This is the first story of a two-part series that appeared in Sports Illustrated in July 1980. It is the definitive take on former Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who passed away in his sleep on June 13 at his home in Sewickley, Pa. He was 82. The architect of the famed Steel Curtain, Noll won an unprecedented and still unmatched four Super Bowls from 1974-79. He lorded over Pittsburgh’s sideline for 23 seasons, amassing an overall record of 209-156-1 before retiring in December 1991. Two years later, he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The second installment can be read here.
By Paul Zimmerman
The date: Tuesday, Jan. 7, 1975. The scene: a breakfast press conference at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl hotel, the Fontainebleau in New Orleans. Steeler Coach Chuck Noll—chunky, sandy-haired, solid-looking in tan pants and light blue pullover—is at the lectern; his team is a 3 1/2-point favorite over the Minnesota Vikings. A TV light is hitting Noll across the eyes. He squints. This is an annoyance, a distraction. He tries to stare it down. The light wins. Now Noll clears his throat. The press conference is about to begin.
“What about the old formula that says experienced teams beat newcomers in the Super Bowl?” someone asks Noll. The Vikings have been blown out twice in the Super Bowl, which makes them experienced; Pittsburgh is playing in the game for the first time.
“What about the old formula that every team that’s beaten Oakland for the AFC championship has won the Super Bowl?” Noll says. There is a buzz in the room. I write “research that” in my notebook.
Someone asks Noll about Pittsburgh’s 1969 game against the Vikings. It was his first season as the Steelers’ coach. They finished 1-13, and the Vikings beat them 52-14.
As His Players Knew Him
Former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier penned a tribute to his coach, Chuck Noll, who took over a hapless franchise and, with his no-nonsense style, turned it into a four-time Super Bowl champion and one of the crown jewels of the NFL.
“It’s a game I’d rather forget,” Noll says.
“I’ve forgotten it already.”
Someone asks Noll what happens when a team abandons its game plan and goes to something else.
“When you abandon your game plan, that’s called losing your poise,” Noll says. “We don’t intend to. That’s not in our game plan.”
And so it went. Some light humor, a touch of the cerebral, no great revelations. And when it was over, the writers were a little uneasy, because underneath the intelligence and the articulateness was the hint of something unsettling. The curled lip? A bit of disdain? Is this man really telling us we’re a bunch of dumb bunnies who are wasting his time?
And through the years, through Noll’s four Super Bowl victories over the last six seasons, the writers have sneered back. At one Super Bowl a note was posted on the press room bulletin board: “Highlights of Chuck Noll’s Press Conference.” Underneath: a blank. In 1975 a sportswriter rated Noll the NFL’s third-worst interview, behind Duane Thomas and George Allen. Such treatment was never accorded Vince Lombardi, who browbeat the press, or Paul Brown, who manipulated it. The Packers were always Lombardi’s Packers, the Browns were always Brown’s Browns. Hey, the man even named the team after himself.
But the Steelers are Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene and old Art Rooney. The 48-year-old Noll has never been an image guy—except to the people of Pittsburgh. No TV show of his own, no books about him, no endorsements. “Get one of the players,” Noll will always say.
“He did one, for Pittsburgh National Bank,” says Noll’s 22-year-old son, Chris, a June graduate of the University of Rhode Island. “He did it as a personal favor for a guy. The ad said, 'Save $500, get this free shirt, and you’ll look good, too.’ It showed him wearing the shirt, smiling, with his arms folded in front of a blackboard that had C-15T diagramed on it, a tackle trap. He thought it was going to be a one-shot deal, a newspaper ad, but they put it on billboards all over town, one of them just as you enter the Fort Pitt tunnel. He had to see it every day when he drove to work, and every time he passed it he groaned.”
Asked about it, Noll smiles, shakes his head. “An embarrassment,” he says. But why? What’s so terrifying about publicity, personal recognition?
“It’s just my nature,” he says. “I’ve always been that way. I’ve always avoided publicity. I’ve never been good copy at any stage of my life. I don’t strive for it, because I don’t think it’s important whether I’m good copy or not. The two can go together, if that’s your personality, but every person on this earth is unique. I’ve never tried to pattern myself after anybody. You have to be what you are, and this is what I am.”
He’s got a very sturdy ego, but as for vanity ... absolutely none,” Noll’s wife, Marianne, said. “Sometimes I almost wish that he’d seek publicity, that he’d open up, so people could understand what he’s done.
Well, what is Chuck Noll?
To Art Rooney Jr., a Steeler vice-president and director of scouting, Noll’s “the reason why we were all flown down to Washington a few months ago to be honored by the U.S. Senate. Before him we were just those cheap, dumb Rooneys who couldn’t find their way from the North Side to the airport.”
To his son, Chris, Noll’s “a man I’ve only recently learned to really appreciate.”
To his quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, Noll’s a man with whom he’s never got along.
To Giants General Manager George Young, who worked with him in Baltimore, Noll’s “a head coach who has learned to control his ego better than anyone in the game. He’s like a great Harvard professor who keeps turning out Rhodes scholars and yet doesn’t want to do anything but teach, doesn’t want to be a dean or a department head. He’s happy where he is. I have seen less of a change in him as a person, since he was an assistant at Baltimore, than anyone else in such a high position.”
