Chuck Noll, who died Friday at the age of 82, didn't wear a cool fedora. He never had an undefeated team. He didn't jump to a network broadcast booth after his retirement. When he left the sidelines, he more or less vanished without ever leaving southwestern Pennsylvania. There's no grainy footage of him giving a rousing pregame speech to his players. That's because, according to those who were in the locker room, he never gave one.
For almost a quarter century, though, Noll oversaw the Pittsburgh Steelers. Almost a quarter of a century later, his standard of unparalleled excellence remains the standard by which all pro football teams are judged.
For my taste, people wax poetic a little too much about Pittsburghers loving the Steelers because of the team's blue-collar style. I have no doubt residents of San Diego or South Beach would've likewise embraced a hard-nosed team if it delivered championships. The style with which a team plays matters less than the results. The fact of the matter is, people love a winner. And the Steelers were winners. And the Steelers only started winning once Chuck Noll got to town.
What can a team mean to a city?
I wasn't alive in the '60s, but those who were can confirm Pittsburgh was a far cry from the beautiful, white-collar hub it is today. It was gritty -- and not just figuratively. There was a literal grittiness to the air because of the ubiquitous steel mills. It was in those mills that western Pennsylvanians made the considerable contribution of forging the materials for the tanks and ships that helped to win World War II. But instead of giving appreciation, the rest of the nation mocked the region for the plumes of black smoke overhead. The woeful local football team couldn't provide a boost to civic morale. Matter of fact, the Steelers couldn't even provide a single playoff win. I'll repeat that: The team couldn't win a playoff game. Ever. Not one in four decades of existence.
Then Noll got to town. He brought in "Mean" Joe Greene and Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount and Franco Harris and, in 1972, delivered the franchise's first playoff victory. In 1974, he raked in the greatest draft in NFL history. He didn't make motivational speeches. He didn't much care if his quarterback made country music albums or if a running back named Frenchy wore goldfish in his shoes. It wasn't about style. It was about results. Noll coached all those players up, and in January of 1975, they delivered the Lombardi Trophy -- the first of four in the span of six years.
Pittsburghers puffed out their chests instead of inhaling bilious put-downs from pretentious people living in fancy metropolises. Noll's Steelers did nothing less than boost the collective self-esteem of a provincial city. The team's postseason hot streaks gave Pittsburghers warmth through cold and gray Januarys, bridging us painlessly into spring.
Now, Mike Tomlin bridges us back to those days every time he reminds a current Steeler that "the standard is the standard." The standard to which he refers is the immaculate one forged four decades ago by Noll during a darker time for the team and the city.
Sure, it can sound anachronistic -- even to me -- when an older Pittsburgher pines for a return to "Steeler football." But I understand what informs that frame of mind. It's not so much about running the ball more than throwing it or an overall "blue-collar" approach to the game. Rather, it speaks to an undying reverence for the style that changed how a city's residents felt about themselves. The Steelers mattered, which meant Pittsburgh mattered.
I never met Chuck Noll. I have no personal anecdotes about the man who built the team responsible for providing me with some of the happiest moments my childhood, times when my father and sister and uncles and grandfather sat in frigid Three Rivers to watch our team beat all comers. We still gather to watch our team whenever possible, but -- more often than not -- we watch separately from our various corners of the country. Because the Steelers mattered so much then, they continue to matter today. As a result, our proud city and its people never feel too far away.
That's what this team means to this city. That's what Chuck Noll means to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They might call it the Ohio River, but, as those of us who grew up on the eastern side of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border can tell you, the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge in the shadow of Heinz Field to form the mighty Ohio.
Chuck Noll may be known as the architect of pro football's greatest dynasty, forged on the banks of the Three Rivers, but he was born and raised in Cleveland.
We gave you a river, Ohio, a resource through which to build your state's commerce over the last two centuries. You gave us Chuck Noll.
Let's call it even.