PITTSBURGH – The lessons Chuck Noll passed down to his players – maxims that often applied as much to life as to football – are tacked on the wall in Mike Mularkey’s office.
They say things like “stress is when you don’t know what you’re doing” and “I wasn’t hired to motivate players, I was hired to coach motivated players.” They ring as true now as they did when Mularkey heard them the first time playing tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame coach 25 years ago.
It’s why Mularkey made sure he had a chance to say goodbye, joining Steelers past and present, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and several hundred friends and family Tuesday for a funeral Mass honoring Noll, who passed away last week at age 82.
“I’ve gotten more from Chuck off the field as much as I got on the field about how to do things the right way,” said Mularkey, now a tight ends coach with Tennessee. “Family was important. Balance in life was important.”
And that, as much as the record four Super Bowls Noll won while transforming the Steelers from an NFL afterthought into a dynasty during the 1970s is what will resonate for the city he championed and the team he built from scratch.
The men he molded embraced at Saint Paul Cathedral. They clutched programs featuring a picture of a vibrant Noll wearing a polo shirt, shorts and the closest he ever came to a smile while at work. Each vowed to carry on the lessons Noll imparted from his first day of coaching to his waning days.
Steelers President Art Rooney II and Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene were among the pallbearers, a responsibility Greene wished he could have avoided but one he ultimately welcomed as a final gift from the coach who changed his life.
“It meant Chuck was thinking of me,” Greene said, “and that’s special.”
Noll and Greene will be forever entwined in Steelers history. Noll was a rookie head coach in 1969 when he selected the massive but somewhat unknown Greene in the first round of the NFL draft. It was a pick met with skepticism but one that changed the course of the organization and Greene’s life.
“If he hadn’t chosen me, maybe I wouldn’t have been a Pittsburgh Steeler,” Greene said. “Maybe I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be coached by Chuck Noll. And that probably would not have fared very well for me.”
Instead, Noll and Greene served as the core of a team that dominated the 1970s, winning four titles in a six-year span thanks to a seemingly never-ending stream of Hall of Famers guided by a man who made it his mission to ensure they learned more than just X’s and O’s.
Greene, nicknamed “Mean Joe” for his menacing demeanor on the field, remembers destroying a door one day “when things weren’t going my way.”
Rather than let Greene off the hook or rip into the cornerstone of the “Steel Curtain” defense, Noll took a different approach.
“Chuck came to the room and knocked on the door and said ‘That’ll be $500’ and that was the end of the story,” Greene said.
Despite rising to the top of his profession, Noll preferred not to bask in the limelight.
It’s telling that while Hall of Famers like Greene, Blount, running back Franco Harris and wide receiver John Stallworth sat in the pews at the cathedral – just a few miles across town from where Noll worked at bygone Three Rivers Stadium – they were surrounded by longtime employees of the organization and friends from all walks of life.
Bishop David Zubik, who performed Tuesday’s ceremony, was a young priest in the late 1970s when he somehow managed to get Noll to agree to give a speech on leadership to a group of high school athletes.
They set it up in the spring of 1979. The speech wasn’t until January 1980. Months passed. The season came and went, ending with the Steelers beating the Los Angeles Rams at the Rose Bowl to claim the team’s fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Two days later back in Pittsburgh, Noll drove himself to the retreat where he found a stunned Zubik waiting for him. Noll delivered as promised, giving a rousing talk to a group of young players that included future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, then a local prep star.
It didn’t matter that Noll might have been exhausted. It didn’t matter that he had every right to cancel. That simply wasn’t Noll’s way. He made a promise. He had to keep it.
“That’s the thing about coach Noll,” Zubik said. “Everybody was important.”
It’s a legacy that will carry on in the city Noll called home and within the walls of the franchise he defined.
“Four championships, you’ve got to feel that,” current Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. “We walk by those Super Bowl trophies every day here, and it all started with Coach Noll.”