It was a sad day for the NFL on Friday. Sadder yet for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chuck Noll, the head coach who guided the Steelers to 4 Super Bowl titles in the 1970s, passed away at the age of 82.
Noll first gained recognition as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Colts in 1968, when the Colts had the top-ranked defense in the NFL, allowing only 10.2 points per game. The Steelers took notice and hired Noll to coach the moribund Steelers in 1969. At the time, the Steelers were considered one of the worst franchises in the NFL and it was up to Noll to turn the fortunes around.
He started the process by drafting defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene in the first round of the 1969 draft. Greene became the focal point of the famed Steel Curtain defense that terrorized the NFL throughout the 1970s. Noll added cornerback Mel Blount, linebacker Jack Ham, defensive tackle L.C. Greenwood, defensive end Dwight White and middle linebacker Jack Lambert to form a unit that remains the gold standard amongst NFL defenses.
What separated Noll from his contemporaries was that Noll was more of a teacher rather than a motivator. He eschewed fire and brimstone speeches, urging his players to “Win One For The Gipper” refrain. Instead, Noll used tactics and mental acumen to get his point across. Noll rarely raised his voice, but he was stern when he had to be.
No player felt the wrath of Noll more than Terry Bradshaw. The Steelers quarterback didn’t have a rousing start to his career and was benched at the start of the 1974 season, in favour of Joe Gilliam. Bradshaw sulked as Gilliam started off strongly for the Steelers, throwing for 605 yards and 3 touchdowns in his first two games. But Gilliam started to struggle and Bradshaw returned to the starting quarterback role.
After some struggles, Bradshaw and Noll had a long conversation about what was needed to lead the Steelers to the promised land. Instead of going to the media, Noll went to Bradshaw alone and each aired out their concerns. The talk worked as the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl later that season.
Noll led the Steelers to three more Super Bowl titles, led by the strong arm of Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain defense. Two of those victories came at the expense of the Dallas Cowboys, who were embroiled in a major feud with the Steelers at that time. The Cowboys were “America’s Team” and fashioned themselves as the glamour side of the NFL. The Steelers represented the blue-collar, working-class fan which belied the city in which they came from.
The Steelers also had a nasty rivalry with the Oakland Raiders in the 70s. After Raiders safety George Atkinson levelled Lynn Swann on two separate incidents, resulting in Swann having a concussion on both hits, Noll sued Atkinson and the Raiders, calling them the “criminal element” in football. Atkinson counter-sued Noll for defamation of character. What stood out was how Noll would defend his players at any cost. That won him the respect of his players who in turn, would go through a wall for their coach.
Noll continued to coach the Steelers until his retirement in 1991. The Steelers ran into hard times throughout the 1980s as the stars of the 1970s began to show their age with injuries and general wear and tear.
Noll developed a personal rivalry with then Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville late in the 1980s. The feud went public in 1987, after a game at the Astrodome. Noll lectured Glanville during the post-game handshake which included some harsh words exchanged. Noll exacted revenge on Glanville two years later as the Steelers shocked the Oilers in the AFC Wildcard playoff game in Houston, Noll’s final playoff victory in his career.
After he retired in 1991, Noll served as an administration advisor for the Steelers, but the role was more ceremonial than being involved in the day-to-day operations of the football club. Noll continued to live in Pittsburgh, while also having a home in Florida during the winter months.
Noll was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, with his 209-156-1 record proving he was one of the best in the business. He also repaired his sometimes fractious relationship with Bradshaw in 2003.
Sometimes its the ones that don’t seek out the limelight that earn the most success. Chuck Noll was one of those people who didn’t need the spotlight. But he is one of the best coaches in the history of the NFL and his legacy will live on in the NFL.
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