Part II: The Teacher
While other NFL coaches reveled in being regarded as demigods, Chuck Noll of the Steelers wanted to be known as a pedagogue
This is the second 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 first part of the series can be read here.
By Paul Zimmerman
The date: Feb. 11. 1980. We are driving through a light snow to Chuck Noll’s house in suburban Upper St. Clair, south of Pittsburgh. It is starting to get dark, and the streets have an Old World look as we climb through Dormont and Mt. Lebanon, past the lights of stores open late, gliding over the still-used trolley tracks. Upper St. Clair is half an hour from the Steeler offices at Three Rivers Stadium, less if you take the main highway, but Noll’s wife, Marianne, says he likes to go through the towns. Noll says he once made it home from his office in 15 minutes.
“That’s my record,” he says.
“What’s your slow record?”
“Two and a half hours,” he says.
“Through a blizzard.”
We drive in silence for a while. We pass a frozen pond.
“What do you think of when you see that?” Noll asks. I tell him I think of our pond at home and my kids skating and the way it looks in the late afternoon, with the mist starting to come in.
“A poet. You see it as a poet,” Noll says. “What fascinates me is the science of it. Frozen on top, strong enough to support weight, yet warm enough on the bottom to maintain life. The miracle of life.”
He stares out the window again. The pressures of the long season, of a Super Bowl that his friends say created more pressure for him than any game in his 11 years as the Steelers’ coach, seem to have almost disappeared. He spent a week at Hilton Head after the game, and he tells a story about the day he was out on the driving range, hitting golf balls.
“The pro came over and watched me for a few minutes,” Noll says, “and then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, `Relax. Calm down. The season’s over.’ ”
The Steelers had pulled out the 31-19 victory in the fourth quarter when their big-play people came up with the big plays—two long passes from Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth, and a deep interception by Jack Lambert, who swooped in from centerfield, a place where middle linebackers don’t normally live. “Chuck’s basic strategy is to make them stop our big-play people,” Andy Russell, the retired linebacker, once said. Big-play people. High draft picks and good draft picks for the most part, matured and nurtured on the fertile teaching ground of the practice field and the film room, the products of day after day of “good learning experiences,” as Noll would say.
“Before Chuck came, our drafts weren’t really that bad—when we didn’t trade them away,” Dan Rooney, the Steelers’ president, says. “The problem was that we ran off rookies before they had a chance to show what they could do. That’s why it means so much that Chuck is so patient with them. That’s why he involves his assistant coaches in the scouting, so they’ll be committed to these kids.”
“I think Chuck is unique in that he doesn’t fit that winning-is-the-only-thing coaching philosophy,” says Upton Bell, who was head of player personnel for the Colts when Noll was an assistant to Don Shula. “With him, teaching is the only thing, developing a man to fulfill his potential. If he does a good teaching job, winning is the natural by-product. In a world that looks for conformity. Chuck is a different type of human being; he’s not as interesting as a coach as he is as a human being.”
“Chuck and I started out coaching together,” former Oakland Coach John Madden says, “and I thought he’d get out of it before I did. Maybe four years ago Chuck said to me, `John, you’re going to be in it for the rest of your life. This is perfect for you. I’m going to get out of it.’ It started me thinking. Is this really all there is to life? I’d never thought about it before. And now look, I’m out of it and Chuck’s still in it.”
But how many teachers get such tangible rewards, see such immediate results? How can you quit when you keep turning out Rhodes scholars? “The one nightmare I always had was going into a game unprepared,” Noll says. We were turning onto Noll’s street now, a quiet thoroughfare in an unpretentious neighborhood. A college professor’s neighborhood. “I can’t pinpoint it, but if I allowed fear to come into what I’m doing, that would be my greatest fear—having spent time on the wrong thing.”
He pulled into his driveway. A layer of snow covered the walk leading to his house, and I asked him if he were expected to shovel it.
“The Lord giveth,” he said, “the Lord taketh away.”
There is nothing in Noll’s house to indicate that his profession is football. No lamps made out of helmets, no football pictures on the wall, no game balls in glass cases. “The only football stuff we have is in packing cases downstairs,” Marianne says. “When we first moved into the house,” son Chris says, “it was painted a dirty brown color. My mother and dad were standing in the front yard trying to decide what color to paint it, and they settled on yellow with black trim. I said, `Oh, boy, the Steeler colors.’ They both said, `Oh, my God.’ They hadn’t thought of that. The next week we had a green house.”
On the Sunday night before Christmas last year, Lynn Swann and his wife and sister, Terry Bradshaw and his wife, and Gerry Mullins and his girlfriend (now his wife) went out caroling. They ended at Noll’s house. He invited them in. It was the first time they had seen the inside of the house.
“Chuck came downstairs,” Swann says. “He was wearing a sports shirt with the sleeves unbuttoned, casual slacks. He had a guitar with him, `to get us in tune,’ he said. We stayed there maybe two hours. He played the guitar. … He put on glasses to read the music. We never knew he could play. He had some pictures on the wall, photographs that he had taken of wildlife, one of a female bird nesting. A rare bird. Mullins knew it right away. I saw before me not the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I saw a side of him not many of us had seen before. There was just so much warmth in that house. That one night … I’ll remember it 50 years from now.”
But still, it had taken them all those years to get inside his house. “How many times have you been to your boss’ house?” Bradshaw asks.
“There’s a very good reason why a coach can’t get too close to his players,” Lambert says. “How can you get to be friends with a guy and then have to say, `Hey, Jack, you’ve given me six good years, now I’m trading you.’ ”
Noll’s diversity of interests is a problem for the people who have to rely on him for daily quotes and who find him so closed. How can this diversity exist in such a hardhead, a man who constantly reminds us, “The public does not have a right to know everything.” Noll’s attitude has led to a measure of cliche writing, the encomium “Renaissance Man” being the favorite of those who can’t think of anything else to say about him. Occasionally, there’s some questioning. He flies his own airplane and scuba dives: loves baroque and chamber music, haute cuisine and fine wine; keeps up on oceanography and the biological sciences. How can it be? Is there, perhaps, a soft spot in that mass of knowledge, some weeds in the garden?
“One thing a guy wrote in a Boston paper really griped me,” Chris says. “The guy wrote that the more he talked to Chuck Noll about wines, the more he realized Noll didn’t know the difference between a Ripple and a Burgundy. I hit the roof when I read that. I mean, I can remember going up to the Napa Valley and touring the vineyards with my parents when I was six.”
The truth: “I developed a love for California wines when I worked as an assistant coach in San Diego,” Noll says. “We used to drive up to Escondido to buy a dry muscat this family made; they used to come right out of the kitchen and sell it to us for 55 cents. It had the taste of a spice, of cinnamon. I’ve gone back there looking for the place, but it’s not there anymore.”