To Pittsburghers, Noll’s the coach with the cosmopolitan tastes—fine wine, good food, classical music.
To the rest of the country, Noll’s ... well, the guy who coaches the Steelers.
To his wife of 24 years, Marianne, Noll’s “a very, very private person. I read some of the things written about him, and I say, 'No, no, he’s not like that at all. He’s ... well, he’s just Chuck.’ Sometimes I almost wish that he’d seek publicity, that he’d open up, so people could understand what he’s done. But then he wouldn’t be Chuck. He wouldn’t be the man I fell in love with and married. He’s got a very sturdy ego, but as for vanity ... absolutely none.”
I’m a teacher,” Noll said. “Players win, coaches teach them. I teach.
Steeler players have mixed reactions to their coach’s lack of vanity. Lynn Swann says, “I read about some of these coaches with their own TV shows, the guys who take 10 blazers with them on a road trip, who are always immaculately dressed on the sidelines, and then I look over at Coach Noll, with that blue woolen cap of his. And I think, well, it would be very hard for me to adjust to one of those other people now.”
“Look, I want a coach who knows how to win,” Jack Lambert says. “I wouldn’t care if he came dressed in a mink coat.”
A winner. The word makes Noll wince. “I’m a teacher,” he says. “Players win, coaches teach them. I teach.”
History—another word Noll doesn’t like—evaluates him this way: four Super Bowl titles. Brown won eight championships, four of them in the old All-America Football Conference. Lombardi won five, including two Super Bowls, but two of his titles came under the old one-game formula, before the three-step progression to the Super Bowl. Noll has never gone into “the ultimate game,” as the TV people say, and lost. Lombardi lost once; Brown lost four times. Also, Noll’s Steelers have won 14 postseason games, one fewer than the record held by the Dallas Cowboys. As for exotica, Noll’s Steelers don’t get “upset.” In their eight playoff years (1972-79), the Steelers’ record against teams with records below .500 is 59-1; until the Bengals upset them in 1979, they were 56-0.
It’s three weeks after the 1980 Super Bowl—Steelers 31, Rams 19—and it’s a snowy night in Pittsburgh. The restaurant is built for comfort. Soft, elegant, French. Good food, good wine, no distractions. The doorman says goodbye to Chuck and Marianne Noll as they leave.
“I want to thank you for what you’ve done for this city,” he says. He’s an old-timer, bald and wrinkled. “I tell people I’m from Pittsburgh now, and I’m proud.”
Noll smiles and thanks him, and they shake hands. But the smile has given the doorman courage. “Here’s one,” he says. “Why is Franco such a great runner?”
Noll waits. He knows what’s coming. The joke is a one-liner with the standard black and Italian ethnic slurs. His jaw sets, his lips tighten. It’s a look his players are familiar with. Rage usually follows, but this time Noll just shakes his head and goes out the door, into the snow. Franco Harris, who has given him eight superb seasons, who has played in pain so many times, who busted the Vikings for 158 yards in the ‘75 Super Bowl, who pulled the ball out of nowhere to beat Oakland in the ‘72 playoffs. How many times has Noll heard this kind of one-liner? “Oh, only three or four times a day,” his wife says.
The house at 7215 Montgomery Ave. on Cleveland’s East Side is long and narrow, with peeling white paint. It’s two stories high, with green trim on the wooden awnings over the windows and a scrubby little yard in front. It was built some 90 years ago by a German immigrant named Henry Steigerwald, and in it he would raise 13 children, of whom Chuck Noll’s mother was the first. Katherine Steigerwald married William Noll in 1917, and in the bleak Depression year of 1932 she gave birth to her third and last child, Charles Henry Noll.
“We lived with my grandparents at 7215 Montgomery,” Noll says. “In the Depression it wasn’t that uncommon for families to live together like that. I haven’t been back there for a while. I’m not even sure the house is still standing.”
It’s still standing and still occupied, an undistinguished house in the middle of a three-block street in a neighborhood that is—and was in Noll’s childhood—predominately black. Montgomery’s eastern terminus is at East 74th, and it dead ends at the grim, dark brick wall of a heavy-equipment factory to the west. Above a battered aluminum door in front of the house, a sign reads: SIDE DORR, PLESE. The side door swings open to the touch. A shepherd dog appears, sniffs once and backs off without barking. An elderly man in a bathrobe follows him out.
“No, I didn’t know Chuck Noll once lived here,” he says, “I don’t know a Chuck Noll. Sorry.”
“The neighborhood’s pretty much the same as it was 40 years ago,” says another resident. “Except for the fires. There used to be a fire once a week. Leveled a lot of the area, leveled and just left vacant. There were a few factories around here at one time, but most of them are abandoned now.”
I wouldn’t say we were poor,” Noll said of his childhood. “We were a very close family. A lot of people are loaded with material stuff, but they’re poor from an emotional standpoint. They’re the ones who are deprived.
