The Pittsburgh Steelers, among the most successful franchises in professional sports, were nothing of the sort before Chuck Noll became their coach.
In their 40 years of existence before Noll was hired in 1969, the Steelers had never won a postseason game and were 105 games under .500.
With Noll at the helm, Pittsburgh won an unprecedented four Super Bowls in six seasons — after the 1974, '75, '78 and '79 seasons — established the "Steel Curtain" defense, and saw a wave of star players rise to embody that blue-collar city in future Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Greene. Noll retired from coaching in 1991 and two years later was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Noll, the only NFL coach to win four Super Bowls, died late Friday at his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, paramedics were unable to revive him shortly after his wife, Marianne, found him unresponsive and called 911. Noll was 82.
"With all the great players — Bradshaw, Swann, Franco, Lambert, Greene — we don't win championships without Chuck," former Steelers linebacker Jack Ham said. "He was the glue. He was the guy who got all of us to buy in to how to win a championship."
The turnaround was far from immediate. The Steelers went 1-13, 5-9 and 6-8 in Noll's first three seasons, before assembling 13 winning seasons between 1972-84, including six consecutive Central Division titles and four Super Bowl rings. The Steelers had winning records in 15 of Noll's final 20 seasons, won nine division championships during that span, and built a national following that rivals any in the league in size and devotion.
Dick Haley, Pittsburgh's player-personnel director throughout those years and among the best talent evaluators in league history, said Noll "no question" belongs in the pantheon of great coaches such as Vince Lombardi, George Halas, Paul Brown, Don Shula and Bill Walsh.
"He was very bright and very demanding, he had good players, and the results were pretty good," Haley said. "He was able to get the players to play at their best. That's very difficult. Guys were making a lot of money — wasn't quite the money they're making today — but they had a lot of distractions. To keep people focused enough to win one time is hard enough. But to get them to keep coming back the next year and play at that level, and keep everybody on the same page, that's a big job for a coach."
Born in Cleveland on Jan. 5, 1932, Charles Henry Noll was the son of William Noll, a butcher, and his wife, Katherine, a florist. He didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school, but was a good enough offensive lineman to earn a scholarship to the University of Dayton.
Undersized but scrappy at 6 feet 1 and 218 pounds, Noll was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the 21st round of the 1953 NFL draft. He played seven seasons for the Browns, shuttling in plays to the quarterback as a guard, and filling in at linebacker when injuries depleted the defense.
Noll began his coaching career in Los Angeles in 1960 as an assistant for the legendary Sid Gillman, coach of the L.A. Chargers of the new American Football League. When the franchise moved to San Diego, Noll moved with it, working his way up to defensive coordinator before joining the Baltimore Colts in that role in 1966. He was 37 when the Steelers hired him as head coach.
Noll is the first of only three men to coach the Steelers in the modern era, all of whom have won Super Bowls. Bill Cowher followed him, then current Coach Mike Tomlin.
"He never won Coach of the Year until 1989, but he didn't care about those things," Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney said of Noll. "He did what he felt was right, and it carried over obviously to the football team. Chuck Noll was a coach who was always concerned with the basics of the sport. He always used to say, 'This game is blocking and tackling,' and to him that was playing the game the way it should be played."
Noll, who in recent years frequently walked with two canes because of back problems, largely stayed out of the spotlight. He was like that when he coached, too.
During the week before his then-unprecedented third Super Bowl victory, Noll was asked what he planned to do in the days leading up to the big game.
His answer was simple: "Hide."
In the end, the spotlight found him anyway.
Noll is survived by his wife and son, Chris, as well as grandchildren Katie and Connor.
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