Over the next two weeks, if you watch ESPN or the NFL Network, you’ll see and hear a lot about NFL history and the Super Bowl. Every year, it seems, there is a tribute to Vince Lombardi, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. Images of Bill Walsh flood the screen, especially that iconic image of him crying after his third Super Bowl victory because he knew it was his last game as a head coach. Bill Parcells and his 600 lb. ego will take up at least an hour of coverage. At some point, Don Shula will be brought up as the coach with most all-time victories and the sole undefeated season in NFL history. Much will be made of the Johnny-Come Latelys, both deserved and undeserved, as well. I’m not disputing the impact these men had on pro football, and I’m not disparaging the quality of their coaching, but the best of them will mostly be ignored.
Chuck Noll is the only head coach with four Super Bowl victories, and he earned those wins in a time when teams had to be built via the draft or with players no one else wanted. In the 1979 season, Noll set a record that most likely will never be duplicated: he won the Super Bowl with a team comprised of players who were all drafted by and played solely for the Steelers. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. The man had an eye for talent and an attention to detail that was second to none. Most of the talent he found came from small schools with little fanfare, yet many of those players, including Joe Greene, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, and Terry Bradshaw, became Hall of Fame players.
Noll rarely gets the credit he deserves because he has always been a private person. Once his coaching career ended, he disappeared from the public eye, rarely making appearances at Steelers games and, as far as I know, never doing television interviews. Unlike people such as Jimmie Johnson or Bill Parcells, he didn’t need to have his ego fluffed on a regular basis. He had other interests to pursue, such as collecting fine wine and learning to sail. He also didn’t leave behind a collection of snappy sound bytes that ESPN can replay year after year. Instead, he spoke simply and often with wisdom, and those two things don’t play well in glitz and glitter.
I’ve often said that if Chuck Noll came along in today’s NFL, he wouldn’t have lasted long enough to build his dynasty. His first year, the team went 1-13, then 5-9, then 6-8. Today, more than likely, he would’ve been fired after the second season and most definitely after the third. There simply isn’t enough patience anymore to allow a coach to build and develop the way Coach Noll built and developed his team. By his fourth season, the foundation he had constructed finally began to take shape, and the team went 11-3, beating the Raiders in the playoffs before losing to the Dolphins in the AFC Championship game. That game against the Raiders, for those who don’t know, ended on the Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris. That play, while shrugged off as little more than luck by Raiders fans and other brainless humanoids, was the culmination of Noll’s dedication to details. The entire reason why Harris was hustling down the field after the pass had been thrown was because Noll had taught that in practice. Harris was in position to make the catch because he was looking for someone to block down field after he had completed his primary duty of picking up the pass rush and his secondary duty of flowing out to the flat as a check down receiver.
Coach Noll’s legacy is remembered by his players and fans. We remember the teams he assembled, and even in the lean years, when the talent had waned and the game was beginning was pass him by, he was a great coach. He will probably never have a trophy named in his honor, and he will probably never receive his due as a member of the top echelon of coaches along with Lombardi, Halas, Brown, and Shula, but no one else won more Super Bowls, and ten of the players he drafted ended up in the Hall of Fame. Some of us feel as if there are at least three or four who deserve to be there who aren’t. He also was one of the biggest advocates for Tony Dungy to become a head coach, and the Tampa Two defense for which Dungy is most famous came out of the Steelers defense of 70’s, which had Noll’s fingerprints all over it.
All I can say as the Steelers prepare for their 8th Super Bowl appearance is thank you, Chuck Noll. You were the architect, the visionary, and the teacher who built this franchise into a winner.