PITTSBURGH – I had the unfortunate timing of calling Mike Wagner, one of the underrated players on the dynastic 1970s Steelers teams, just minutes after he had learned of Chuck Noll’s death.
Wagner, clearly upset and fighting an uphill battle with his emotions, asked me to call back later, after he had time to process the loss of one of the great figures in Pittsburgh sports history.
Another phone call I made Saturday morning helped put into perspective why Wagner and countless others are grieving over the loss of Noll, who won more Super Bowls than any other coach, yet never let football define him.
“If something would have ever happened to me I would have wanted him to take care of my family,” said Dick Hoak, an assistant coach on Noll’s staff from 1972-91. “Your family always came first. It wasn’t football then family. If something happened you could go take care of your family, and if you have to miss a practice, miss a meeting, that’s fine; make sure everything is OK with your family, and then football was after that."
Hoak shared another Noll memory outside of football.
“Every year before the season would start he would have all the coaches and wives to his house and it was amazing. He would make sure the wives were taken care of; he didn’t care about us, you guys can fend for yourselves," Hoak said with a laugh. "He was just unbelievable in the things that he did. He flew his own airplane. He grew roses. He knew everything about wine. He knew a lot about a lot of things.”
And football may have been at the top of the list even for someone as well-rounded as Noll.
“He was a great teacher,” said Hoak, a former Steelers running back who coached the position for the team for 35 years. “He not only taught the players, he taught the coaches. I thought I knew a lot about football until I got with him.”
Hoak retired as a player following the 1970 season, and he had been the head coach for one season at a high school in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he received a call from Noll.
He landed a job on Noll’s staff, not long after the Steelers had used their first-round draft pick on a running back from Penn State named Franco Harris. And Hoak, looking back, understands why Noll hired someone with such limited coaching experience.
“He hired a lot of coaches that never really had any pro experience: Bud Carson, George Perles, Woody Widenhofer, myself,” Hoak said, “and the reason I think he did that was he wanted to teach us, which he did, to do things the way he believed.”
Noll was clearly an authoritarian, but Hoak said his part of his success stemmed from having an open mind and encouraging those on his staff to express their opinions even if they differed from his.
“You’re sitting there for hours trying to put a game plan together and you might get into an argument with him every once in a while, and sometimes you won and sometimes he won, but when you walked out of that room that was all forgotten,” Hoak said. “There was never any grudge held about anything. He was just a great person.”