Chuck Noll coached the Pittsburgh Steelers from mediocrity to four Super Bowl titles
(USA TODAY) -- Chuck Noll, who led the once pitiful Pittsburgh Steelers into an era of triumph in the 1970s, became the first and still only NFL coach to win four Super Bowls and did it all with a fundamental, no frills style, died at 9:55 p.m. ET Friday night of natural causes at his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, according to Leonard Longo, a forensic investigator for the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner. He was 82.
"Hiring Chuck Noll was the best decision we ever made for the Steelers," team owner Dan Rooney wrote in his autobiography. "... To become world champions, we needed a coach with the right combination of vision, intelligence and leadership: someone who could teach us how to win."
Noll, who had been defensive backfield coach of the Baltimore Colts, took over the Steelers in 1969 with no fanfare. In 37 seasons before his arrival, the Steelers had gone through 16 coaches and never won a thing. Not a conference title. Not a division title. Their postseason record in that span: losses in 1947 (in a division tie-breaker just to make the playoffs) and in 1962 (in a "Playoff Bowl" that was merely for third place).
But under Noll, who built a formidable roster through a series of draft bonanzas, the Steelers won the Super Bowl in the 1974 and 1975 seasons and again in 1978 and 1979. He compiled an overall coaching record of 209-156-1, including 16-8 in the playoffs and nine AFC Central Division titles. He was inducted into the Pro Bowl Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
After 23 seasons as coach of the Steelers, Noll retired at the end of the 1991 season after Pittsburgh struggled to a 7-9 record.
"It would have been great to have had 10 victories and been in the playoffs and have gone all the way and then said, 'Goodbye,' " he said after retiring. "But it didn't work out that way."
But on the whole, his tenure in Pittsburgh more than worked out.
PHOTOS: CHUCK NOLL'S CAREER IN PITTSBURGH
Noll's public profile never rose to the level of other coaches of his era, such as Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins and Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys. Noll's personal choices had something to do with that.
He never wrote a book. He routinely declined endorsement deals, such as one from Nestle to use his photo on a candy bar.
The day after one of his Super Bowl victories, Noll told the media that actually winning the game and having the season end was kind of a letdown. "The thrill isn't in the winning. It's in the doing," he said of the season-long journey.
He wasn't a glib talker at news conferences. He quoted one of his teachers as saying, "Empty barrels make the most noise."
"Whatever it takes" and "Back to basics" were a couple of his typical remarks.
But Noll left his mark on Pittsburgh, the Steelers and the NFL.
A few years ago in Pittsburgh, a street was named after Noll. Owner Dan Rooney said the Pennsylvania Turnpike should have been re-named for Noll.
Chuck Noll, the first and still only NFL coach to win four Super Bowls, passed away at his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley.
Tony Dungy, former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Indianapolis Colts, played and coached under Noll in Pittsburgh.
"Chuck Noll was one of the greatest leaders that I've ever been around," Dungy said before Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
"His best quality was being able to get everyone to buy into the program. ... I can remember the first meeting I was ever in as a rookie player, and after 20 minutes feeling like I know what it takes to win a Super Bowl."
One of Dungy's favorite Noll-isms: "Everyone's job is important, but no one is indispensable."
Dungy, a safety and special teams player in Pittsburgh, said that when he went to the sideline after a bad play, Noll would say, " 'What were you looking at? Where were your eyes?' ... He was a teacher first and foremost."
First and only head coaching job with Steelers
A native of Cleveland, Noll was an offensive lineman and linebacker at the University of Dayton, where his teammates dubbed him "The Pope" because of his astute understanding of the game.
Drafted in the 20th round in 1953 by the Cleveland Browns, he played seven seasons under Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown. One of his roles was as a "messenger" guard carrying in plays from the sideline.
He got into coaching as an offensive assistant with the Los Angeles Chargers of the American Football League before joining Shula's staff with Baltimore from 1966-68.
After some preliminary discussion in 1969 with Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who had no interest in the job, the Steelers turned to Noll, who had been with the Colts through their stunning loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Shula gave the Steelers a solid recommendation for Noll.
In his initial discussion with the Steelers, Noll didn't sugarcoat the challenges ahead. Pittsburgh was a team with a talent deficit and a history of making bad choices with draft picks or just trading them. Noll's first objective was to teach winning fundamentals.
Noll set the bar high at his first news conference when he was asked about Pittsburgh's losing history. "We'll change history. Losing has nothing to do with geography," Noll replied.
Shortly after his hiring in Pittsburgh, Noll collaborated with the Steelers scouting staff on putting the first block in place to build a champion. With the fourth pick in the draft, the Steelers selected a defensive tackle from North Texas State, "Mean" Joe Greene. Many fans wanted a quarterback. "Joe Who?" said a Pittsburgh newspaper headline.
Greene went on to become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But during his rookie year in 1969, the Steelers went 1-13. Noll didn't panic, didn't give up draft picks in trades that might provide quick fixes.
