There wasn't much to the public profile of Chuck Noll, which is how he wanted it. He never accepted endorsement deals and didn't write a book detailing his coaching philosophies. The late Pittsburgh broadcaster Myron Cope dubbed him The Emperor, and that suited the coach well, because he was both cerebral and a bit detached, even as he became a revered sports figure in a football-mad town.
After he retired, he receded almost completely from view, spending time at his homes in suburban Pittsburgh and Florida, pursuing his interests in fine wine and gardening and sailing. His Hall of Fame acceptance speech was timed at just 11 minutes. He was, after all, the son of a butcher with little taste for the spotlight who might have been a teacher if he hadn't instead become one of the greatest -- if under-heralded -- coaches in football history.
And so the best monument to Noll, on the morning after his death at age 82, resides still in a hallway at the Steelers' training facility. That is where the Steelers keep their Super Bowl trophies -- six of them now, the first four won by Noll's teams, still the most by any coach -- a fittingly low-wattage way to celebrate the complete transformation Noll wrought on the Steelers, and by extension the city of Pittsburgh itself, with an emphasis on fundamentals rather than personality. Because of his low profile, he was never considered in the same pantheon as contemporaries like Bill Walsh and Don Shula, but Steelers chairman Dan Rooney once said he belonged in the company of George Halas, Tom Landry and Curly Lambeau.
This season, the Steelers had already planned to honor the 40th anniversary of the franchise's, and Noll's, first Super Bowl championship. That might seem like the beginning of one of sport's most stable and enduring dynasties, but in fact the start came five years earlier, in 1969, when Noll was named the Steelers' head coach after Joe Paterno rejected the job. Noll was just 34 years old then. He had retired from playing at age 27 because he wanted to coach, though he had never been a head coach before the Steelers hired him. But he had apprenticed for Sid Gillman and Shula, and he was so smart that, when he played guard in the Cleveland Browns' halcyon days, then-coach Paul Brown used him to relay plays to the quarterback -- among them Otto Graham -- and he earned the nickname Knute Knowledge.
"Chuck Noll is the best thing that happened to the Rooneys since they got on the boat in Ireland," Art Rooney Jr., the former Steelers personnel chief and the son of team founder Art Rooney, once said.
The job Noll undertook was massive. It might be hard to envision now, but the Steelers then were a doormat. The team had made just one playoff appearance since its founding in 1933 and had cycled through a long line of coaches. The Steelers were coming off a two-win season. They were so terrible that they won just one game in Noll's first year and went 12-30 in his first three seasons.
"When Chuck became our head coach, he brought a change to the whole culture of the organization," Steelers President Art Rooney II said. "Even in his first season, when we won only one game, there was a different feel to the team. He set a new standard for the Steelers that still is the foundation of what we do and who we are. From the players to the coaches to the front office down to the ball boys, he taught us all what it took to be a winner. "
But Noll had already started laying the foundation for what was to come. In the first draft of which he was a part, the Steelers selected defensive tackle Joe Greene, whom Noll had personally scouted while coaching for the Baltimore Colts. Then came an avalanche of the stars who eventually overshadowed Noll: Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount, Jack Ham and Franco Harris, and then, in 1974, the epic draft that included Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and Jack Lambert and Mike Webster. They all became members of the Hall of Fame, as Noll did, too.
With the roster overhauled and the Steel Curtain in place, the Steelers began to win and in 1974 came the first title, starting a run of four in the space of six seasons at the end of the 1970s. There are those who like to undercut the Steelers' dominance then because Noll was able to keep his brilliant roster together in the era before free agency annually ripped teams apart. But the Steelers in those years had to traverse an intensely competitive AFC, which included the Miami Dolphins -- the only perfect team in NFL history -- the Oakland Raiders and a brutally tough AFC Central that housed the Browns and Bengals.
It was a staggering run of excellence that no other coach would duplicate, but, perhaps just as critically, it gave the Steelers -- and, by extension, the rest of the league -- the blueprint for success that resonates to this day: adept drafting and astute selection of coaches -- there have been just three for the Steelers since Noll was hired -- and patient teaching. With legendary scout Bill Nunn, who passed away last month, the Steelers played a large part in opening the pipeline to historically black colleges. And in the early 1980s, Noll made the 25-year-old Tony Dungy the youngest assistant in league history, a particular rarity because African-American coaches had not yet established a firm foothold in the league. One lesson that Dungy has said he took from Noll was to hire a staff that was not like him, because different people could reach different personalities in the locker room.
When the great players of Noll's teams began to retire, and the victories became rarer, the Steelers' fortunes turned south, but their philosophy remained in place. In Noll's final 12 seasons, the Steelers missed the playoffs eight times, but the team remained patient. When Noll retired, he vowed that he would never coach another team, and he did not, taking his place in the Hall of Fame alongside so many of the men he was happy to cede the stage to on the field. The Steelers hired Bill Cowher, then replenished the roster through the draft and were patient with the new coach, too. The team was rewarded with another Super Bowl, and then, under Mike Tomlin, a sixth.
It is a cycle almost any other team would crave and many have tried to duplicate, most without anything close to the success the Steelers have had. It came with a foundation of toiling in the details established first by Noll.
"The thrill isn't in the winning," he once said. "It's in the doing."