Coach was director more than motivator
PITTSBURGH – Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls in six years, and network announcers would still call him Chuck Knox. Or the graphics would spell his name “Knoll,” somehow combining the two names.
If Noll had any reaction at all to that, it was probably bemusement. That’s the way he seemed to regard all the fluff that swirled around his chosen profession. He rarely paid attention to any of it.
Of all the words that could describe Noll, focused is probably near the top of the list. He coached football, and his favorite part was the teaching and preparation. The Steelers didn’t overwhelm anybody with x’s and o’s in the 1970s. Trick plays and glitz were for Dallas.
Watch the games from that era, and be amazed at how basic things were in contrast to the current NFL. There were no radio receivers in helmets then, and no 20-man coaching staffs. When the Steelers won their first Super Bowl 40 years ago, they didn’t even have an offensive coordinator.
The Steelers of the ’70s drafted incredibly well for six years (1969-74), then reaped the benefits of those drafts for six great seasons (1974-79). Noll’s Steelers were talented, prepared and dedicated.
If you’re looking for video of Noll’s great motivational speeches, you can skip the click to YouTube. He didn’t value oratory. There’s a story about a game in 1971 that the Steelers were losing at halftime. As the players filed back into the locker room, defensive back Lee Calland climbed up on a stool and started to passionately exhort his teammates to play better and harder. The story goes that Noll glanced at Calland, calmly said, “Shut up, Lee” and then proceeded to quietly make his instructional points.
Noll once said, “I don’t motivate people. I direct motivated people.” He came to the Steelers with an exceptional pedigree. He had played for Paul Brown, and been an assistant to Sid Gillman and Don Shula. He arrived with a clear vision. Fixing one of the NFL’s worst teams meant a complete overhaul. He told the players up front that most of them would be replaced. He sold Dan Rooney on building through the draft, reversing the Steelers’ longstanding and destructive habit of trading draft picks for short-term veteran help.
Then he started teaching. Noll was a perfectionist. Undersized as an offensive lineman for the Browns, he earned his playing time by knowing and executing his assignments. He was smart, and he didn’t ever hide that. Teammates sarcastically nicknamed him “Knute Knowledge” and “The Pope,” the latter for his perceived infallibility.
Noll had diverse interests away from the field. Erudite is a word that fits. His passions included sailing, wine and gourmet cooking. He cultivated roses that were entered in competitions. He earned a pilot’s license. People who visited his home said there was nothing there that gave away his profession. Football was his job, but not part of the decor.
The lights rarely burned late at Steelers offices. While some coaching staffs stayed past midnight or even slept in the office, Noll felt that working past the point of fatigue was counter-productive.
Noll firmly believed in his ways, which may be a polite way of staying he was stubborn. He was among the last holdouts on having a special teams coach, a full-time long snapper and using the shotgun formation. He had rifts with other coaches – Sam Wyche over post-game handshakes, and Jerry Glanville over what Noll perceived as dirty play. Publicity hounds Wyche and Glanville tried to fan the flames, but Noll wouldn’t bite.
He avoided the spotlight. He had one endorsement deal in his 23 years as coach, and he regretted it. A friend talked him into doing a bank ad, and he cringed every time he drove past his likeness on a billboard.
It wasn’t all roses, of course. When the legends of the ’70s teams faded away, too many ordinary players replaced them. In Noll’s last 12 years, the Steelers were 93-91 with four playoff appearances. They never seriously competed for a title. That was a disappointment because of the expectations Noll had created.
Football was not part of his retirement years. The Steelers annually listed Charles H. Noll as an Administration Advisor in their team directory, but he was rarely seen. He suffered from crippling back problems, and distressing but persistent whispers said he was also afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
Those reports got traction from the way his protective wife regularly rejected requests for interviews. When former assistant Tony Dungy called before Super Bowl XLI to express his gratitude to Noll for launching his career, Marianne Noll told him Chuck was unavailable, but she would pass along the message.
When Noll was still coaching, someone asked him a flowery question about his legacy. It was the kind of thing he especially enjoyed deflating.
With that twinkle in his eye, Noll said, “Don’t leave anything on the beach but your footprints.”
Chuck Noll left more than that. The impressive inventory includes four Super Bowl trophies, a profound impact on the lives of his players, and a standard of excellence the Steelers still strive to meet.
John Mehno can be reached at email@example.com