Once upon a time there was a colorful yet inept professional football team, owned by an equally colorful Irishman who participated in sports during his younger days. Unlike their crosstown professional baseball and collegiate football team counterparts, the pro football team never tasted the sweet nectar of success for about 40 years.
That all changed in 1969, when Steelers owner Art Rooney and his family found a wise, humble and grounded 37-year-old man named Chuck Noll.
Coach Noll not only turned this sorry franchise into a winner but also galvanized an economically collapsing city and region into having faith to turn their fortunes around as well.
Last week Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation lost the architect of their legendary dynasty, dubbed by the late Steelers poet laureate Myron Cope as the “Emperor Chaz” – he of the four Super Bowl wins in six years. It was a nickname that was equally appropriate and inappropriate, for the simultaneous greatness and humility of this brilliant coach and leader.
Sportswriters in recent days have chronicled Noll’s many accomplishments on the field as well as his amazing knowledge and interests off the field. Noll not only sailed boats, he flew airplanes, played the guitar and was a wine connoisseur.
More than that, Noll not only turned his team into better players, he turned them into better men and citizens, leading by example and by lessons. Sportswriters and players like to describe their respected and beloved coach as a teacher.
Noll liked to use maxims to illustrate his points. One of his best-remembered maxims was “whatever it takes” to win a football game. Rocky Bleier called them “Nollisms,” and used them himself after football, no doubt along with his teammates.
Noll ran an intellectual, efficient operation. There were no late hours for him and his coaching staff. If you used your time efficiently, you got all your work and preparation done between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., then headed home to be with your family.
Noll was not a motivator. If you couldn’t motivate yourself to play football, you were off the team.
But if you applied yourself and were willing to learn, Noll could make you a smarter, more efficient, faster and stronger player.
Noll was a low-key guy most of the time. But he had a temper, which he used judiciously. Many fondly remember a game in the 1987 where opposing head coach Jerry Glanville had his players hitting the Steelers with several cheap shots during the game. After the game, Noll grabbed Glanville’s handshake and read him the riot act. Glanville beat a hasty retreat. It was said that Noll’s icy stare could melt the biggest football players.
About the only player Noll would publicly lock horns with during the glory days was Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Their long-running feud was thankfully resolved in later years, with Bradshaw saying that Noll was merely demonstrating “tough love” to get his quarterback to an even higher level of performance.
The ongoing feud was the basis for one of the few times Dad and I disagreed, echoing the generation gap between Bradshaw and Noll.
In some ways, Noll reminded me of my dad; not so much in personality, but in methodology. Like Noll, Dad was knowledgeable on many subjects.
Chuck Noll was also a man of faith. When visiting our uncle in Bethel Park on weekends, we would sometimes see Noll and his family at Saturday evening Mass at my uncle’s church. They would sit unobtrusively on the far right side, near the front, so as not to attract attention.
One of Noll’s favorite sideline attires was a black Steelers sweater with a white dress collar outside the crew neck, almost echoing clergy.
And while I regret aging during the ensuing years, I am thankful to have lived during those golden Sunday afternoons at Three Rivers Stadium, when Chuck Noll and Terry, Franco, Mean Joe, Jack Splat, Rocky and the rest of the Steelers dynasty were spreading joy throughout the land.
All hail the Emperor Chaz.
Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.