For a period of time in the 1960s, Chuck Noll was the defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers and John Madden was the defensive coordinator for San Diego State. They frequently would get together to play handball or racquetball, or to have a bite to eat. And talk football.
Madden was teaching some graduate classes on football during this period. Noll was more than happy to be his guest lecturer from time to time. "He loved that," Madden said. "That was Chuck Noll -- in a classroom, talking to coaches and teaching. I learned a lot about him, and a lot from him then. That's where I learned pro defense, from Chuck Noll."
We forever will call him a coach, but Noll, who died on Friday at age 82, saw himself as something else. When Paul Zimmerman asked Noll in 1980 how he wanted to be remembered, Noll told Dr. Z he wanted to be thought of as a teacher. "A person who could adapt to a world of constant change," Noll said in Sports Illustrated. "A person who could adapt to the situation. But most of all a teacher. Put down that I was a teacher."
Winning four Super Bowls, more than any coach in history, merely was a byproduct of teaching well. Noll, who studied education at the University of Dayton, preached attention to details and consistency. He was very hands-on, even working with players one-on-one before practice, after practice and even in the weight room.
Madden recalls Noll the coach as a deep thinker and a fundamentalist. "That's what the Steelers were all about," he said. "Once they had the fundamentals down, they didn't make mistakes, and then they could play aggressively. Sometimes, if you ever get an old film, just watch the footwork of Jack Ham. He was a guy I used to study all the time because he was never out of balance. His feet were always in a perfect position no matter how he moved. Those were the things that were important to Chuck."
Tony Dungy played for Noll for two seasons and was a coach on his staff for eight more. In each of his 10 years, the first drill of training camp was the same: block and tackle by the numbers for 45 minutes. "It was, stance, approach, contact, follow through," Dungy said. "Whether it was Joe Greene in year 11 with 10 Pro Bowls or Tony Dungy as a college quarterback learning how to play safety, everybody did that. It was the Steeler way. He taught you how to play the game."
Noll didn't just teach on a blackboard or on a practice field, though. He taught through actions, and some of his most enduring lessons came from how he lived. Dungy, who played and coached for Noll, said what he learned from Noll was how to deal with people, how to structure his life and how to hire assistants.
Noll preferred to hire his assistant coaches from colleges because he thought they usually had better teaching skills than most coaches who had been in the NFL. His appreciation of teaching undoubtedly was rooted in the fact that he had great teachers. As a guard and linebacker on the Browns, he played for Paul Brown, who wrote the first playbook in history. He coached under Sid Gillman, the father of the modern passing game. And he was an assistant for Don Shula, winningest coach ever. Noll would follow each of them into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Madden said Noll was a lot like Brown in that he was a teacher first, one who analyzed the game differently than most. Noll had his own style, however. He was not a yeller or babysitter. He gave his players freedom and kept rules to a minimum. He thought being rested and mentally alert was more important than putting in more time than the opposing coach.
He was not one of those coaches who was unaware of the world beyond the goalposts. In fact, Noll could hold his own in a conversation about fine wine -- while he was preparing dinner. He could pilot a plane, cultivate roses, sail a boat and scuba dive. He enjoyed listening to jazz and traveling, and he could talk politics or philosophy with intelligence and perspective.
Noll was far from a warm and fuzzy new-age player's coach, though. He made Terry Bradshaw a personal project, and broke him down over time with tough love. Some perceived Noll as aloof and distant. He was known for a menacing glare that could hit his players harder than any linebacker.
"In my time I didn't see him hug a player or embrace a player, but he still loved his players," Steelers great Joe Greene said in a statement released by the team. "He wasn't one for showing those kinds of emotions. But I watched him, and I saw him show his appreciation for his players and for his team in a very quiet and subtle way."
Noll encouraged his players to develop as men as well as athletes. Dungy recalls his first meeting at rookie minicamp after the Steelers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 1977. "Welcome to the National Football League," Noll told the rookies. "You are now getting paid to play, and that makes football your profession. But it's not your life. Don't mistake it for your life. You have to find what your life's work is, and what your life's purpose is. Football is a small part of that. But it can't be everything."
Dungy was floored. He half expected to hear that if he expected to succeed in the NFL, he had better be prepared to cut off a limb or sacrifice a child. Noll was different, though. Every Saturday during the football season was family day, and players were allowed to bring their kids into the locker room and on the practice field. Noll would leave work every night so he could have dinner with his wife Marianne and son Chris.
The approach clearly shaped Dungy as a coach. "To see that you could be driven and focused and excellent, and still have other things in life that were important to you, that was huge for me," Dungy said. "When people were criticizing me saying the Bucs could get over the hump if Tony was a little more into it, I could say, 'It doesn't have to be that way. I saw it the other way by Coach Noll.'"
Madden recalled Noll as a contrarian who loved a good argument. Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope nicknamed him "The Emperor," but most of his friends called him "The Pope." Either way, Noll was going to be right.
He did not give motivational speeches to Fortune 500 companies, and he really didn't even give motivational speeches to the Steelers. He just showed them how to do their jobs. He never tried to sell aftershave. The way he promoted the game was by coaching hard and winning games.
Shortly after Vince Lombardi ruled the '60s with sayings that turned into plaques, Noll never really said much that was worth writing down. Except, that is, how to defeat an angle block from the three technique, or how to keep a receiver from getting free release on a slant. In many ways, he was the perfect man to lead a team from a steel town where people are so real and down to earth.
Noll remained the coach of the Steelers for 23 years (1969-1991) in a revolving door era. The only coaches in NFL history who lasted longer with one team were George Halas, Curly Lambeau, Shula and Tom Landry. Noll came to the Steelers when he was a young man -- 37 years old -- and he resigned when he was just shy of 60.
Said Madden, "He used to tell me when we first started, 'I'm not like you. You're going to be in this forever. I won't be. I have other things to do.' I retired, and he was still coaching for a long time. I'd remind him of that."
Madden coached only 10 years. But he and Noll had a relationship that covered more than half a century. "We had a lot of lives together," Madden said. First, they were young coaches climbing the ladder. When Madden was an assistant for the Raiders and Noll was an assistant for the Colts, they would schedule scouting trips together. Once Noll became head coach of the Steelers, he tried to hire Madden to be his defensive coordinator. Madden almost took the job, but he held out to see if he would be hired as head coach of the Raiders. He was, and he and his old best friend began what would become one of the greatest coaching rivalries in pro football history. When Madden left coaching and went into broadcasting, he had a 50-yard-line seat to watch Noll from a different perspective.
"If you ever got anything on him and you went back to it, it wasn't going to be there next time," Madden said. "That's the type of team they were. Sometimes you'll see where they find a weakness, they keep going at it. You could never keep going at a weakness on a Chuck Noll team."
It was Noll's willingness to evolve and roll with whatever came his way that enabled him to last. With a balanced life and a balanced offense and defense, Noll was a survivor.
Before Noll came to Pittsburgh, the Steelers had five winning records in 36 seasons. They had never won a postseason game, let alone a championship. Once Noll turned around the franchise in his fourth year as head coach, the Steelers had only four losing records over the next 20 years with Noll in charge.
And a funny thing happened after he left. The Steelers kept winning. Under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have made 14 postseason appearances in the 22 years since Noll resigned, winning the Super Bowl twice. Beyond the wins, the Steelers have become a model franchise in the NFL, the team that does it the right way.
"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. "Even in his first season when we won only one game, there was a different feel to the team. 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."
Yes, Chuck Noll taught us.