It’s a grim-looking neighborhood, but not without its athletic tradition. A couple of miles away stands East Tech, where Jesse Owens and Harrison Dillard ran track. In a desk drawer in Noll’s office is a 1941 picture of a neighborhood football team called the Clippers. One of the two coaches and 13 of the 23 players are black. The stars were Harold Owens, Jesse’s nephew, and Burrell Shields, who played halfback for the Baltimore Colts 14 years later. At the end of the front row is a husky 9-year-old, Chuck Noll.
There were few athletic heroes around Cleveland in those days, few idols. “No spectator sports,” Noll says. “Maybe you’d go up and watch the sandlot baseball games for a while, but that was it. My older brother, Robert, played some high school football, but I never watched him. He was 12 years older than I. My sister, Rita, was eight years older. You could say I grew up practically as an only child. Sports meant getting a baseball and throwing it around. You’d play any way you could, even if there was only one other guy; you’d throw grounders in the street.”
Noll’s father was a butcher; his mother worked for a florist named Elsie Kirchner. “I wouldn’t say we were poor,” Noll says. “I’d say lower-income. There’s a difference. I’d see other people with a little more than we had, and maybe I’d envy them a bit, but in the long run it ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me. You knew that if you wanted something you’d have to get it yourself. No one was going to give it to you. You became a realist very early in life. Lack of material things is not as important as lack of emotional things. We were a very close family. A lot of people are loaded with material stuff, but they’re poor from an emotional standpoint. They’re the ones who are deprived.”
When Chuck was 10 the Nolls moved to Robinson, Ill., where William Noll got a job directing a fleet of trucks for White Rose Gas. It was a step up, an escape from Cleveland’s East Side, but a year later Mr. Noll began suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which was to plague him the rest of his life. The family moved back to Cleveland, back to the same neighborhood.
“People have asked me what my goals in life were when I was little,” Noll says. “I only had one goal: education. School. My mother had quit to go to work in the fifth grade, my father in the eighth. Our family was sold on the idea of education. I started at Holy Trinity when I was five. I was always a year ahead of everybody, but that was fine with me. The sooner I got to school the better.”
By the time Noll was 12 he had his immediate future mapped out: Benedictine High, the Bengals, the dream of almost every Catholic family on the East Side. An imposing fortress set on a hill overlooking Cleveland’s Hungarian community (“At one time the highest concentration of Hungarian people, next to Budapest,” says the school’s sports information director, Walter Mieskoski), Benedictine was a no-nonsense place where the clergy greatly outnumbered the laity on the faculty, where they turned out scholars and where you paid for your education—$150 a year.
“I started saving for the tuition when I was in the seventh grade,” Noll says. “I got a job in the Fisher Brothers meat market on Cedar, washing counters and waiting on customers. I’d ride over on a bike after school. I’d work from three to six every afternoon but Wednesday, and all day Saturday. They paid me 55 cents an hour, big money in those days.”
When Noll enrolled at Benedictine in 1945, he’d saved almost enough money to cover two years’ tuition.
He went out for freshman basketball. “It was the only sport where I could make the practices,” Noll says. “They were at 7:30 in the morning. The games were in the afternoon, so I missed them. I was still working at Fisher’s. Made all the practices, missed all the games. They never said anything. You can tell how important I was to the team.”
“I don’t think anyone knew he was working,” says a priest who was at Benedictine at the time. “He never told anybody, never said much about anything. He was always very quiet, very determined.”
By his sophomore year Noll had saved enough to cover his third year’s tuition. “I decided to get involved in athletics—seriously,” he says. “I quit my job and went out for football. I wanted to see how it went. If it worked out, fine. If not, I’d go back to work.”
He was 5’ 11”, 175 pounds, with decent speed. They put him at fullback. He was a fumbler. “Why? I don’t know,” he says. “I just couldn’t hang on to the football. So they moved me to guard—right guard on offense, nose guard, over the center, on defense.” Noll showed enough as a sophomore to get an athletic scholarship for his last two years. In his junior year, there was a new coach, a balding, whip-cracking 240-pounder from Mingo Junction, Ohio, named Joe Rufus. Joe Ruthless, the kids called him. In 1948, Noll’s senior season, Benedictine had its first unbeaten team. In the city championship game, which made front-page headlines in all the Cleveland papers and was played before 45,117 fans in Municipal Stadium, the Bengals beat South High 7-0 on a touchdown pass with 50 seconds left.
“I remember the game was played on a muddy field,” says Noll’s sister, Rita Deininger. “The only way I could pick Chuck out was by his size. He seemed little.”
The Benedictine squad picture shows Noll as a tough-looking towhead with a mean squint. Program weight: 180. Rufus, the athletic director at Benedictine now, 40 pounds and half a head of hair lighter, remembers Noll as “a scrapper, but not a guy to start fights. Very studious kid, very conscientious, but if someone shoved him, he’d shove back.”
“I wanted to learn,” Noll says. “They were very technique conscious at Benedictine, Joe Rufus and especially Ab Strosnider, the line coach. They didn’t just tell you to line up. They taught me how to play the center, how to square up with him and neutralize him and get to the football. They worked on my defensive charge. By my senior year everything came together. What kind of a kid was I? Well, I didn’t get into fights. I was more of a watcher.”
