The lessons of Chuck Noll

LATROBE, Pa. -- There is nothing fancy about where the name went. At least it's spelled right. The words "Chuck Noll Field" hang neatly over a brick press box, two stories above the grass at Saint Vincent College. Noll would be happy about its simplicity. Twenty-three years in one job, and people in Pittsburgh still spell Noll's name with a "K." Maybe he never noticed. Chances are he didn't care.

Sometimes late in the summer, when the newbies arrive at Saint Vincent for the start of practice, coach Bob Colbert will ask them: Who is the guy with the name on the field? If a kid isn't from Allegheny County or points nearby, chances are he'll stare at Colbert with a blank look.

"It's unfortunate," Colbert says, "that he didn't get his due.

"The younger kids, they're not into the history. History is yesterday."

History, at least in these parts, is consistent. Snow falls; Steelers flags flutter in preparation for another Super Bowl; and Chuck Noll, black-and-gold legend, is somewhere far away. He will not give an oral dissertation this week on how these Pittsburgh Steelers remind him of his Steel Curtain defenses in the 1970s. Noll doesn't even watch a whole game of football anymore. It is believed that he talked to Pittsburgh's front office about his thoughts on the Steelers once this season.

"Your team is doing well," he told chairman Dan Rooney.

He won't be on TV, unless it's a grainy old video of one of his unprecedented four Super Bowl titles, won't be mentioned among the all-time NFL coaching greats. His friends will say the snub is borne out of his desire for privacy. Noll didn't put himself out there, didn't parlay his success into a broadcasting career, and hence, the world carried on without him.

Who is Chuck Noll? A generation of football fans doesn't, really, know.


The first stop to find Noll is his last known Pennsylvania address, up Highway 65 and along the Ohio River. Sewickley is a maple-lined borough with fewer than 4,000 people, but it's loaded with local celebs. Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby live here, and so do former Steelers legends Franco Harris and Lynn Swann.

Noll's apartment doesn't really compete. It is in a modest three-story building with a rooftop view and a sign planted in the frozen earth that reads, "No trespassing, solicitors or loiterers."

He's not there.

He spends about half the year in Pittsburgh, with his devoted wife, Marianne, who takes his calls. They've been married for roughly two-thirds of their lives. Former players, regardless of their Hall of Fame status, have a tough time getting past Marianne and through to Noll. It makes them wonder about his health.

Marianne says the back problems that might have ultimately helped nudge him to retirement in 1991 have gotten much worse. He gets around with two canes, and doesn't get anywhere very well. His nerves are exposed, and just about any movement is painful. He just turned 77.

They are spending the winter in their second home in Florida, a more comfortable patch roughly two hours away from the site of Super Bowl XLIII. They'll keep the home in Pittsburgh. "Always," says Marianne.

Reached by phone Thursday, Marianne is asked if they'll be in Tampa, and she says no.

"I just don't see how we can," she says. "We will watch it here.

"He did it, and it was wonderful. And now it's [Mike Tomlin's] turn."


Life, post-football, could have been more comfortable had he caved once in a while. Maybe if he flashed a few smiles, stopped for a camera, Noll would be rich. Sometime in the mid-1970s, after another Super Bowl, Nestle offered to pay him big bucks to use his photo on a candy bar. It took less than a minute for Noll to say no.

"See if one of the assistants wants to do it," Noll usually said.

Joe Gordon, who served as the Steelers' public relations director under Noll, figures the coach turned down what would amount to maybe a million dollars in endorsements today. He did just one ad in 23 years, for a local bank run by a friend. When Noll saw his face plastered on a billboard for the bank -- an ad that hung near a road that took the team to training camp -- he became annoyed.

"He decided to never do it again," Gordon says. "He's a very private person, and his sole interest was coaching football. He wasn't interested in extraneous stuff. If Chuck had his way, after the game on Sundays he would've just packed his briefcase, taken a shower and gone home without doing any interviews."


If you want to know about Noll, you go to "Mean Joe" Greene. He is living in Texas now, but thinks about Noll at least three times a week. An old saying will usually conjure up memories of his coach. "Never make a major decision based solely on money," Noll would tell his players. All money ain't good money.

In 1969, when Noll was hired, one of his first moves was to draft the intense-to-a-fault defensive tackle from North Texas State. Greene was dejected when his name was called with the fourth overall pick, because it meant he was headed to a moribund franchise with no hope of winning. He spent the first couple of seasons angry and let his temper get the best of him.

"I didn't buy into it early on," Greene says. "It was hard to believe what he was saying."

But back to the speech … Noll, as a practice, never gave them. He'd tell his players that if he needed to motivate them, they probably deserved to be fired.

But something got to him in late December 1974. The Raiders had just beaten the Dolphins in an AFC divisional playoff game that was far more interesting than Pittsburgh's win against Buffalo. Ken Stabler made a falling throw, and the epic that would later be known as the "Sea of Hands" game was getting far more play. It featured supposedly the best two teams in football. The Super Bowl, to many, seemed like a formality.

Noll gathered his team in that Monday, and, like always, broke down the pluses and minuses of their previous game. Then he launched into a lecture and slammed a chalkboard.

"He said, 'Guys, the people in Oakland think the Super Bowl was played yesterday and the best team was in that game,'" Greene says. "'I want you guys to know the Super Bowl will be played two weeks from now, and the best team in the National Football League is sitting right here.'

"From that moment on, regardless of what went on at the start of the game, I knew the Raiders weren't going to win it. I've never had that feeling before or after that [the other] team had no chance."