That 1-13 record gave Pittsburgh the top draft pick the following year, and they selected quarterback Terry Bradshaw from Louisiana Tech. In the third round, they got cornerback Mel Blount from Southern. Two more Hall of Famers.
In the 1971 draft, they added future Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham. In the 1974 draft, they got four more future Hall of Famers: wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster.
When Noll spoke, team listened
After the Steelers went 5-9 in 1970 and 6-8 in 1971, it came together for Noll in 1972. The Steelers won their first division title with an 11-3 record and followed with their first playoff win — against the Oakland Raiders, provided by the "Immaculate Reception" of rookie running back Franco Harris of Penn State (another Hall of Famer).
Noll wasn't much for gung-ho coaching rhetoric or fist-pumping on the sideline. But when he spoke, the team listened.
In the 1974 postseason, the Steelers opened with a win at the Buffalo Bills. Next up was the AFC title game at Oakland. The Raiders had just beaten the Dolphins in a game that many had billed as a matchup of the best teams in the NFL.
In a 2009 article on ESPN.com, Greene recalled Noll's message that week in the '74 postseason to his team.
"He said, 'Guys, the people in Oakland think the Super Bowl was played yesterday (against Miami) and that the best team was in that game,' " said Greene. "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."
The final: Pittsburgh 24, Oakland 13.
The Steelers followed with their first Super Bowl win, against the Minnesota Vikings.
Not a fan of free agency
In the '70s, Pittsburgh had to contend with the Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys. They didn't have to deal with losing players to free agency. There was no free agency. Noll kept the same core of key players throughout the decade.
One of Noll's axioms was that it was never a good idea to make a major decision based on money.
In 1981, after the Steelers drafted defensive end Keith Gary from Oklahoma, Gary signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League rather than agree to terms with Pittsburgh.
"He chose the easy path instead of the tough one," Noll said that summer. "It surprised me. I had a different view of him, obviously, or we wouldn't have taken him in the first round."
Gary later returned to play for Pittsburgh from 1983-1988.
In 1984, when Harris was unable to reach agreement on a contract with Pittsburgh, he was released and played his final NFL season with the Seattle Seahawks. Asked in camp that summer about Harris, Noll responded, "Franco who?"
In 1993, when Noll was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was asked about the NFL entering into an era of free agency.
"I don't know what effect the free agency thing is going to have on it," said Noll. "We were really lucky and fortunate in the '70s because we got a group of not only good football players but good people ... a group that wanted to be together and wanted to be the best. Whether you can still do it is going to be interesting with the new rules."
Noll was a private person. He enjoyed fine wines. He didn't work the long hours of some coaches, preferring to be home at night for dinner with his wife, Marianne, and their son, Chris.
Noll's retirement came amid questions about whether embattled offensive coordinator Joe Walton would return for another season. That became moot when Noll stepped down and was replaced by Bill Cowher, who brought in his own staff..
After a news conference that day, Noll slipped on a black overcoat and walked out of the lobby of the Steelers' offices at Three Rivers Stadium without looking back at the four Super Bowl trophies sitting in the lobby.
"No anger. Nothing involved. For you investigative reporters, there's no challenge," he said at his news conference that day.
With the coming of free agency, the Steelers made the adjustment. Cowher took Pittsburgh to two Super Bowls and won one in 15 seasons. His successor, Mike Tomlin, also has two Super Bowl appearances and one title, in seven seasons.
Noll, who lived in Pittsburgh and Florida in retirement, stayed totally in the background during the runs by his successors.
But Pittsburgh still built through the draft. It still played the same brand of hard-hitting, fundamental football that Noll preached — with adjustments to the modern passing game on offense and ways to attack the quarterback on defense.
At the Steelers' training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., the field is named Chuck Noll Field, the same place where Noll started his teaching of the Steelers in the summer of 1969.
Noll's acceptance speech when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993 was predictably brief. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette timed it at 11 minutes. He mainly gave credit to others.
"The single most important thing we had in the Steelers of the '70s was the ability to work together," said Noll. "... If someone else was having a tough time on a particular day, they reached down and got it (going) a little more. ... Whatever they had to do, they did it to win."
CHARLES HENRY "CHUCK" NOLL
Born: Jan. 5, 1932, in Cleveland
Education: B.S. in Education at the University of Dayton
Hall of Fame: Inducted in 1993 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Playing career: Won all-state honors as a high school running back and tackle. Guard-linebacker for Cleveland Browns, 1953-1959
Head coaching career: 1969-91, all with the Pittsburgh Steelers; 209-156-1 record, including a 16-8 in the postseason
Super Bowl wins: 16-6 vs. Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX; 21-17 vs. Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X; 35-31 vs. Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII; 31-19 vs. Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV.
Among players coached: Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Mike Webster, Rod Woodson
Trivia: Under Noll, Joe Gilliam became one of the NFL's first African American starting quarterbacks, in 1973.
Quote: "Before you can win a game, you have to not lose it." — Noll
Contributing: Rachel Shuster