship last week, and Chuck said, 'Why are you doing that?' "
It's hard not to think of Noll at a time like this, what with the Steelers smack in the middle of Cowboys country, shooting for another championship in a stadium that houses murals of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach.
Noll's 1970s teams, after all, achieved greatness on the backs of some excellent, Landry-coached outfits, beating them in two epic Super Bowls.
The foundation Noll set in place still helps guide the Steelers. People forget or simply don't know that the NFL's most-decorated franchise was a bad joke when Noll arrived and that it took him four years to build a winner.
One of Noll's greatest players, Lynn Swann, said it well yesterday: "Everything those guys are doing today is built on the culture Chuck Noll established."
I asked Marianne Noll to take me back to her husband's hiring, when he was the 37-year-old defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl runner-up Baltimore Colts in the winter of 1969.
He had other options. As Marianne recalled, "He was the hot ticket that year."
Why the Steelers• She paused, then said, "Chuck took that job because he felt (the Rooneys) wanted to win — sincerely and honestly wanted to win. That was enough for us. He and Dan, they were good together from the very beginning."
They soon would become great together. Noll remains the only coach in NFL history to win four Super Bowls. He was a giant of the game who maintained a low profile and, as Swann put it, "never gets the credit he deserves for managing one of the great teams in NFL history."
Football people know the truth. That was reinforced yesterday at the bustling Super Bowl media center when I posed the following question: "What pops into your mind at the mention of the name Chuck Noll?"
A sampling of answers:
• "Four Super Bowls," said Gil Brandt, 77, master personnel director of the Cowboys teams that battled Noll's Steelers: "But what really pops into my mind is here is an unassuming guy who accomplished a lot without bragging about it. How's that?"
• "An extremely organized man, very driven, never let up on his players, yet was loved by them," said Jim Dent, author of "The Junction Boys" and a long-time chronicler of the Cowboys. "I was just at Joe Greene's (Texas) house the other day, and that's exactly what he told me: 'The guy was on your (back) every day, but you loved him.' "
Back in Pittsburgh, former Steelers publicist Joe Gordon, a close friend of Noll's, was asked the same question and remembered how "unflappable" the coach was on the morning of big games, such as the 1978 AFC Championship against the Houston Oilers.
Noll walked into Gordon's office, as per usual, 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, 2 1⁄2 hours before the AFC Championship, on his hands and knees fixing a cabinet."
Gordon and his wife are planning a trip to see the Nolls next month, by which time the Steelers could be basking in the glow of a seventh Super Bowl victory.
Who knows if any of them happen without Chuck Noll?