Here's a mind-bender: In 1969, the Steelers wanted to go with a coach who was a little more well-known and a little older. That coach was Penn State's Joe Paterno, who turned them down.


As much as that surprised Pittsburghers, to see their hard-nosed coach listening to classical music, they didn't know half of it. Noll also has an affinity for fine wine, roses, flying and sailing. Anything that Noll was interested in, he eventually became an expert in by studying meticulously. He didn't necessarily like talking about football outside of work. He had far too many other interests.

"He was an unusual guy," says Ed Kiely, a longtime Steelers employee who was an assistant to Art Rooney Sr. "One week he'd be taking lessons for golf, and the next week he'd be learning how to buy a boat and take it down South. He was a man for all seasons."

Every morning, the Steelers coaches gathered in the kitchen at Three Rivers Stadium for coffee. Often times, Kiely and Noll got into arguments about politics. Kiely was a Democrat; Noll, he says, leaned to the right.

"He never got mad," Kiely says. "He would just walk away and go, 'Aw, you don't know what you're talking about.'"


To his players, Noll often seemed detached. He had to be this way, they figured, to protect himself in case he had to cut somebody.

One Christmas in the late 1970s, Swann had some teammates over for a tree-decorating party. They decided to go caroling, and stopped by Dan Rooney's house and a few others along the chain of power. Swann suggested they go to Noll's. His buddies hesitated.

But it was before 11:00 p.m. -- their curfew -- so they knocked on the door and sang to Chuck and Marianne. He invited them in. Noll showed them some pictures he had taken, then grabbed his ukulele and started playing.

It was a side they had never seen before.

"I thought we were breaking the ice," Swann says. "We're getting to the core of this man, this is great. Wonderful. A breakthrough.

"The next morning, we walk in there, and I thought we were going to have a new relationship. He looked at us, and nodded his head. It was like we were never in his home for a second. He never acknowledged it. But that was Chuck."


It has been reported over the years that Noll turned to his players on that first team in 1969 and said they weren't winning because they weren't very good. Noll later disputed that he was that harsh.

But only five survived from that team to play in a Super Bowl for Pittsburgh. Linebacker Andy Russell was one of them. He had done two stints in Pittsburgh, leaving the team for two seasons to serve in the Army. When Noll called him into his office for their first meeting in 1969, it was almost as if Russell was back in Germany.

"I've been watching game film, Russell," Noll told him. "I don't like the way you play.

"You're too aggressive. You're too out of control. You're too impatient, trying to be a hero. I'm going to change the way you play. You're going to be a lot different in your 30s than your 20s."

Russell became a 10-year captain and went to seven Pro Bowls.


Noll wanted complete separation between work and family. He was home at 8:00 p.m. on Monday nights, 10:00 on Tuesday and 7:00 the rest of the week.

"He was so different from most head football coaches during that era," Gordon says. "He was not a workaholic. He did not put in crazy hours. There was no such thing as sleeping in offices."


That's what Noll liked to do the most -- get down in a stance and teach. He spent the first 30 minutes of every practice working on tackling and blocking, things many of his players learned in high school. He was the college professor with the 20-page syllabus. Noll made his players study each opponent's tendencies from the past five years.

He had a rare eye for talent, and his 1974 draft class had four future Hall of Famers. But the image many players have is of Noll staying after practice, working with confused rookies who had little chance of making the roster.

"He would teach new draft choices who were All-American guards how to get in a stance," Russell says. "He'd have them start all over. He told me I should move my foot back two inches and maybe an inch wider. He was into an enormous amount of detail.

"In his first year, we won our first game and lost 13 in a row. But he never lost us because he never said things that didn't make any sense. He'd say, 'We will get worse before we get better. Because I'm going to force you to play the right way.'"


The closest glimmer of Chuck Noll is buried in a Web site at a private school in Connecticut. Chris Noll is a teacher, and he's hesitant to talk. Like his dad, Chris is very private. He played a year of football in high school, and Chuck rarely went to his games.

"He didn't want it to be about him," Chris says softly. "He wanted it to be about me."

The younger Noll switched to soccer, and coached the team at Miss Porter's for a while before he got too busy.

"What motivated him was the desire to teach, to learn," Chris says. "He was almost depressed after a Super Bowl win because it was over. It was the process that was exciting, that stimulated him."

And when Chris' dad retired in 1991, he never looked back. He threw himself into his other interests, his wine and his books and his sailing. He did fundraising until his back wouldn't allow it.

There have been opportunities to return to football, but, much like the endorsement requests, Noll never really considered them.

"He doesn't watch a whole lot of [football]," Chris says. "He still cares about the Steelers, but that's kind of his past. Once that was done, he moved on."


Or patted them on the back. Greene used to watch him on the sideline when the offense had the ball, and no matter what spectacular play unfolded, the corners of Noll's mouth rarely cracked.

"I remember one time," Greene says, "I was watching him, and John Stallworth made one of these fantastic one-handed catches, and I was looking at him and he was smiling. He wasn't smiling with his mouth; he was smiling with his eyes."

Noll showed up for a game in Pittsburgh early this season, and sat in a luxury box, far away from the crowd and the microphones and the attention. Greene spotted him at halftime and thanked him. For the sayings, the teaching sessions and the one speech.

Had he thought about it for a second, Greene would have just shaken Noll's hand as he said goodbye. Instead, Greene gave him a hug. Nobody noticed. Chances are, they wouldn't care.

"I knew no one like him before him and have never met anybody like him since," Greene says. "There is no hyperbole about him. None at all."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.