He was never “America’s Coach,” or so it seemed. Not in the same manner as Lombardi, Halas, Landry, Shula, Walsh, Parcells, Belichick and even Ditka have been perceived.
That was OK with the Steelers, who long ago turned down an NFL Films invitation to become “America’s Team.”
As for Chuck Noll, the coach who won Super Bowl rings but didn’t wear them, that was the way it should have been.
Even upon his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1993, Noll chose to tolerate the spotlight rather than bask in it.
“You think I’m encouraging credit now?” he asked, somewhat incredulously, when asked his reaction to all the fuss that was being made over the Hall’s then freshly-minted class.
He sounded almost offended that someone would suggest he might have been affected in the least by all the individual attention.
Noll was about the players, the game and the team, period.
He prepared his players for their life’s work by teaching them to win football games together, the way he believed they should and had to be won.
Those in the industry knew the special gift Noll had in the application, even if ESPN never quite figured it out.
“Chuck Noll doesn’t realize it, but he paid me one if the biggest compliments of my life 15 years ago,” Bill Walsh said while sharing that ’93 Hall-of-Fame stage with Noll. “He called me by my first name.”
Such respect and admiration is as rare as what Noll achieved with the 1970s Steelers and the manner in which those four-of-a-kind Vince Lombardi trophies were collected.
“The Steelers were special in how they were a team,” Dan Rooney announced that afternoon in Canton. “Other teams have considered themselves the enemies of the rest. The Steelers respected all and played as a tribute to the game. The league had no better champion because they carried the banner with pride and responsibility.”
The Steelers were all of that because Noll would tolerate nothing less.
The remembrances have been many since his death.
As appropriate as any are these:
Former Noll running back Merril Hoge on Noll’s maniacal devotion to technique and fundamentals: “If you ever heard any of his players (on what they’d been taught), you’d hear ‘same foot, same shoulder,’ and ‘a rising blow,’ and ‘first contact wins.’ Those are the principles of the game of football and I don’t care, his first year coaching to his last year coaching you’d hear the same things. That, to me, was great leadership when you have principles that are consistent and correct and you stick with them.”
Four-time Super Bowl safety Mike Wagner on Noll the leader of men: “In ’74 after we had beaten Buffalo (in the first round of the AFC playoffs), Oakland had beaten the Miami Dolphins, the defending champions, and there was all this media out of Oakland. Everybody was saying the best team in football was out in Oakland and that they were going to win the Super Bowl.
“When we had our first meeting of the week (prior to the AFC Championship Game), Chuck’s first statement was, ‘The best team in football wasn’t out in Oakland on Sunday. The best team in football is sitting in this room right here.’
“He would make those kinds of declarations, not every week but from time to time that were just these tremendously strong messages. He said he wasn’t a motivator but he could make statements like that and for people on the team they got everyone’s attention.”
Former Noll running back and Noll running backs coach Dick Hoak on Noll the man: “I’ve always said if something would have happened to me when I was on that staff and I needed somebody to take care of my family, I would have turned them over to Chuck Noll.
“He was a better person than he was a coach.”
As a coach, Noll “wasn’t interested in making friends,” Wagner maintained.
But Noll’s players always seemed to get the most important messages he was sending.
“Myself and Roy Jefferson and Andy (Russell), we made the Pro Bowl in ’68,” Hoak recalled. “In ’69 when Chuck came we were up in Montreal playing a preseason game against the New York Giants and Roy Jefferson was out late (the night before). The next morning Chuck told Jim Boston, the traveling secretary, to go get Roy and put him on a plane and send him home. They suspended him and (eventually) traded him.
“There was no more of the things that went on before he got there. He showed he was the boss, he had a plan. He was going to do it his way.”
Noll’s messages still resonated long after he had finished winning Super Bowls.
The ones he sent in 1989 helped turn a team that had been beaten by a combined score of 92-10 in its first two games into a playoff team.
“I’ve never been in a meeting where I was more deflated,” Hoge said of the team meeting that opened the Steelers’ preparation for a game against Minnesota in the wake of the combined 92-10 debacle. “The entire team was deflated, zero confidence. And he went through all of the things that happened to us, that had been written about us and said about us, and he said, ‘Nobody believes we can turn this around, but I do.’
“When he said ‘but I do,’ the energy changed in that room.”
The ’89 Steelers eventually beat Houston, 26-23, in overtime in Houston in the AFC Wild Card Game, before losing to Denver, 24-23, in Denver, with a trip to the AFC Championship Game at stake.
“That may have been his best year of coaching,” Hoak assessed.
“A great value of not surrendering and learning how you don’t quit and how you dig yourself out when things go awful and it looks like everything is in despair and there’s no hope anywhere that you can see,” Hoge insisted. “He liked to translate that to life, ‘This is what you do when you’re faced with circumstances that you don’t see coming.’”
Noll’s life’s work was the teaching of such lessons.
“If you think you’ve arrived, you haven’t; don’t be a ‘yesterday’ person, be a ‘tomorrow’ person,” Wagner remembered, naming two.
“It’s just driven all of us, I think, not only on the football field but in living our lives.”
That’s a eulogy of which Noll would no doubt approve.
As long as it was understood credit for earning it was in no way being encouraged.