The mouth is the mirror of the mind,” Noll would say. “If you keep your mouth shut, people don’t know what’s on your mind.
“He never asked anyone for help, always did things on his own,” Rufus says. “I don’t think anyone in school knew there was sickness in his family, that his father had Parkinson’s disease. He’d work things out by himself. I still remember him coming up out of the wrestling room one day—he was on the wrestling team, and the wrestling room was down below the stage in the old gym—and walking up to one of the high-jump bars in the gym, jumping over it and walking away, without a word to anybody. It must have been around 5 1/2 feet. Natural talent. He went out for track, too. A hurdler. He wasn’t that fast, but he had nice form going over the hurdles.
“He sort of roamed around on his own. He didn’t make friends easily and had very few dates, if any. He wasn’t the kind of kid you could get close to. He was a good student, but no teacher’s pet; he didn’t go for that. He wasn’t the greatest guy at keeping up a conversation; he wouldn’t prolong it—let’s put it that way. He’d give you the short drop-off, and then it was up to you to think of something else to say. In football he was the small guy on the line who wasn’t noticed. We had two big tackles that got a lot of recognition: Ed Powell, who became a hurdler at Notre Dame, and Bill Shaker, who went to Purdue. The ends were big types, too. Chuck was the guy who got overlooked.”
Mieskoski recently put out a poop sheet on Noll’s Benedictine days, including some quotes. From Joe Glowik, a guard for archrival Cathedral Latin: “Chuck did the job and let others get the glory.” From Art Deininger, Noll’s teammate and a cousin of Rita’s husband: “He was a damned good average player.”
Various biographies have awarded Noll recognition that starts with all-city and progresses to all-state. The thought of it causes Noll to smile. “All-Universe Bulletin,” he says, “that’s the diocesan paper.” Actually, in his senior year he made first team all-Catholic, a squad drawn from the city’s four big Catholic schools, and third team all-city, a squad drawn from 20 schools.
Noll had solid credentials in the classroom. He graduated 28th in a class of 252. He took the required English and Latin courses but avoided the linguistic esoterica, i.e., German, Spanish, Slovak and Polish. His last semester was a showpiece: 85 in English; 90 in solid geometry, physics and physical training; 92 in woodwork; 98 in sociology. Average: 90.8. Fancy numbers for a three-sport athlete. One college came through with a four-year scholarship—Dayton, which was coached by Joe Gavin, a Notre Damer of the Rockne era. Gavin had once coached at Cleveland’s Holy Name High School, and he had noted that in 1948 Benedictine had beaten his old school 23-0, thanks in part to a tough little towhead named Noll in the middle of the line.
“Joe was basically a teacher,” Noll says. “Very strong on offensive fundamentals, on blocking techniques.” He pauses for a moment and stares down at the desk. “He was killed in a bank in Dayton. A Bible-quoting fanatic came in and shot up the place one day. Joe was one of the people who got shot. It was not long after I graduated from college.” Noll pauses.
“In my junior and senior years at Dayton I played tackle on offense and linebacker on defense, outside linebacker in a 5-3. In 1950, my sophomore year, I was an offensive guard, and they tried me at left halfback on defense, cornerback actually. We played Kentucky that year; they were the nation’s seventh-ranked team, the Sugar Bowl champs. Bear Bryant was the coach, Babe Parilli the quarterback, and they went to work on me. I remember they had two Joneses alternating at right end, numbers 1A and 1B. They kept running those Joneses at me, deep post patterns. That’s all I saw that day, 1A and 1B flying down the field. They hit a 40-yarder over me, then another. I didn’t play much cornerback after that. They scored 40 points on us in the first half, and that’s the way the game ended, 40-0. After the game Bear kept them there and scrimmaged them. He was mad because they let up in the second half. Six years later Babe was my roommate on the Browns. Paul roomed him with me because he thought I’d be a good influence on him. I asked Babe about that day he kept running those Joneses at me. He didn’t even remember it. I remembered.”
Noll couldn’t stand the thought of wasting time. In the off-seasons of his playing career, he had a job selling insurance. At night he went to law school. He also lived with and supported his parents.
The Flyers were an interesting bunch, featuring such players as Leroy Ka-Ne, the Hyphenated Hawaiian, and 5’ 7” Bobby Recker, the Ramblin’ Recker, as he was known, “150 pounds of gridiron dynamite,” according to Football Illustrated. In 1951 Dayton went 7-2 but lost to Houston in the Salad Bowl at Phoenix. Before the 1952 season Noll, then a senior, got his picture in Street and Smith’s Football Yearbook. The caption read: “Chuck Noll, 210-pound tackle, sparks the line in the Flyers’ drive for another Bowl invitation.” But in 1952 Dayton tailed off to 6-5.
In those days NFL scouting and drafting began with the roster and ended with a telephone call. In the Dayton offensive line the only size belonged to Jim Raiff, a 230-pounder who played the other tackle, and Ed Clemens, the 235-pound center. But when the pro teams called Gavin, he’d tell them about “my little tackle, Chuck Noll.”
