When Chuck Noll, the only person who’s been the winning head coach in four Super Bowls, died on Friday night, his passing deserved more than mere words.
It deserved the accompaniment of the booming baritone voice of John Facenda of NFL Films: "Chuck Noll, the legendary coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who turned a franchise of perennial losers into Super Bowl Champions, the architect of the Steel Curtain defense, but above all else, one of the game’s great teachers, has passed from the scene…"
Simply put, the Steelers were nothing before Chuck Noll arrived, but by the time he left, they were everything.
Noll coached the Steelers from 1969 through 1991, compiling a record of 209-156-1. That’s more wins than the combined total of the 13 coaches who preceded him in Pittsburgh, from 1933 through 1968.
It took 10 tries before the Steelers produced their first winning team. The 1942 team posted a 7-4 record, but finished well behind 10-1 Washington in the Eastern Division race.
The 1947 team’s 8-4 record tied the Eagles for the division title and caused the first playoff game in franchise history. But the Eagles dominated, 21-0. The Steelers wouldn’t make another playoff appearance for 25 years.
In between, the Steelers fielded all of five winning teams. The 1949 (6-5-1), 1958 (7-4-1) and 1959 (6-5-1) teams were barely winners. The 1962 team went 9-5, but still finished three games behind the 12-2 Giants in the division race.
The 1963 team almost reached the first championship game in Steelers history. They entered Yankee Stadium for the season finale with a 7-3-3 record. The Giants were 10-3, but under the archaic rules then in existence, a Steelers win would give them the division championship.
Hopes were high. In the second week of the season, the Steelers had mauled the Giants, 31-0.
But Giants quarterback Y. A. Tittle hadn’t played in that game, and he did play in this one. The Giant defense bottled up Steelers running back John Henry Johnson, and quarterback Ed Brown’s passes sailed all over the windy stadium. The Giants won easily, 33-17.
From 1964-68, the Steelers amassed 18 wins. Coming off a 2-11-1 season, Art and Dan Rooney decided that the team needed to make a big splash. They tried to hire Joe Paterno as coach, but were turned down.
They wound up making no splash at all. Noll had been Don Shula’s defensive coordinator in Baltimore in 1968. His defense set an NFL record, allowing only 144 points in 14 games.
His zone defense also failed to stop Joe Namath’s short passing game in Super Bowl III, leading to the Jets huge upset.
Noll had learned the game playing under the innovative coach Paul Brown in Cleveland from 1953-59. Noll was a messenger guard who brought the plays in from Brown to quarterback Otto Graham.
Noll retired at age 27 because he wanted to go into coaching, or "get on with his life’s work" as he often put it. He spent six years as an assistant under Sid Gillman in San Diego before spending three years with Shula in Baltimore.
So no one knew what to expect when he was named head coach of the Steelers. The Steelers won his first game, but promptly lost their next 13. In 1970, they improved to 5-9. The next season brought a 6-8 mark.
"The thing I remember most, there was a change in the whole attitude, the whole culture of the organization," Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He expected every day to stay focused on the goal, which was to win a championship.
"Obviously, the first three seasons weren’t great successes. With people outside the organization, there was a lot of ‘same old Steelers’ kind of stuff. But for everybody inside the organization, you could feel we were building something, making progress, and you could feel he was in control, had a plan and people believed in it."
First and foremost, Noll was a teacher. Training camp was his favorite time of year. "He would teach new draft choices who were all-American guards how to get in a stance," linebacker Andy Russell told ESPN.
Noll could also evaluate talent. His very first draft pick was Joe Greene. Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount followed in 1970. Then came Jack Ham and Franco Harris. The 1974 draft yielded Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster.
Every single one became a member of the Hall of Fame, where they were joined by their coach.
After winning four Super Bowls and earning Team of the 70s designation, it’s almost impossible to remember just how pitiful the Steelers were before Chuck Noll arrived in Pittsburgh.
That’s how good a coach he was.