Chuck Noll receives understated send-off

PITTSBURGH -- I expected the street outside of the magnificent St. Paul Cathedral to be choked with people.

There instead was a smattering of onlookers across from the church when Steelers president Art Rooney II and Steelers legend "Mean” Joe Greene, among others, carried the casket into St. Paul's, shortly before 10 a.m. ET Tuesday.

I expected the service to be filled with remembrances from former players and others lucky enough to occupy the same orbit as the only coach to win four Super Bowls.

There was one story told -- it came from Bishop David A. Zubik, who presided over the service that lasted about an hour -- and no eulogy.

The final farewell to Charles Henry Noll, in other words could not have been more fitting.

Noll, who died at the age of 82 on Friday night, hated a fuss, particularly when someone tried to make one over him. That is why he probably would have been fuming instead of smiling following the outpouring of testimonials and talk of his towering legacy over the last four days.

It is also why his wife of almost 60 years gave pointed directions to Zubik when they planned the service held at the church that is tucked into the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

"Marianne (Noll) just said she wanted it very simple,” Zubik said. "She and I talked on Saturday and she wanted it to be as he lived his life -- no big fanfare.”

Noll did receive a send-off befitting his stature simply based on who attended the service: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and scores of former and current Steelers players, coaches and executives.

And the story Zubik relayed to mourners could not have better captured the essence of Chuck Noll. Zubik described how, as a young priest in Pittsburgh in 1979, he had to plan a retreat for high school seniors from area Catholic schools. And who better to give a talk on leadership than Chuck Noll? Zubik reached out to Noll through a friend and Noll agreed to speak to the group on the condition that Zubik tell no one about it.

Zubik kept his word but it looked like another Steelers' Super Bowl run would spoil Noll's speaking engagement. Noll, after all, had agreed to an appearance that was scheduled for two days after the Super Bowl.

But true to his word Noll showed up at the retreat less than 48 hours after the Steelers had won their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons. He talked to a group that included a Pittsburgh Central Catholic senior named Dan Marino. Oh, and, yeah, he drove himself there.

Zubik later got a call from one of the higher-ups in the Pittsburgh Diocese who wanted to know how in the world he had gotten Noll as a speaker. Zubik, in fact, had never met Noll.

That was the point, he said, of the story.

"For him it didn't matter how important you were or how unimportant you were,” Zubik said. "Through his eyes everyone was important.”

That was part of the consistency at which those who were around Noll on a regular basis marveled.

"What it takes to win on the field, what it takes to win off the field, he did not waver in that,” Greene said.

Noll and Greene are forever linked -- the latter was Noll's first-ever draft pick -- which is fitting considering how much they did to transform an organization that had mostly known losing and dysfunction prior to their arrival.

Greene shudders to think how things would have turned out had the Steelers not taken him with the fourth overall pick of the 1969 draft.

And that has little to do with the four Super Bowl rings he won with Noll.

"Maybe I wouldn't have had an opportunity to be coached by Chuck Noll and that would not have fared very well for me,” said Greene, who is widely considered the best player in Steelers' history.

It probably wouldn't have fared well for the Steelers either had they not hired a little-known 37-year assistant in 1969 who had played for Paul Brown and coached under Don Shula the previous season.

Noll went on to earn a place with Brown and Shula in the NFL coaching pantheon and then quietly walked away from the game in 1991.

He had receded from the public eye because of health problems years ago, but Noll's passing only reinforces how much time has passed since the Steelers ruled the 1970s -- a time when the steel mills were closing, jobs were drying up and Pittsburghers needed something to feel good about themselves.

"As we've lost Dwight White and L.C. (Greenwood) and some others, we want to hold on to the past and memories and we do,” said former Steelers offensive tackle Jon Kolb, who played for and coached under Noll for almost 25 years. "But I think Chuck's passing, it is truly the end of an era because he truly did bring all of those folks together.”

The day of his final farewell produced the kind of heat and humidity that Noll loved when he was putting his players through the paces at training camp. Noll may have been at his best when he was teaching on those grassy fields at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.

No stadium lights. No scoreboards. No fanfare.

Just the way he always wanted it.