IT'S BEEN several years since I last saw Chuck Noll. After much planning and prodding, he met with my former Steelers teammate Andy Russell and me for lunch in the Pittsburgh area. We considered it a coup just getting to spend time with him. Chuck had a bad back and moved with a walker, and he had been relatively reclusive in his later years. When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, his wife, Marianne, became very protective of Chuck and his interactions.
This is an article from the June 23, 2014 issue
Andy and I could tell there was something different about Chuck that day. He just wasn't as sharp as we remembered him. Life has a way of taking the things we're best at, if you're lucky enough to grow old. The great runners lose their knees first. Detail was Chuck's passion and expertise.
I remember 1974, Chuck's sixth season as coach of the Steelers and my fourth year back with the team after serving in Vietnam. We went out to play the Chiefs, and they had all the main players from their recent Super Bowl team, though Mike Livingston had replaced Lenny Dawson at quarterback. We ran the ball well, we sacked Livingston three times and we beat them. On Monday, when we were going over the game film, I was expecting Chuck to congratulate us on a great game. But not Chuck. He said we won only because a single player lacked good habits.
Chuck had a theory that we all eventually subscribed to: Habits are created every day in practice, and they carry over to the game—whether it is 102° on the field or 30°, whether it's raining or snowing, whether you have a 300-pound defensive tackle in front of you or no one at all. In the third and fourth quarter you don't think; you react.
So Chuck said, "The reason we won this game, gentlemen, is because of the lack of habits formed by Kansas City's left guard. The reason we had the sacks and forced their passes and stopped their running game was because of the habits formed by the left guard."
I was amazed. For a man to lead a team, the players have to buy into what he's teaching. I thought, This man has that whole game broken down to one player. He must know everything. I bought in.
Chuck loved teaching moments, but he wasn't an orator or a motivator. Chuck would say, "It's not my job to hold your hand. It's my job to take motivated people and show them how to become better."
I recall a week in 1978, after we had lost one game and snuck by in the next. Things just weren't clicking, and we needed a jolt from Chuck—a boot up the ass. So he pulled us together after practice and said, "Let me tell you a story about two monks who are on a journey. Sometime during their journey they stop at a clearing, and in the clearing is a stream. On the one side of the stream is a fair maiden trying to cross. And the first monk, without any hesitation, picks up the fair maiden and carries her across and sets her down. The two monks carry on in silence. Sometime later on their journey they stop at another clearing. The second monk says to the first monk, 'You picked up that maiden. Do you know it's against our beliefs and our religion to touch a person of the opposite sex?' The first says, 'I set her down back there, but you carried her all the way here.' I'll see you guys tomorrow at 10 a.m."
We broke out of the huddle and walked back to the locker room, and guys were like, What the hell did he just say? Eventually I figured it out: Our failures are back there. We move on.
IF HE WAS angry, Chuck never showed it. And if he was happy, he showed it even less.
He was not a buddy-buddy kind of coach. It was difficult for him to come up and hug you. He would congratulate guys on a good game in the locker room, but you could tell it was something he felt he needed to do. It wasn't necessarily natural to him.
When Pittsburgh hired Bill Cowher, and some of us who played for Chuck learned how Coach Cowher carried himself, we agreed that he was just about the opposite of Chuck. Chuck would never get on the field or get in anyone's face, and he would rarely smile.
Chuck set the tone when he was hired in 1969, while I was still at war. The story goes, he introduced himself to the team like this: "I've been your head coach for the past five months, and I've watched every film of every practice of every game that you've played in over the past three years, and I can tell you why you've been losing—you're just not any good. You have no talent, you have no authority, and you can't cover, and you have no discipline. By the time this training camp is over, most of you will not be here."
He had the magnificent quality of being blunt without embarrassing people. If he was disappointed, he would give you that fatherly look like, What the hell?
Terry Bradshaw was more familiar with that look than anyone. Terry was the No. 1 pick in 1970, after the team finished 1--13 in Chuck's first season. After a while it became clear that Terry wasn't Chuck's kind of quarterback. Chuck wanted a type like the Cowboys' Roger Staubach, who was thought of then the way we think of Peyton Manning today: organized, methodical, studious, a pick-you-apart kind of quarterback.
Bradshaw brings up a whole different image—big arm, runs the ball, sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason to his play. From my vantage point it was like a father-son relationship, with Terry as the rebel kid. He and Chuck didn't see eye-to-eye, but Dad was always there trying to make him the best QB for his talent level.
This is how I believe it would go in the film room between Terry and Chuck. Coach brings up a play showing the defense we're about to use in a certain situation. "Give me the preread," Chuck says. "What's the defense?"
So Brad says, "Umm, Cover Two, but ... you know, it could be Cover Three ... but that linebacker is up so it could be.... Chuck, can you move that film up so I can see more?"
Then we find ourselves in the game in that same situation. Brad makes the call, breaks the huddle and walks up to the line with the preread in his mind. He's thinking it looks like Cover Two but it might be Cover Three.... Oh, screw it.
Hike! He drops back, Lynn Swann is surrounded by three players, and our tight end is wide open up the middle, but we don't throw to tight ends, so forget him. Instead Brad goes to Lynn, who grabs it with one hand for a touchdown.
So Chuck's on the sideline just muttering to himself, "What the hell is he.... Oh, that happened. O.K." I don't think we would have won those four Super Bowls with anybody besides Terry at quarterback. He just made things happen, and the two of them, Chuck and Terry, made it work.
CHUCK WAS a proud man. He was called the Emperor by Steelers radio man Myron Cope. Before he got to Pittsburgh, his nickname was the Pope. The reason: He was never wrong. He always had the right answer to whatever needed to be done.
Coaches today will go to more experienced colleagues in the league for advice. Chuck would never do that. He never would ask other coaches how they ran their offense or their defense. He wanted to be in the position to be asked how he ran his team. After retiring I covered the team as a TV broadcaster for a Pittsburgh station, and I went into one of his press conferences for a sound bite. Chuck prepared his postgame remarks in his head. He would talk about the game, then his opponent, then his offense and then his defense. He never pointed to anyone or called out anyone specifically.
Every writer wants his story line, and they would ask questions working toward the sound bite they were looking for. And with each question Chuck's answers would get shorter and shorter because in his mind he had already answered in his opening statement whatever you were asking.
I would give him a long question to try to get the most insight I could, but his answers were always so short. All I could do was laugh.
Coach had a way of doing things, and it worked. And if you spent enough time around him, some of his way became your way. Much like the Packers talk about Vince Lombardi and Lombardi-isms, we former Steelers speak in Chuck-isms. For many of us, his fundamentals of football became the fundamentals of life.