They say Pittsburgh is a football town. If it is, you can thank Chuck Noll, who died Friday night at the age of 82. When he showed up to coach the Steelers in January of 1969, Pittsburgh was anything but a football town. The Steelers were not just the laughingstock of pro football. They were the laughingstock of American sports.
In Western Pennsylvania, the Steelers were something to do between Pirates seasons and they might not have been as popular as Pitt football, which stunk every bit as much if not more in the 1960s.
In order to appreciate the job that Noll did, you have to understand just how bad the Steelers were before he changed them forever.
The Steelers had never won a championship and were 45-72-6 in the 1960s with two winning seasons. They had two winning seasons in the ’50s and three in the ’40s. That’s seven winning seasons in 29 years. And their record didn’t do them justice.
They were worse.
A month before Noll took the job, the Steelers had played in front of a “crowd” of 22,682 at Pitt Stadium. They lost of course.
Fans were rooting for them to lose so that they could take O.J. Simpson with the first pick in the draft.
When they messed that up by going 2-0-1 in weeks 7,8 and 9, the plan was to do what they almost always did on the rare occasions when they didn’t trade top draft picks for more bad players.
They planned to draft the best available local guy who could help them sell tickets. That’s what they did when they drafted Pitt’s Paul Martha in 1964 and West Virginia’s Dick Leftridge in 1966.
Terry Hanratty was from Butler and was the quarterback at Notre Dame. Slam dunk choice. Noll said, “No,” and picked Joe Greene.
That was the first move in what may have been the best coaching job in the history of American sports.
Every Steelers fan knows what happened in the ‘70s.
The Steelers went from being the worst major professional sports team in American history to the almost universally acclaimed best pro football team in the history of the planet.
Noll undid 40 years of ineptitude and embarrassment in five years.
Drafting Greene was the first sign the team was going to be built differently.
Noll won the first game he coached and then lost the next 13 in 1969. What did he do to shake up the team in his second training camp? He got rid of the Steelers’ best player. Roy Jefferson was a wide receiver and the Steelers’ only star. He was coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, something no other Steelers receiver would do until Hines Ward in 2001 and 2002.
Jefferson wasn’t going along with the program, so Noll traded him to Baltimore for a mediocre receiver named Willie Richardson.
Keep in mind Noll traded his only star player and one of the best wide receivers in the league after he had taken a quarterback named Terry Bradshaw with the first pick in the draft a few months earlier.
And the plan was to start Bradshaw in Week 1.
Bradshaw threw six touchdown passes and 24 interceptions his rookie year. He could have used Jefferson.
They NFL awards the Lombardi Trophy to its champion every year. The Chuck Noll Trophy might make more sense. Noll won more Super Bowls than any other coach and no NFL coach has ever done a better job than Noll did from 1969 to 1979.
All great coaches, but the teams they inherited were better than the one that Noll inherited and Noll won more Super Bowls than all of them. And he did it after his defenses forced the NFL to change the rules to make it easier to complete a pass.
They took away the ability to totally dominate with defense, so he turned his quarterback loose and beat them with offense. And if there is another coach in a major sport who has won back-to-back championships with only players that he drafted, as Noll did in 1978 and 1979, I don’t know who it is.
It would be nice if you could say Noll’s numbers speak for themselves, but they don’t. They apparently don’t speak loud enough for him to be mentioned very often in discussions about the greatest NFL coaches.
The great thing about Noll is that he did let his accomplishments speak for themselves. He was not a self-promoter. He had no interest in having his own TV show or doing commercials. When he retired, networks weren’t lined up to hire him as an analyst because he made it clear he wasn’t interested.
So, Noll will probably never get the recognition that a guy with his accomplishments deserves.
And, you know what? He couldn’t have cared less.
What a great man.
John Steigerwald writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.