“How big did you say he was?”
“Well, he’s only 210, but he won’t embarrass you. He knows what he’s doing.”
The Dayton players had given Noll the nickname “the Pope.” Unquestionable knowledge. It’s a nickname Noll always detested, but Paul Brown is fond of reminding people that it carried into the pros. “I always liked that nickname, the Pope,” Brown says, “because Chuck never did anything wrong.” But if Noll’s Flyer teammates could chide him, they also weren’t above electing him their co-captain.
“At the time I felt I knew all there was to know about football,” Noll says. “Actually I didn’t know anything. It was only when I got into coaching that I saw how little I really knew. Looking back on it, I was probably a pretty good offensive technician, but only because I’d had good teachers. That was what I was interested in going into at the time—teaching. I had no thoughts about the pros. If coaching went along with the teaching, fine. I’d been carrying a 3.5 average as an education major, with math and science as my teaching fields, and I intended to teach after I graduated.”
There is some disagreement about when the Browns actually picked Noll in 1953. Noll says that one day after he came back from his student teaching job, a writer called to tell him he’d been drafted in the 21st round. “I thought he meant drafted into the Army,” Noll says. “The Korean War was going on.” The bios on Noll have always called him a 21st-round choice. But NFL files reveal that the Browns’ 21st-round pick in 1953 was a guard from Rice named Bill Crockett, that Noll was drafted on the 20th round. At the time it meant nothing to him.
“Signing me was no big deal,” Noll says. “One of their assistant coaches—I guess it must have been Howard Brinker—came through Dayton that spring to look at films, and he said to me, `You going home to Cleveland for Easter?’ I said, `Sure.’ He said. `Why don’t you stop by the office and see Paul Brown? He’d like to talk to you.’ ”
Noll’s conversation with Brown lasted about two minutes. The contract Brown offered Noll was for $5,000. “It was the standard pay for rookies,” Noll says. “The higher drafts got more bonus money. I’d been offered $2,700 to teach. I signed with the Browns. Paul looked at me and said, `Well, you’re big enough; let’s see if you’re brave enough.’ I weighed 209 at the time.”
On Dec. 8, 1953, Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown is flanked by (from l. to r.) halfback Ray Renfro, guard Chuck Noll (65) and halfback Billy Reynolds. (AP)
By late summer, it was obvious that Noll was going to make the team. Bob August of the Cleveland Press wrote that Noll was the “surprise package” of the Browns’ camp. “He looks like Lin Houston did 10 years ago,” Brown said. The 32-year-old Houston, who played guard and was a master of blocking technique, had been an original Brown; he was one of the coach’s alltime favorites. In November, Hal Lebovitz of the Cleveland News did the first lengthy feature on Noll. Lebovitz asked him about his social life. “First I’ve got to make good,” the 21-year-old Noll said. “Then maybe I can get serious about girls.”
Twenty-three years later, at a Steeler press conference, Noll spotted Lebovitz from the dais. “There’s the man who wrote the first feature story on me,” Noll said. “He asked me if I had any special interests, and I told him music and Stan Getz, the jazz saxophonist. He scratched it out, probably because he didn’t know who Stan Getz was.”
In his rookie year Noll became the starting right guard, the messenger guard, alternating with Houston. Abe Gibron played the left side. “The guys who started on offense were the guys who’d had a lot of technique work,” Noll says. “It gave me a jump on the field.”
The quotes about Noll from his old Brown teammates sound as if they come from a script left over from his Benedictine days. “Intense, competitive, excellent technique—the perfect Paul Brown type,” Mike McCormack says. “Quick and studious—he’d watch films,” says John Sandusky, who played the tackle next to Noll. “I don’t think I ever remember him getting into a fight on the field,” says Jet Coach Walt Michaels, then the Cleveland right linebacker and later the Browns’ captain. “He was more of a discipline-type guy. He was low-keyed, not the kind of guy to give coaches any lip, which is what Paul Brown liked. And he didn’t talk much. Paul always used to tell us, `When you win, say nothing. When you lose, say less.’ He didn’t like mouthy guys.”
Most teams were righthanded, so the strongest defensive lineman was usually the left tackle. Noll hung in against the best of them: Leo Nomellini, Thurman McGraw, Gil (Wild Hoss) Mains. An old game chart shows that in Noll’s fifth pro start he had a good game against All-Pro Arnie Weinmeister of the Giants in the Polo Grounds. Another chart shows he had another good outing against Weinmeister in December.
No system ever produced more first-rate coaches than Paul Brown’s: Noll; Michaels; Don Shula, who broke in as a player under Brown; Weeb Ewbank and Blanton Collier, who were assistants when Noll played in Cleveland. But underlying everything was fear—fear for job security. “There are two things in football you can’t lick: youth and speed,” was a favorite Brownism. The older players weren’t wild about it.
“I guess there was fear there,” Noll says. “I’ve heard people say it, and I’m sure there were people afraid of him, but I didn’t feel it. I felt I was learning—from Fritz Heisler and Howard Brinker and Blanton and Weeb, as much as from Paul himself. They had a unique system of dividing the work. An assistant would take charge of one offensive and defensive unit, the people who worked against each other. For instance, Weeb would have the offensive tackles and defensive ends; Fritz would have the middle three on offense and defense; Blanton would handle the offensive backfield and receivers and also the defensive secondary. Everything was beautifully organized.”
