When the Pittsburgh Steelers hired coach Chuck Noll to rescue them from the anemic doldrums of their first four decades of existence, little did Art Rooney and the organization realize that the fate of their fine franchise had just changed forever.
In the Steel City, nobody is so cynical as to imply his tenure was marked by anything short of greatness, and few are those who do not fully comprehend the immediate impact he made on the befuddled franchise. Recently, a radio poll asked Pittsburgh fans to call in and answer, "Which city sports star is most deserving of a new statue outside of Heinz Field?"
With Mario Lemieux's bronze pose in the works for placement outside of Console Energy Center, the local residents gave three common answers: Joe Greene, Franco Harris...and the man Myron Cope used to refer to as "Emperor Chaz."
Yet, on the national consciousness, one wonders if Noll's accomplishments aren't viewed without the appreciation they deserve.
After all, despite having won more Super Bowls than any other in the history of the game, Chuck Noll's name is rarely mentioned upfront when the list of candidates for the league's all-time greatest coaches are reviewed.
Perhaps, those not as impressed with Noll's resume consider that he played during an era in which players' loyalties to their teams were not muddied by free agency. Or, maybe some fans are resigned to ascribing the credit for four Super Bowl titles to that infamous "Steel Curtain" defense.
In any case, the reality of Noll's impact on the Rooney's laughingstock club cannot be understated. Truth be told, the Steelers' rise to the top of the NFL ranks began with a culture change, having the apathy of decades of losing stripped from them and becoming infused with the notion that anything short of the top priority- the Vince Lombardi Trophy- would eventually not be good enough.
When he was hired on January 27, 1969, the radical change in the Steelers' identity began. Without this transformation in attitude, there would be no "Steel Curtain," no breaking of the lackadaisical mold, and certainly no dynasty.
One of Noll's famous quotes was, "Pressure is something you feel when you don't know what you're doing."
If this is the case, Noll felt no pressure, because he certainly knew what he was doing...and it started with pulling no punches. In fact, the coach came across as subtle as a punch in the face immediately.
In America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions, Andy Russell describes Noll's assessment of the team upon his arrival.
“Look, I’ve been watching the game films since I took the job. And I can tell you guys that the reason you’ve been losing is not because of your attitude, or your psyche, or any of that stuff. The problem is you’re just not good enough. You know, you can’t run fast enough, you can’t jump high enough, you’re not quick enough. You’re techniques are just abysmal. I’m probably going to have to get rid of most of you...and we’re going to move on.”
"And you know—five of us made it from that room to our first Super Bowl following the ’74 season."
By 1972, Noll led the improving Steelers to their first ever playoff win, a 13-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders highlighted by the "Immaculate Reception." Despite the confidence boost provided by the apparent hand of God at newly furbished Three Rivers Stadium, the undefeated Miami Dolphins ousted the upstart Steelers one week later in the AFC Championship Game. Because home playoff games were determined by divisional rotation at the time, Pittsburgh lost the game in the Steel City.
It would be the last time that the 70s Steelers would lose a home playoff game. Unlike Bill Cowher, who succeeded Noll in 1992 and lost home playoff games like a bad habit, Noll's teams were deadly to the opposition in January amidst the Western Pennsylvania winter.
“Some coaches pray for wisdom. I pray for 260-pound tackles. They'll give me plenty of wisdom.”
It is said that "fools speak to say something, but wise men speak because they have something to say." Noll's wisdom shined through in his terse, infrequent words, and often, that wisdom was the understanding that winning would be proportionate to the ability of the players on the field. The best scheme would be rendered moot without the talent to pull it off. As such, Noll prayed for "260-pound tackles," but he certainly didn't shy away from praying for elite players at any given position.
He must have prayed hard. He was rewarded with Hall of Fame talent. Beyond himself, the coach worked with talents such as defensive tackle Joe Greene, linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, cornerback Mel Blount and running back Franco Harris.
Pittsburgh rose from pretenders to contenders in a few seasons. The ascension from contention to championships occurred when Noll and the Steelers produced the finest draft class in NFL history in 1974.
With the 21st pick of the first round, they chose USC's Lynn Swann. Next, the second round brought Kent State's scrappy "little" linebacker Jack Lambert. Later in the selection process, John Stallworth and Mike Webster rounded out the class. All four made the Hall of Fame. All four played for the Steelers. And...
All four had one more impressive thing in common: Super Bowl rings in their rookie season.
After coach John Madden announced the Raiders' divisional playoff against the defending champion Dolphins as "Super Bowl 8 1/2," Chuck Noll took notice. The 1974-75 Steelers took care of the Buffalo Bills, shutting down O.J. Simpson and setting up a date with the Silver and Black.
Noll, who did not believe in motivational speeches, citing that they would become redundant and ineffective over time, chose an appropriate time to go out of character, speaking to his club with a setting, yet confident, emotion.
The "Emperor" changed his voice subtly, adding an undertone of defiance:
"You know, the coach of the Raiders said the two best teams in football played yesterday, and that was the Super Bowl. Well, the Super Bowl is three weeks from now, and the best team in pro football is sitting right here in this room."
For all of the whooping and hollering of the Gruden's and Ryan's of the World, Noll showcased that pushing the right buttons isn't a matter of mashing buttons and finally hitting the right ones. In this case, it was a matter of knowing for damn sure which button needed to be pressed.
Playing what many of those Steelers describe as their best game ever, the underdog Steelers went to California and defeated the Raiders, 24-13, to earn a berth in Super Bowl X.
