Noll tried to avoid spotlight, but achievements demanded it

When I picked up Saturday’s Mirror and saw that Chuck Noll had passed away, my thoughts immediately went back to Jan. 12, 1975 – one of my most memorable days ever covering and writing about sports.

Jan. 12, 1975 was the day Super Bowl IX was played in New Orleans. Chuck Noll’s Steelers were matched with the Minnesota Vikings at Tulane Stadium. The game originally was scheduled to be played at the Super Dome, but construction wasn’t completed, so the game was played at Tulane Stadium.

It was the Steelers’ first Super Bowl appearance, and I was fortunate to cover it, thanks to the generosity of the Steelers, who invited all of their “hometown” reporters to make the trip, with the team taking care of most of the expenses. Having covered all of their home games, I was included.

It was one of the nation’s biggest sports event then, but nothing like today when thousands of reporters, both print and electronic, from all over the world, converge on the site of the Super Bowl.

The Steelers won, 16-6, behind the running of MVP Franco Harris and the vaunted Steel Curtain defense. To show how times have changed, several of us “Pittsburgh reporters” rode back on the team bus to the hotel after the game.

To me, Chuck Noll was always one of the least appreciated coaches in the NFL. When he took over the team in 1969, the Steelers had a losers’ image. Even after winning four Super Bowls in a six-year span, he never was named NFL coach of the year by the Professional Football Writers Association. Countless times, he was referred to Chuck Knox, not Chuck Noll, by the national media.

I remember Noll as a guy who considered himself a teacher first and a coach second. He actually was considering a career in teaching when Sid Gillman offered him a job as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Always smaller than most of his players, Noll, nonetheless, was always the man in charge, whether it was at training camp in Latrobe, on the sidelines at Three Rivers Stadium or in the press room following a game.

He shunned the spotlight, preferring to always make his players the focal point, but he could be overbearing at times in post-game press conferences, often chiding reporters before settling down to answer questions.

The late Myron Cope almost always referred to him as The Emperor, Chaz. Always scholarly, Noll also was called “The Pope” by several members of the media and former coaching colleagues.

Noll also had several favorite/famous sayings. One of them was “whatever it takes” which became the Steelers’ battle cry during their first Super Bowl run. And, when one of his players’ careers was reaching its end, Noll was known to tell them, “it’s time to get on with your life’s work.”

He must have been thinking that when he announced his retirement. It was the day after Christmas, Dec. 26, 1991, and many of the team’s regular reporters weren’t even present because of the holiday season. That was Noll’s style, the way he wanted it.

Of course, Noll coached many great players like Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Jon Stallworth, Franco Harris, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, and the list goes on and on. However, it was Noll who molded them into four Super Bowl championships in six years and helped make them the Team of the Decade in the 70s.

Many of them are in the Pro Hall of Fame. Noll’s bust is beside them in Canton, and rightly so.

Lane is a retired sports editor of the Mirror. He covered the Steelers during their glory years of the ’70s.