Four-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll was his era's great underrated genius
"I knew what you had to do to win. Number one, you had to not lose." -- Chuck Noll
He had a stare that could melt steel. But Chuck Noll, who died from natural causes on Friday at age 82, wasn't media-savvy, or an extrovert in any sense, and his players were generally far more colorful than he was. And so, when it comes time to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, the conversation generally turns to the Steel Curtain defense, or the receiver tandem of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, or Terry Bradshaw's long struggle to greatness long before it turns to the man who guided that franchise from years of misery to a run of success that has not been equaled since. They won four Super Bowls in six seasons, in an AFC that was brutally competitive. Noll's teams had to rip through gauntlets that included a Miami Dolphins franchise that is still the only team to win all its games in a season, an Oakland Raiders franchise that won more games than any other team through most of that decade, a Houston Oilers franchise that was more than game in the Steelers' own division near the end of the 1970s, and Browns and Bengals franchises that made the AFC Central as competitive as any division in NFL history.
Still, it was Noll's Steelers that seemed to always prevail when it counted, and the foundation of that success was Noll's own belief in fundamentals. He was famous for admonishing his players when they tried what he called the "rah-rah" stuff on the sideline during games -- to Noll, that noise was illusory. You won because you did things right every day, not because some blast of emotion took you further than you thought you could go for a few seconds.
Noll's belief in fundamentals came seemingly from his birth. Born in Cleveland on Jan. 5, 1932, Noll was an All-State running back and tackle in high school, excelled at the University of Dayton, and played for the Browns from 1953 through 1959. He got his first opportunities as a coach in the American Football League, coaching various defensive position groups and the entire defense for the Chargers from 1960 through 1965, and he moved back to the NFL in 1966, when he became the Baltimore Colts' defensive coordinator. Noll's last game with the Colts was Super Bowl III, when his team was upset by the New York Jets, but that same defense had been one of the best in NFL history through the 1968 season.
The Steelers hired Noll on Jan. 27, 1969, and they were so bad that they went 1-13 in Noll's first season. Noll had to create not only a new culture of winning, but also an entirely new roster. Very few of the Steelers Noll inherited lasted through the Super Bowl eras, and those who did -- like linebacker Andy Russell -- had to prove themselves all over again. Russell was told by Noll that most of his techniques were wrong, and that he would have to start all over. Noll's first installation of defensive excellence came when the team selected North Texas defensive tackle Joe Greene in the first round of the 1969 draft. Noll had seen Greene on a recruiting trip with the Colts, and believed that Greene could be a linchpin in a truly stellar -- and Steeler -- defense.
Noll was absolutely correct; Greene was perhaps the greatest interior defensive lineman in NFL history.
The hits just kept on coming. Bradshaw and cornerback Mel Blount, both Hall-of-Famers, were drafted in 1970. Defensive tackle Ernie Holmes and defensive back Mike Wagner, each underrated parts of the Steel Curtain, came in 1971 -- along with linebacker Jack Ham, another Hall-of-Famer and one of the greatest ever at his position. In 1972, running back Franco Harris added a new level to the team's ground attack, at a level that landed him in the Hall of Fame as well. But it is the 1974 draft for which the Steelers franchise is rightly remembered -- it is the only draft class in NFL history that contains four Hall-of-Famers -- Swann, Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster. Eventually, and in an era when many teams used free agency to fill their roster holes, the Steelers became the gold standard for building from within. They also became the gold standard for welcoming African-American players into the fold; as much as any franchise, Noll's Steelers broke through any glass ceilings and quotas that may have existed before.
Once he had a reasonably talented roster, it didn't take long for Noll to unleash his genius. From 1972 through 1979, the Steelers put together an 88-27-1 record in the regular season, snd started to string Super Bowl wins together at the start of the 1974 season. Like most great coaches, Noll knew to adjust to his personnel -- early in stat dynastic run, the Steelers were based almost entirely on the run game and defense. But as the 1970s wore on, and league rules started to favor the passing game, Noll put his faith in Bradshaw and a dominant vertical passing attack.
The playoff runs were fewer and farther between in the 1980s, and Noll lasted through the 1991 season. He coached the Steelers for 23 seasons, and only two head coaches -- Bill Cowher from 1992 through 2006 and Mike Tomlin from 2007 to the present -- have succeeded him.
That has given the Steelers a well-deserved reputation for organizational stability, but on the day of his passing, it's important to remember that without Chuck Noll, there would not be that stability. There would not be the Steel Curtain to remember. There would not be those four Super Bowls in six seasons, and there would not be some of the greatest games of all time.
"When Chuck became our head coach, he brought a change to the whole culture of the organization," Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. "Even in his first season when we won only one game, there was a different feel to the team. He set a new standard for the Steelers that still is the foundation of what we do and who we are. From the players to the coaches to the front office down to the ball boys, he taught us all what it took to be a winner."
When it came to his own legacy, Noll was always hesitant to throw kudos his own way.
"This whole area of historic evaluation bothers me," he told SI's Paul Zimmerman years ago. "It's not so much that I dislike history; it's just the interpretation of it that screws everything up. It's always the way they see it, as opposed to the way you see it. It comes back to the same thing. You hear what you want to hear. It's the same in teaching. You think to yourself, Boy, I did a great job teaching today, but it's no good if the words fall on infertile ground. It's teaching, plus the common repeated experiences, that make the whole thing work." Chuck Noll was a quiet man, and a serious man. But his impression on the NFL speaks through the ages.