It is hard to fathom a time when professional football did not have a significant footprint in Pittsburgh.
In the 1960s, the sprawling Steel City was better known for its baseball Pirates and legendary right fielder Roberto Clemente.
It was a time when the NFL’s Steelers were secondary tenants playing on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. At that point, the highlight of the franchise’s history was a 9-5 season in 1962, earning a bid to the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl in Miami, a “bowl game” annually played between second-place teams. It was the season the team donned the U.S. Steel mark on one side of its helmets, leading to a look worn to this day.
By 1969 it was back to square one. The team was coming off a 2-11-1 campaign and seeking a new coach. Looking to make a splash, owner Art Rooney targeted a rising college coach from down the road named Joe Paterno. Paterno turned the Steelers down, and Rooney settled on his second choice, a defensive coordinator working under Don Shula with the Baltimore Colts. His name was Chuck Noll, and the rest is history.
Noll died this weekend in his Pittsburgh home at age 82. He had a modest playing career with the Cleveland Browns before coaching. He latched on with coach Sid Gillman of the San Diego Chargers in the American Football League’s early days, before migrating to the Colts.
The man who became known as the “Emperor Chaz” had an immediate decision to make with the fourth overall pick in the 1969 NFL Draft. The selection was used on defensive end Joe Greene, a relatively unknown talent out of North Texas University. At the time, locals were not impressed. A decade later Greene had been one of the most dominant players in the NFL and would appear in an iconic Coca-Cola ad.
Noll quickly purged most of his existing roster, and the team finished 1-13 in his debut season. He then selected quarterback Terry Bradshaw first overall in the draft the following spring. The Steelers slowly built a foundation, including linebacker Jack Ham and bruising running back Franco Harris. The first sign of life came in 1972 with an 11-3 record and a division championship.
The team’s divisional playoff game on Dec. 23, 1972 may still be the most memorable. The Steelers clung to a 6-0 lead over the Oakland Raiders until Ken Stabler scrambled for a go-ahead touchdown. Facing fourth and 10 with 22 seconds remaining, history happened. Under duress, Bradshaw flung a desperation pass, the ball hit running back Frenchy Fuqua and possibly Raiders defender Jack Tatum during a collision. It flew back to Franco Harris, who may or may not have grabbed the ball before making contact with the ground. The 230-pounder then rumbled into the end zone as delirious fans jumped off the baseball backstop onto the field.
Rules at the time dictated a ball deflecting solely off a teammate as illegal. Game officials deliberated, then awarded the touchdown. The “Immaculate Reception” remains controversial to this day.
Under a rotational system dictating the home team, the Steelers hosted the AFC Championship Game the following week against the undefeated Miami Dolphins, but lost. The city of Pittsburgh woke up to more devastating news the next morning when it learned Roberto Clemente was dead following a plane crash delivering supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua.
In 1974 the team delivered what is still considered by many to be the best NFL draft ever. Wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (whom NFL Films voice John Facenda likened to whisky and white lightning), iconic linebacker Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster were also part of a bumper crop now residing in the NFL Hall of Fame.
The Steelers won Super Bowls in 1974 and 1975, but still hadn’t peaked. The Steel Curtain defense’s finest hour came during the 1976 season. The team started 1-4 and lost Bradshaw after an infamous sack at the hands of Joe “Turkey” Jones in Cleveland. The Steelers won their final nine games, conceding only 28 points in doing so. The season ended losing to the Raiders, who by that time had become bitter rivals.
Championships following the 1978 and 1979 seasons cemented Noll as the architect of a dynasty and the team of the 1970s over rivals such as the Dolphins, Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and an upstart Houston Oilers team that served as opponents in a pair of icy AFC Championship battles.
Surprisingly, Noll remained in PIttsburgh for 12 more seasons. In that time he led the team to a pedestrian 93-91 record with just two playoff wins. But he kept the chair warm for Bill Cowher and eventually a more recent era of excellence culminating in two additional Super Bowl titles.
After stepping down as coach, Noll did not seek employment with any other franchise, and never turned to television work or endorsement deals. He quietly split his time in retirement between Pittsburgh and Florida. History does not give Noll the recognition of Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick. There are others whose exit strategy from NFL coaching was impeccable. The overall greatness of Steelers football over multiple generations has been spread between Noll, Cowher and current coach Mike Tomlin.
Noll had a no-frills style. He wasn’t abrasive like Belichick, innovative like Walsh or calculating like Landry. He stressed no nonsense fundamentals and steered clear of attention. Current Packers coach and Pittsburgh native Mike McCarthy would serve as an apt comparison.
Noll was the right man for Pittsburgh at the right time. There was no free agency and he was able to keep a corps of Hall of Famers throughout a career, a feat much tougher today. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, Noll practiced brevity in an 11-minute acceptance speech. The apex of his coaching career was also short and sweet – four Super Bowl wins in six seasons.
Chuck Noll’s football odyssey is now complete.