Those who speak against Noll's accomplishments note that he didn't have the pressures of free agency. And, while there were fewer teams in the NFL, there were still 24 squads post-merger (with the AFL). Those squads were not watered down in terms of talent. Sure, players loyally stayed with the Steelers for whole careers. But, talented athletes stayed with other franchises, too.
The result was fierce competition.
When the Steelers beat the Raiders in the AFC Championship, they took out a team that featured Ken Stabler, George Atkinson, Jack Tatum, Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Brown, Dave Casper, Ted Hendricks, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and Cliff Branch.
Even for the talented Steelers,any lapse in coaching would have surely resulted in a loss at the hands of other talented franchises. With such skill more concentrated, it's not a stretch to say that the best teams—for their era—have slowly diluted as years have passed.
With great rivals, from the Raiders to the Oilers, the success of the Steelers required more than just the men in helmets and their abilities. The guy with the headset needed to get the job done, too!
And, he did.
Once they won their first Lombardi Trophy, handing it to "The Chief" as he gazed upon it through tear-fogged glasses, the Black and Gold had the taste.
Before Noll, it was a taste that seemed absurd to even imply. The "Mickey Mouse Steelers" winning the Super Bowl? Scoff!
Next, the Steelers beat the Cowboys twice for football's coveted prize, complete with Roger Staubach, Cliff Harris, Mel Renfro, Randy White, Tony Dorsett and "Hollywood" Henderson.
Then, in 1979-80, after winning their seventh straight home playoff game to clinch a fourth AFC Championship, the Steelers culminated their dynasty with a win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV.
For a team considered among the dregs of professional sports a mere decade beforehand, the transformation into the most dominant modern era team in the NFL seemed miraculous.
That's because it was. The result was not mystical, nor did it happen by the chance circumstance by which talent happened upon the Steel City.
It was the result of a fruit of labor by a master craftsman who knew what he wanted and how to deliver. The meticulous, understated Noll, a wizard of his profession, developed the Black and Gold from black and into gold. With years having passed and the Steelers making the playoffs almost annually, it's hard to fully fathom or appreciate the sudden change as it could be understood back then.
Noll was the keystone piece for the ultimate transformation in the sports history. And, like any sports hero, the coach was destined for a fall from grace. Few are the careers that end on top.
In the 80s, analysts and fans questioned if the game—now complete with 4,000-yard passers such as Marino and Fouts and dominant passing attacks such as the West Coast offense—hadn't passed by Noll. These concerns came despite a winning record for the franchise during the decade. Yet, by comparison to the years that had just passed, most fans remember the 80s as a "losing" era for the team.
Like a proud warrior taking one last gulp of air, Noll crafted one more great coaching effort. In 1989, the team opened with losses to the Browns (51-0, at home) and Bengals (41-10). After rebounding to beat the Browns weeks later in Ohio, the team still slid to 4-6, and it appeared another playoff absence was confirmed.
However, Noll's group refused to give up. Fighting back against the odds, they sneaked into the playoffs through the back door, winning in Oakland to end the season and receiving some help. Then, after years of personal rivalry with Jerry Glanville, Noll's Steelers defeated the Oilers in Houston, a huge Wild Card playoff upset that ended with a 50-yard field goal by Gary Anderson.
If not for a masterful fourth-quarter touchdown drive by John Elway, the Steelers may have played in the AFC Championship Game. However, in the end, Denver held off a late comeback attempt by the Steelers, winning 24-23.
The "Emperor" may have had "new clothes," but he proved to everyone that his groove wasn't completely lost.
When Noll retired after the 1991 season, he did so as one of the most-decorated coaches in league history. His four Super Bowl rings remain the most of any coach in NFL history, though Bill Belichick will have the opportunity to match this feat in Super Bowl XLVI.
Vince Lombardi was a legend, and he could likely be argued as the superior coach on a list of all-time great, yet, the Packers won before him.
Bill Walsh was masterful in guiding the 49ers to three Super Bowls. Still, the 49ers had success before Walsh's arrival from Cincinnati.
Like Tom Landry in Dallas, Noll took over a franchise that didn't know the sweet taste of success. In the case of the Steelers, the hunger was non-existent because the team didn't even know what striving for excellence truly encompassed.
Noll placed this expectation on himself first, then relayed this to the team through his decisions and actions. Interestingly, another pair of understated coaches, who demand hard work and execution, play in Super Bowl XLVI this Sunday.
When considering the list of best coaches, as well as the bronze statues and personal comparisons that go with it, one has to remember the context of their greatness. Without Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh could well still be the "Arizona Cardinals" of the pre-merger NFL. That's exactly what they were prior to his hiring.
The Cardinals, minus the whole Kurt Warner escapade!
Instead, a whole lot of change—and a boat load of silver—are the purest testaments of the great tradition of the Steelers—a history that was populated with disappointment prior to 1972. The legacy of the Steelers is the proof that Chuck Noll's name deserves far more mentioning in the debate over the best coach ever.
Was he the father of the modern game? No, that was Paul Brown. Did he retire the winningest coach of all time? Nope, that didn't happen either—a title still held by Don Shula.
Still, what Noll invented was, essentially, the Steelers way. No longer does that phrase describe multiple entries into the NFL Football Follies films. Now, it involves making Super Bowl highlights.
The Steelers way is the Chuck Noll way—winning. And, the modern perception of the Black and Gold is the gift that resulted from Noll's excellence.
It's too bad that his name rarely comes up in the initial wave of votes for the greatest coach of all time. For coaching the greatest team of all time, risen from the ashes of what was formerly the poorest, couldn't it easily be argued that his name should be mentioned...first?