Chuck Noll: The Coach that Saved a City

Dejan Kovacevic has this poetic and wonderful piece at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on the passing of Chuck Noll, the greatest NFL coach, ever.

Ever? Kovacevic:

Noll won not just by being the greatest coach in football history, with all due nods to Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Bill Belichick and all others whose ring count is lower than four. He did so by being the quintessential Pittsburgher.

But Kovacevic’s piece isn’t about comparing the greatness of NFL coaches against each other.  It’s about describing the greatness of a man, an introspective, brilliant and understated man who saved a city.


Saved a city?

If you don’t see a correlation there, chances are excellent you don’t have first-hand familiarity with what truly made those Steelers of the 1970s so Super.

It was a terrible time. The steel mills that employed nearly half the city were closing en masse. The surrounding businesses were failing with them. Pittsburghers were out of work, out of luck and, soon, out of town: From 1970-80, the city’s population was slashed by 96,179, per the U.S. Census. Almost 20 percent! Some fled for the D.C. area and government jobs, others for new economies in the South and West, others just for sanity’s sake.

We were Beirut without the bombs, Chernobyl without the radiation. . . . This was just how it was going to be, they’d say. Pittsburgh had its time. Now that was done.

Crazy thing would happen every Sunday during football season, though.

Yeah, on those days, all was well. Because Pittsburgh ruled.

Kovacevic is right. On Sundays during football season, a city stopped and witnessed an amazing run of four Super Bowls in just six seasons – a feat that no team is ever likely to match again. It wasn’t just that the Steelers had a swarm of Hall of Famers starting – Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, the ferocious headhunter Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and Joe Green – and more. They also had a coach who was unlike any other. They had a coach who tapped the best in players and called them to find the purpose of their life, even if it wasn’t football.

Noll drew out the best in players, and championships for what seemed a dying city followed.  As the mayor of Pittsburgh said:

Everything was falling apart around us except the Steelers.

Noll believed if you were good at what you do, you could get it done between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.  He wasn’t a round-the-clock coach.

He punched the clock and sought no praise. He was the Icy Ball Man, the “Dear Heart” Cheese Lady, the guy who takes your parking ticket or picks up your trash, only with a fancier title. “The thrill isn’t in the winning,” he once said. “It’s in the doing.”

He had no time for drama or theatrics or, on the football field, anyone who would celebrate what he considered a day’s work. “Act like you’ve been there before,” he’d admonish any receiver doing an end-zone dance.

Noll was a sailor, a wine expert and a caring person.  He sought no glory and turned down every endorsement offer that came his way.  He was an exceptional leader of men. He was someone everyone could appreciate, whether from Dallas, Cleveland or even Oakland.