Part I: Man Not Myth
He had a taste for wine, a love of roses, but life was not always that way for Chuck Noll, the unknown coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.