Chuck Noll never fit the mold.
The former Steeler head coach, who is still the only coach to win four Super Bowls, didn’t stay until midnight watching film. He didn’t bother trying to motivate his players.
If his assistants couldn’t get their work done in time to go home and have dinner with their families, then he had hired the wrong assistants.
If a player needed motivation, then the Steelers had drafted the wrong player.
Noll spent his time away from football learning about a variety of subjects. He was noted as a wine connoisseur. But it didn’t stop there. He had heard of dandelion wine, bought several books on the subject and reportedly made the finest dandelion wine you’ll ever taste.
Noll was a noted chef, sailor and scuba diver. He once conducted the Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra.
This was a man obsessed with life, not football.
He bought an airplane, and then learned to fly. Here was a man who knew how to make a plan and execute it.
Don’t underestimate how much football knowledge Noll absorbed just because his great mind had time for other subjects.
As a coach, Noll liked to think of himself as a teacher. Fortunately as a coaching student he learned from the best.
He learned under the influential Paul Brown as both a player and assistant coach. He assisted Sid Gillman, whose passing philosophies still dominate the NFL.
The Steelers were made in the image Noll created.
The team acquired the best athletes, self-motivated athletes, coachable athletes and they executed on the field.
Teams knew to a certain extent what the Steelers were going to do. In Noll’s early years as coach they were going to run the football down your throat.
Sounds simple enough, but Noll had a complex trap-blocking scheme that had defensive linemen and linebackers never knowing where that next hit was coming from.
In the midst of the Steelers run of four Super Bowls in six years, the rules changed to allow offensive linemen to extend their arms. That’s right, youngsters, that used to be illegal.
Noll saw how this would change football from a run oriented game to a passing game. He let Bradshaw loose with his two Hall Of Fame receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and the Steelers won their third and fourth Super Bowls as a team transformed from a grind-em-out team to an electric, high scoring outfit.
There are other innovations Noll created but football historians will probably overlook.
In the modern game, the starting quarterback takes almost all the snaps in practice. Noll was the first to implement that. Prior to Noll realizing the importance of the constant repetition, the starter shared snaps with the backups all week.
The Steelers had a great talent in Terry Bradshaw who needed the consistency Noll demanded. Bradshaw needed constant tough coaching to become a champion and Noll gave it to him.
Noll also had Bradshaw keep his foot back when he took the snap from center. While it is common in the game now, quarterbacks once were lined up square with the center before receiving the snap. Noll figured out how to save that extra fraction of a second that often means the difference between a sack and a completion.
Noll would obsess over the placement of a foot or a toe for his linebackers and defensive backs. He had Mean Joe Greene line up at an angle to make the dominant defensive tackle even harder to block.
While coaching some players tough, Noll knew to back off of others.
Franco Harris looked like a bust to some in his early intra-squad scrimmages. Noll was smart enough to see where the defense wasn’t exactly going all out. Harris’ cutback style led him into the arms of tacklers trailing behind the play. In a game, the method would be effective because defenses would be going at full tilt. Noll pulled running backs coach Dick Hoak aside and said, “Don’t coach him too hard.”
Of course Noll was right and Franco went on to be one of the NFL’s leading all time rushers when he retired.
Much of the Steelers’ success in the 1970’s is due to players drafted from small black schools. The Steelers had this figured out before the rest of the league caught on. It was Noll who pushed hard for the team to draft John Stallworth, Mel Blount and L.C. Greenwood.
Noll quietly achieved his greatness. He never wrote a book, he never had any endorsements, he was never awarded Coach of the Year.
Many thought he was just a product of his great players, 10 of whom have their busts on display in Canton.
If you’re foolish enough to think coaching a bunch of great players is easy, ask Daniel Snyder if he has found a coach yet who can put together a winner from his collection of superstars.
Chuck Noll was not the kind of coach to slap players on the back and be their best friend. The result was when he told his players something, they knew they could believe him.
I had linebacker Andy Russell on my radio show once and he told the story of Noll’s introduction to the team. Russell was one of the few Steelers from the team Noll inherited to stick around for a Super Bowl.
Football operated much differently then. Though Noll had been hired in January, he didn’t meet with the team until they arrived at camp in July. The Steelers had heard some good things about their new coach and believed he could be the one to turn the moribund franchise around.
Let me paraphrase Russell’s story:
“Noll came into the meeting room to address the team for the first time. We were anxious to hear what he had to say.
“He said ‘Fellas, I’ve been watching film of this team for the past six months and I know why you haven’t won many football games.’ We all sat up at attention, thinking this guy is about to unlock the mystery for us and we’ll be on our way. ‘Guys,’ Noll said, ‘there just aren’t very many good football players on this team. Only a handful of you are good enough to play in the NFL. In a few years most of you will be gone.’
“Don’t you know in two years we only had five guys left who were in that room. Fortunately I was one of them.”
It’s certainly not the Rex Ryan style of feeding the players a steady diet of bullshit that a high school player can see through.
Mean Joe Greene tells Alan Robinson of the Steeler Reporter how Noll addressed the team that won their first Super Bowl.
“Those people in Oakland said the championship game was played yesterday (between the Raiders and Dolphins), that the two best teams had played.” 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.”
Those men knew to believe their coach. Six years and four Lombardi Trophies later, the Steelers had stamped themselves as the greatest team in NFL history.
The Steelers franchise is still known for its consistency and excellence. They have a methodology they stick to. They aren’t flashy, and God knows they aren’t the Cowboys. The Rooney family deserves a lot of credit, but they owned the team long before Chuck Noll came around. The roots of what the Steelers are today begin with Noll.
RIP Chuck. The Steelers, their fans, the NFL, the city of Pittsburgh and this fan in particular can never thank you enough.
Chris Andrews has over 30 years of experience as a bookmaker in Nevada. Check out his new website at www.againstthenumber.com and www.sharpssports.com. You can follow him on Twitter@AndrewsSports. Contact Chris at [email protected].