"Teaching is the highest form of understanding." — Aristotle
"I learned this a long time ago. Sometimes if a player isn’t getting it or understanding, it’s not always his fault. Maybe you’re just not doing a good enough job coaching it." — Bill Parcells
It’s strange with Chuck Noll. The craftsman of a Steel Curtain. His teams ruled the NFL of the 1970s in majestic form. Four Super Bowl crowns in six years. And yet Noll has never been among the first names to surface on the subject of all-time greatest coaches. The real legends.
You go right to Lombardi and Shula and Walsh in those discussions, don’t you? Or Halas. Or Paul Brown. Or Belichick. Finally somebody offers, “What about Noll?” and you pause.
“Of course. Can’t forget Chuck Noll.” But, of course, you did.
And that’s okay. You’re not alone. Everybody’s guilty. But why? Why has the architect of one of pro football’s fiercest dynasties been so often overlooked and not bestowed the reverence he richly deserves?
Theory No. 1 comes from the way Noll presented himself to the football public. While his fabulous Steeler teams were conquering all continents, the head coach was doing all he could to deflect any praise or celebrity aimed his way. His character wouldn’t allow him to bask. There probably is no Theory No. 2.
Noll did no coach shows. There were no commercials. His press conferences were typically monotone and clinical. Pittsburgh radio host Myron Cope nicknamed him, “The Emperor,” the supreme ruler. It stuck. Noll despised it. He wore a windbreaker, not a robe. He raised no scepter. And if there was to be any battlefield glory, he wanted his players to have it.
“I have a theory,” says former Steeler safety Mike Wagner, who played for Noll from 1971-80. “If you’re a professional athlete or coach in a big media market, then you’ve got to schmooze and be responsive to the media. Then, if you’re a great coach, you’ll be categorized as the greatest. An average player will be known as a better player. And the reverse will also be true.
“Instead, Chuck always held the media respectfully at a distance. He never wanted to go out drinking or golfing with them. He used the media to basically make his team play better, not to promote himself or the team.”
“Think of the toughest professor you ever had in college,” says Art Rooney Jr., who ran the Steelers’ scouting department during the Noll era. “They have their own sense of humor, their own agenda, maybe a little eccentric. To get through the course you had to get into their groove. That’s the way it was with Chuck Noll.
“He was a superb teacher and a motivator. His message to me was that he wanted great athletes, not good ones. And the players we brought in had to be teachable. They had to be decent men. He wanted nothing to do with troublemakers.”
Check around and I promise you won’t find any parade of books or biographies on Noll. He wouldn’t open up enough—especially on pure football matters—to make it worth an author’s time. It would be a lengthy exercise in who-what-when-where, with very little why.
The closest thing I ever saw to an inside look at the coach was a lengthy piece in Sports Illustrated from 1980, shortly after Pittsburgh won its fourth Super Bowl. The title was "Man Not Myth." It was written by Paul Zimmerman, and years later I asked Zimmerman a very honest question—How difficult was it?
“Chuck and I were wine buddies,” Zimmerman said. “He was always interested in people he could learn something from. If Noll thought a guy was a dumb s--t, he’d give him the curled upper lip. He would give guys like that the standard answers. I mean, I never got great football stuff from Noll. When we were together, we’d very seldom talk about football. We’d talk about wine.
“Then one day I said, ‘Look, I know you’re not going to like this, but I’m going to have to do a feature story on you.’ He said, ‘Do you have to?’ I said, ‘Yes, the magazine is going to want it. You just won four Super Bowls.’ He said he could spare me a couple hours. A couple hours turned into a week.”
Zimmerman’s biggest challenge was to keep Noll from getting dulled by the process. So when the football conversations turned into bromides or dead air, that was signal to switch gears and get into history or oceanography and maybe uncork the Corton-Charlemagne to hold Noll’s attention. Call it a writer’s self-preservation.
“There are always going to be your share of awkward moments with Chuck because Chuck is not a comfortable person,” Zimmerman said. “He’s not somebody that you can take your shoes off and five minutes into a conversation you’re telling him your life story and he’s telling his. There’s always a bit of standoffishness there, and you have to be aware of what you’re saying.
“When I tried to get into the football stuff, it kind of closed the whole thing down. I was getting cliché answers to those questions. I was around a lot of postgame interviews with Chuck Noll, and I heard the answers he gave—'media' type answers. I didn’t want to get into that media stuff.
“He never talked about his players negatively. I could’ve found that type of thing from his former players, but this was going to be the first piece ever done on him. What kind of piece did I want to make it? Did I want to make it a controversial piece—a ‘Mommy Dearest?’ Or did I want to open this guy up and let people see who he is and why he’s won four Super Bowls, and why he’s a great coach?”
What if, someday, they decide to honor the greatest coaches in the world beyond? What an event it would be. Lombardi would be anchored in the front row, next to his guests, Patton and Charlemagne and Pope Leo I. Shula and Landry would be seated right behind them. Walsh would be to the side, whispering something to Monet, the eyes of Gibbs and Belichick glancing down at their clipboards.
Noll? Well, he’d likely be in the back of the auditorium, standing in some darkened corner, away from the stage, anxious from the lights and the applause. Then they’d call his name, and he’d move slowly down the aisle. He’d wear a mild grin, and he’d simply say to his escorts, “You know, I’m really not a celebrity; I’m just a teacher.”
One of the very best. Amen.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Tom Danyluk joins Bleacher Report after nine years as a columnist with Pro Football Weekly. He is an award-winning freelance writer and author of The Super ‘70s, which you can find on Amazon.com. Questions or comments? Please contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.