And when the Browns took the field, Brown would call all the plays. “The oldest quarterback in football,” Noll says.
In the off-seasons Noll had a job selling insurance for Manufacturer’s Life. At night he went to law school at Cleveland Marshall. He couldn’t stand the thought of wasting time. He also had financial burdens. His parents were in their early 60s when he joined the Browns. His father had a part-time job as a parking-lot attendant, but as the Parkinson’s disease got worse, there were longer stretches during which he couldn’t work. Noll lived with his parents. He supported them.
He didn’t open up much to people. What was there to talk about? A life devoted to escaping from Cleveland’s East Side? Work, always work, ever since he was 12? The lingering shadow of sickness? There was satisfaction, but no great jubilation. Satisfaction was a well-executed block, a perfect score on one of Brown’s written tests, the knowledge that at 220 pounds he could hold his own against the 275-pound Jim Riccas of the NFL. Inner satisfaction—that would lose its meaning in conversation. “The mouth is the mirror of the mind,” Noll would say. “If you keep your mouth shut, people don’t know what’s on your mind.”
“He was bright, so bright, but he always seemed kind of driven,” says Marianne, “and he had all those family responsibilities.” She was a secretary at the Cleveland Clinic. Her roommate was dating Herschel Forester, a Brown guard. One day the roommate fixed Marianne up with Noll. “The first time I saw him he had gold teeth,” Marianne says. “He looked strange. They used to put gold pivots in and spray them with enamel. When I met him the enamel was wearing off.”
It all led to what has become a standard Nollism: “Do you know what an expert is? An expert is a guy who doesn’t have to back up what he says.”
They went together for a year before they were married. They exchanged books. She took him to his first concert, the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall. “The team used to hang out in a bar in Shaker Heights called The Wagon Wheel,” Noll says. “I courted my wife in the back of that bar. We played a card game called 31 and drank Michelob. In the basement was a great restaurant run by two Frenchmen, Louie and Etienne, two brothers. They’d come to Cleveland after the war and tried to start a business, selling lunches to the mill workers, but they couldn’t make a go of it. Doc Mangine, who owned the bar, let them set up a restaurant in the basement. One night a woman in a fur coat came upstairs from the restaurant and saw us playing cards, and she said to the man with her, `This is going from the sublime to the ridiculous.’
“When Louie and Etienne had leftovers, they’d come upstairs and say, `You want anything?’ And then they’d chop up all that great tenderloin or tournedos, with that sauce, and make us the best hamburgers you’ve ever tasted. One night Doc took us downstairs and treated us to a meal—Don Colo and his wife, the McCormacks, Marianne and me. We ate from 7:30 until 11:30, everything they had on the menu, with a different wine for each dish. What did I know about wine? All I knew was that I liked it. I’d keep a case of Great Western Sparkling Catawba in the trunk of the car, 99 cents a bottle. In the winter it meant that I always had a chilled wine handy.”
In 1955 a hole opened up at linebacker; Tommy Thompson had been hurt the previous season, and Tom Catlin was in the service. Noll was shifted to left linebacker, teaming with Michaels in a 5-2 defense. He had five interceptions that season. “We’d overshift the line and drop off one of the ends,” Noll says, “so in a sense we were playing an early 4-3. I’d play either middle linebacker or outside, depending on the formation.”
In the fifth game of 1957 Noll broke his arm tackling the Cardinals’ Ollie Matson. His No. 65 was immediately given to Stan Sheriff, who had come from San Francisco in a trade. Then Catlin wore No. 65 in the championship game. Sentiment meant little to Brown. “I guess they passed the jersey around,” Noll says. “Maybe they were short of them.”
In 1958 Noll was moved back to right guard, the messenger, alternating with Gene Hickerson. The following year he lost his job to John Wooten, a high-powered rookie. Youth and speed—Paul Brown’s credo. “Jim Ray Smith, our left guard, got hurt in the Baltimore game in 1959,” Michaels says. “Chuck came in for him and at 220 pounds had to go the route against Big Daddy Lipscomb. You’ve got to worry a little; I mean, now you’re dealing with a 300-pound monster. We won 38-31, and I remember Chuck doing a hell of a job against Big Daddy. I also remember that when we were up 31-17 the game became a brawl.”
“What I remember about that game against the Colts,” Noll says, “is that I ran a kickoff back 20 yards.”
The head coaching job at Dayton opened up after the ‘59 season. It was time for Noll to take a long look at his career. He was 28. He was making $9,000 a year. At 220 he was the lightest Cleveland offensive lineman by 22 pounds. “I was one of the supporting cast,” he says. “I was never one of the big shooters. I could have played some more, maybe four or five more years, but so what? By then I realized that coaching was the one thing I wanted to do. I talked it over with Marianne. The money wasn’t important. I’ve never made a decision based on money. So I applied for the Dayton job, and I got turned down, rightfully, because I had absolutely no idea how to run a program.”
