As strange as it sounds, Chuck Noll never considered football his “life’s work.”
He always had more important things to think about, more knowledge to gain, more of life’s puzzles to solve.
Noll often talked about players and getting on with their “life’s work.” It was his not-so-subtle reminder that football was and is still just a game. It isn’t life or death.
Sure, the stakes are higher now, the stages bigger than ever. But at the end of it all, it’s still just a game played by men hoping to hold onto their youth just a little longer.
Noll and his Steelers of the 1970s were a major factor in raising the stature of the NFL, making the game as big as it is today.
As head coach of arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history, Noll was the perfect pilot for the team that led the way in the NFL’s meteoric rise to greatness. Stoic but with a biting wit, Noll would stand on the sideline watching his team with his raptor-like gaze, assessing each move as if he were playing a game of chess.
And to Noll, that’s exactly what each NFL game was like.
It was another opportunity for him to learn, either something about his opponent or about the players on his own team.
“Chuck was just the ultimate leader,” said Hall of Fame defensive lineman Joe Greene, Noll’s first draft pick with the Steelers in 1969. “He had truth and belief in what he was saying, and over time, all of those things were validated, the things about winning football games and being a solid citizen.”
Noll died late Friday evening in his home in Sewickley, leaving Steelers Nation with the feeling that it had lost not just a legendary coach, but a familiy member.
It doesn’t matter whether you were one of his players, a member of the media who covered the team, an office worker or just Joe Q. fan, you looked at Chuck Noll like he was a member of your family. He was the “Emperor Chaz,” as late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope often called him. And there was a reason for that. It wasn’t just the four Super Bowl titles in six years, or the 209 victories in 23 seasons. It was the way in which Noll carried himself. He was somehow able to pull off being everybody’s father/boss/coach at the same time.“He was my father figure, with me being a young African-American growing up in the south and losing my father early in my college career,” said former Steelers cornerback and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Mel Blount, who now runs the Mel Blount Youth Home in Claysville.
“Just being young and immature, Chuck was a stabilizer. He was a stabilizing figure in my life.”Perhaps that was his biggest and best legacy. Forget the four Super Bowls. Forget the Hall of Famers. Forget all 209 victories and everything that went with them. Noll’s biggest legacy was the lasting mark he left on the hundreds of players he coached.
He taught them how to be men. He taught them how to achieve greatness.
“Preparation – he always felt you don’t win games on Sunday at 1 p.m., you win games in your preparation on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at practice,” said Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham. “He told us one time, ‘You don’t learn anything five minutes before a football game that is going to make you play any better or any worse, it’s your preparation.’ I think a lot of guys not only carried that in football, but in their lives as well.”
In addition to being one of the greatest football coaches in NFL history, Noll was a licensed pilot, a sailor, gardner and avid reader. He was a wine connoisseur and loved cooking. He would often make his way back to the lunch room in the bowels of Three Rivers Stadium and speak with reporters about anything and everything other than football.
He never let football consume his life as so many coaches had done before him and have done since.
Had Noll not carved out such a successful career in the game, he would have put his degree in secondary education from the University of Dayton to use as a history teacher.
While football was everything to other great NFL coaches, such as Green Bay legend Vince Lombardi and Chicago’s George Halas, Noll never let the sport that he spent so more than half of his life playing and coaching define him. And because of that, he took the game to new levels.
He not only taught men about football, he taught them about life. And he taught a franchise that for so long had been a lovable loser, how to win, helping to raise the prospects of a city and region that was undergoing a great change as the country moved away from relying on big factories belching smoke into the air.
“As for the football end of it, I think he ranks with Halas and Lombardi,” said Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney. “There have been many other good coaches over the history of the NFL, but I think Chuck Noll ranks up there with those other two guys right at the top. No other coach won four Super Bowls, and the way he did it was with dignity.”
And in the process, he helped define the City of Champions.
Even after the glory years of the 1970s, when picking late in so many drafts in a row and hanging on to aging stars left the Steelers a shell of themselves, Noll was the glue that held everything together.
Because the Steelers still had Noll at the helm, they were still a team that was a threat.
He cast a long shadow, one in which other Steelers coaches will forever find themselves standing.
When the time came for Noll to retire from football and move on with his life’s work following the 1991 season, Noll stood before the media and quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying,” Noll said.
It’s the perfect quote to sum up not only his career, but his life’s work. The things that he did far outweigh anything he or anyone else could say about him.
F. Dale Lolley has covered the Steelers for the Observer-Reporter since 1993.