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Pittsburgh Steelers legend Chuck Noll's path to greatness

Chuck Noll Pittsburgh Steelers
Chuck Noll Pittsburgh Steelers
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Born on January 5th, 1932 Chuck Noll grew up poor in Cleveland, Ohio in the midst of the Great Depression. Like many young men, he had dreams of playing football for Paul Brown, the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and for whom the team was named after.

The road to Cleveland came through Benedictine high school where Chuck Noll helped the football team win its first city title playing offensive tackle. Noll went on to play college football for Dayton and became the college’s twelfth player to be drafted by an NFL team when he was selected in the twentieth round, 239th overall by the Cleveland Browns in 1953.

Chuck Noll’s dream became realized. Paul Brown had drafted him, and he made the Cleveland Browns’ roster. In Cleveland, Noll played linebacker and guard. Brown would alternate guard’s every play during games using them to send in plays. They were known as “messenger guards”.

Noll and Brown were very similar in personality. They were ordered, precise, and eager to absorb information. As a student of Paul Brown, Noll constantly inquired about the whys and the hows of the game of football. He began to understand that at the highest level of football, technique and strategy could overcome talent to win games. His approach to the game was to outsmart his opponent. Knowledge would lead to greatness.

Noll played seven seasons in Cleveland during which the Browns played in the NFL championship game four times winning the ultimate prize twice. After 1959 he retired and in 1960 was hired by legendary coach Sid Gillman of the American Football League’s Los Angeles Chargers as a defensive assistant.

During Noll’s tenure under Gillman, the Chargers consistently ranked near the top of the AFL in defense. The Chargers went to the AFL’s Championship game five times in six years from 1960-1965 winning the title in 1963.

Gillman’s demand for film study came easily to Noll. It made sense to study the intricacies of the opponent in order to gain an advantage. Many coaches on staff disliked the task because it involved many hours of cutting and splicing together reels of tape spent alone in a dark room. It was in this dark room where Chuck Noll learned he had what it took to become a head coach someday. His co-workers began to refer to him as “Knowledge Noll”.

In 1966 Noll was hired by Baltimore Colts head coach Don Shula. Shula had also been drafted by the Cleveland Browns and played under Paul Brown in 1951 and 1952. Coaching in the National Football League was deemed more prestigious at the time. As the Colts defensive backfield coach, Baltimore ranked in the top three in the NFL in points given up from 1966-1968. Ironically it was the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III that would become the first NFL team to lose to an AFL team.

In 1969 at the age of thirty-seven, Noll became the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a position he would hold for the next twenty-three years. Noll wasn’t the Steelers first choice for the job, but he was the right choice. Pittsburgh’s first choice was none other than Joe Paterno who had coached the Penn State Nittany Lions to an undefeated record including an Orange Bowl win in just his third season. Paterno wasn’t swayed by the NFL however and perhaps the Steelers lack of talent presented too much of a challenge. It was a challenge Chuck Noll readily accepted.

The Steelers were in turmoil. Having won just two games in 1968, Pittsburgh was in the NFL’s dungeon in terms of talent. Noll was hired to rebuild and restore the Pittsburgh franchise, as if there was something to build off of in the past. There wasn’t. In thirty-six years of existence, the Steelers produced zero championships and made the playoffs just once in 1947 with an 8-4 record.

Because of Pittsburgh’s losing history, Noll was given ample time to build a winner. Still there were no guarantees, and after finishing his first season in 1969 with a league worst 1-13 record it took an intellect to remain optimistic. Noll was the man for the job.

In 1970 and 1971 the Steelers improved and in 1972 they finished with the best record in franchise history going 11-3. Pittsburgh won the AFC Central Division and won their first ever playoff game, the infamous “Immaculate Reception” versus the Oakland Raiders.

From then on the Steelers dynasty was born. From 1974-1979 Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls during which many legendary players rose to fame. Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert all brought to Pittsburgh by Chuck Noll, all would be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Noll died in his sleep on June 13th 2014 at the age of eighty-two. His four Super Bowl's are still the most of any head coach in history. His 193 wins as head coach in Pittsburgh ranks first in franchise history and ranks eighth in NFL history. He spent his last years well out of the limelight and that’s how he liked it. He was an introvert at heart and appreciated his downtime away from the football field. His legendary status however will continue on in the hearts of football fans everywhere, not just in Pittsburgh. Rest in peace.

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