But Noll was committed to the idea of coaching. A new league, the AFL, was forming, and the Los Angeles Chargers offered him the job of defensive line coach. He jumped at it. “I think Paul felt I was trying to jump leagues and go there as a player,” Noll says. “He’d always stressed the idea of pro football being an interim between college and the rest of your life. He used to call it: `Getting into your life’s work.’ O.K., I was getting into it. Paul was in Europe at the time. When the club told him I was leaving, he sent word back advising me to read the fine print on my contract. I still had an option year left. But there was nothing against quitting as a player and becoming a coach.”
The Los Angeles Chargers, soon to be the San Diego Chargers, had an extraordinary staff: Sid Gillman at the top, Noll coaching the defensive linemen, Jack Faulkner (now of the Rams) and Joe Madro (now pro scout for the Raiders) with the secondary and offensive line, Al Davis (now managing general partner of the Raiders) handling the receivers and Don Klosterman (now general manager of the Rams) running the talent department, assisted by Al LoCasale (now executive assistant of the Raiders). It was the era of the secret draft and the baby-sitters, of fireworks in the meeting room.
“The big, bad NFL had everything going for it, but we drafted early,” Noll says. “The NFL did most of the baby-sitting. We had to bring them in; the NFL had to go out and keep them away from us. We had only eight teams; they had 13 that first year, then 14. We went through 52 rounds in 1960; they had 20. So we only had to win a few of them to be in business. One year we drafted John Brown, the tackle from Syracuse who later played for me on the Steelers. He weighed everything very carefully. Finally Sid took off his watch and gave it to him. `Here,’ Sid said. Brown said, `I’ll get back to you.’ Later Brown decided to go with the NFL, but he mailed the watch back to Sid. That tells you something about John Brown.
“The AFL was a great place to be in those days. You really had to coach. You weren’t getting finished products. You dealt with a lot of rejects. I think it showed that a lot of people could play the game, given the opportunity. We were the opportunity.”
What about Davis, now Noll’s bitterest rival in the NFL?
Pause. A tactful answer. “Al’s a competitor,” Noll says. “He was then, and he still is. On all levels. He worked with Sid on the passing game. Being associated with Al was....”
Don’t say it, Chuck. A good learning experience.
“Right. A good learning experience.”
In Noll’s six years the Chargers won five division titles and one AFL championship. He put together one of the early Fearsome Foursomes—Ernie Ladd, Earl Faison, Bill Hudson and Ron Nery. When Faulkner left to coach the Broncos in ‘62, Noll took over the linebackers and secondary. The AFL was basically a passing league, with a lot of bump and run in the secondary, but Noll added some zone concepts and some sophistication. In each of his last three years the Chargers led the AFL in pass defense.
“Toward the end he had complete charge of the defense,” Gillman says. “He was a real fine idea man, bright but stubborn. God, he was stubborn. You really had to sell him on something before he’d go with it. It happens with all bright people. You’ve just got to lay it out for them, one-two-three-four-five.”
In 1966 Noll left the AFL and joined the Baltimore Colts for a three-year stint under Don Shula, for the final polishing-up before a head coaching job. He ran the Colt defense as part of a tight staff of which four of the five assistants—Bill Arnsparger, Don McCafferty, John Sandusky and Noll—eventually got NFL head coaching spots.
“We’d all go down to the Towson YMCA and play handball and basketball three mornings a week in the off-season,” says Upton Bell, who was the Colts’ Director of Player Personnel. “On the basketball court Chuck was the kind of guy who always guarded you very closely. When he made up his mind he was going to put the clamps on you, he’d do it. One day he got very mad at me, and we were pushing and shoving. Then I ran him into a pick and he grabbed me. Shula had to step in and break it up.
A 1982 portrait of Steelers front office (l. to r.) team president Dan Rooney, coach Chuck Noll, team vice president Art Rooney Jr., and owner and chairman Art Rooney Sr. (John G. Zimmerman/SI)
“As a coach he helped firm up our zone coverage, but he brought in a lot of AFL stuff, too—odd fronts, linebacker support, mixed coverages where you play bump and run and then run a guy off into another zone. The thing Shula was really impressed with, though, was that Chuck was an outstanding teacher. He wanted to teach more than anything else. He was a complete teacher—a classroom guy but great with the players on the field, too. He had the patience, but I’ve seen him get angry. He had a temper. People on the staff liked to needle him; it happens to people who get all wrapped up in what they’re doing and have a tendency to lecture you. They’d call him Knute Knowledge and Tommy Terminology.”
According to Bell, Noll did no politicking for a head coaching job. “He figured that as a member of Shula’s staff, any achievement would be recognized,” Bell says. “The writers would go to him for information, and he’d give it to them, but he’d say, `Hey, look, you don’t have to use my name.’ ” George Young, who worked with Bell in the personnel department, remembers Noll as “a coach who was more interested in the personnel aspect of things than any of the other coaches. He was willing to pound the pavement and look at people.”
