Chuck Noll was the perfect coach at the perfect time in the perfect city.
The straight-talking, no-nonsense, stick-to-the-basics leader exemplified everything that was right and good about the legendary Steelers teams in Pittsburgh during the halcyon days of the 1970s and early '80s.
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Revered by Steelers fans for helping to lift the franchise out of some of its darkest days at the same time the city of Pittsburgh struggled to find its way out of a rough economic time, Noll could not have been a better fit for a team that turned into the most dominant of any era in NFL history.
A self-effacing man who was as modest as he was gifted as a coach, Noll died late Friday night at his home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, not far from the site of old Three Rivers Stadium, where his Steelers teams produced four Super Bowl championships in a six-year span. Noll was 82 and had been in poor health the last several years.
There was nothing fancy about Noll's approach to the game. He believed in playing sound, fundamental football and having a strong running game, an opportunistic passing offense and a punishing defense, an approach that helped him become the only coach in NFL history to win four Super Bowl titles. Noll's tough, gritty, blue-collar approach dovetailed perfectly with a city that operated by the same tenets.
From his first season in 1969 to his 23rd and final one in 1991, Noll was a guiding force in one of the most successful and long-standing careers of any head coach in any sport. Noll was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, and his career record of 193-148-1 ranks him seventh in NFL history in regular-season wins. His 209 overall wins and 16 playoff wins are the fifth highest among NFL head coaches.
"When Chuck became our head coach, he brought a change to the whole culture of the organization," Steelers president Art Rooney II said on Saturday. "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."
He taught them to be a winner by never wavering from his principles, even when those ideals clashed with some of his players. Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, for instance, had a strained relationship with Noll for most of his career. Bradshaw never quite forgave Noll for benching him early in his career when the former first-round pick was struggling.
Bradshaw noted on Saturday that it was Noll's tough love that helped him reach heights rarely achieved by NFL players. Bradshaw is one of only two quarterbacks to win four Super Bowl titles; San Francisco's Joe Montana is the other.
"My relationship [with Noll] wasn't good, but he made me understand my responsibilities because I had to grow up," Bradshaw said. "I came out of an environment with nothing but pats on the back and love. With him it was nowhere near that. He made me mentally strong, which I wasn't, and he instilled in me a great work ethic. He was an amazing guy."
Noll helped the Steelers earn the franchise's first playoff victory in one of the most memorable games in NFL history. Pittsburgh beat the Oakland Raiders, 13-7, when Franco Harris scored in the final seconds on what now is commonly referred to as "The Immaculate Reception."
Bradshaw threw a pass to running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua, but the ball appeared to carom off Fuqua as he was hit by Jack Tatum. Harris caught the ricochet and ran for the winning touchdown, but the Raiders argued that the play should have been blown dead because the ball was touched by two consecutive offensive players, which was against the rules at that time. Then-Raiders coach John Madden insists to this day that the play should have been ruled incomplete.
The Steelers, featuring a roster filled with future Hall of Fame players that included "Mean" Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, Harris, Bradshaw and Mike Webster, went on to win their first of four Super Bowl titles after the 1976 season. They won three more titles in the next five years, securing their place among the greatest dynasties in NFL history and putting Noll among the all-time coaching greats.
Noll grew up in Cleveland and played running back and offensive tackle, attending the University of Dayton on a football scholarship. He was drafted by the Browns in the 20th round in 1953 and wound up playing what was called a "messenger guard" for Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown. Noll would alternate with another player and run plays into the huddle.
"After a while, Chuck could have called the plays himself without any help from the bench," Brown once said. "He was that kind of football student."
Noll retired at age 28, then spent six seasons under Chargers Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman, one of the brightest offensive coaches in NFL history. Noll was hired by Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. before the 1969 season and soon transformed one of the league's worst franchises into one of the best of all time. His imprint on the team was unmistakable, his legacy secure in a city that embraced the hard-working, give-an-honest-effort-every-day coach as one of their own.