“He was always popping into my room,” Bell says, “and he’d say, `Uppie, remember, you win with defense.’ I’d tell him, `Ah, hell, it’s just because you’re the defensive coach.’ He’d say, `Let me show you why,’ and he’d go through all the championships and Super Bowls to prove his point.
“He was stubborn. We would argue over anything: politics, the national situation, who’s going to the moon, whether or not some guy could play. I’d say, `Dammit, the guy can’t play. He’s a pussycat.’ And Chuck would say, `I’m telling you he can.’ And I’d say, `Well, let’s ask Shula.’ Shula would sit back and smile. He loved it. Before I went to New England, Shula sat me down and said, `Uppie, I want to tell you one thing. I always thought there was one area where both you and Chuck have a problem. Neither of you will ever admit he’s wrong.’
“I have to laugh at all this stuff I see written about Chuck now. It’s the veneer they see. I always had a lot of fun with him.”
In Noll’s final season in Baltimore his defense gave up 10.3 points per game; the last time any team had done better was in 1944. The last word, though, was the 16-7 Super Bowl loss to the Jets.
“To lose in a game like that ... it was absolutely the worst, so crushing,” Noll says. “Our guys were worn down by the end of the week. Everyone kept asking them, `What makes you so great? Why are you so great?’ It was a reinforcement of a feeling I’d had: it’s what you do on the field that counts, not what you say; you can win the battle of the press and lose the game.”
It all led to what has become a standard Nollism: “Do you know what an expert is? An expert is a guy who doesn’t have to back up what he says.”
After the Jets’ victory over the Colts, Bell found himself standing next to Dan Rooney in an Orange Bowl elevator. As Bell recalls, “Dan said to me, `At your party tonight, would you please tell Chuck Noll that I’d like to talk to him as soon as possible?’ ”
You know, this might sound stupid, but one of Chuck’s successes is that he belongs in Pittsburgh,” Dan Rooney said. “He fits in here. He’s exactly like us. He praises Pittsburgh; he doesn’t knock it.
The Rooneys, having just fired Bill Austin, had given Joe Paterno, everybody’s opening candidate, first crack at the Steeler job. He had turned it down. Nick Skorich was Noll’s competition. The Patriots were closing fast on Noll, but Rooney says he wasn’t going to be stampeded into anything. He was going to take his time. The Steelers first interviewed Noll in the Kenilworth Hotel in Bal Harbour, Fla., the day after the Super Bowl. Rooney liked Noll’s ideas, his knowledge of the Steelers.
The assistant-coach ranks were where the NFL head coaches came from in those days; bringing coaches from the colleges to the NFL—the Chuck Fairbanks-Don Coryell trip—wasn’t yet in vogue. Practically all the heavy hitters had been pro assistants—Shula, Tom Landry, Lombardi, Ewbank. (There was another interesting historical fact: losing NFL coaches never moved elsewhere and became winners. It wasn’t like baseball, in which a manager could make the rounds until he got lucky. In football the verdict was in early. The only exception had been Lou Saban, who couldn’t cut it at Boston and later won two titles at Buffalo, but that happened in the early AFL years, when success was measured by the draft picks you signed.)
Rooney wasn’t about to let a big-name head coach talk him into signing one of his assistants; Rooney had already been burned by Lombardi, who had raved about Austin. So, 10 days after the interview at the Kenilworth, Rooney, this time with his dad sitting in, again met with Noll in the Steeler offices at the Roosevelt Hotel in Pittsburgh, and from time to time young Artie Rooney would pop in. As Dan remembers clearly, “It wasn’t one of those peaches and cream interviews. Chuck wasn’t afraid to argue.”
“I was interested in two things,” Artie says. “The first was race. We hadn’t had a great situation in the past. I’d gotten tired of hearing the way talent was handicapped, that if a guy was black he was automatically moved down a peg. Chuck said he didn’t gave a damn about race. He said it wasn’t race that causes trouble, it was the person. The way he said it sounded right.”
Well, why not? Noll had grown up in a black neighborhood. As George Young says, “It was always interesting to me that Chuck could be conservative in his political views and yet so liberal in human relations.”
“The second thing I wanted to know,” Artie says, “is whether Chuck wanted his coaches to get involved in scouting. He said he most emphatically did, and that’s when we got into an argument. I mean, we agreed that the draft was the only way to build the club, but I wanted the scouting department to have the last word on getting the talent. I’d been running the scouting for about four years. Eventually he won, but we went at it that day.
“He must have looked at me and thought, `Holy hell, what am I going to do about him?’ To Chuck’s credit, when he got the job he didn’t start changing the whole organization around. I mean, he let you keep your manhood. He could have said to me, `I hear you like the theater. Why don’t you draw your pay and go work at the Pittsburgh Playhouse?’ ”
“You know, this might sound stupid, but one of Chuck’s successes is that he belongs in Pittsburgh,” says Dan. “He fits in here. He’s exactly like us. He praises Pittsburgh; he doesn’t knock it. I guess maybe I saw something of that during that interview.”
And so, on Jan. 27, 1969, Noll got the Steeler job. When he called home, he told 11-year-old Chris to take off his Colts’ hat and put on the black and gold.
“Those old Colts,” Chris said. “I’m a Steeler fan now.”