LOS ANGELES, June 14, 2014 — The Terrible Towels are being used today to wipe away the tears. The Steeler Nation flags are all at half staff. Men in the toughest blue collar areas of Western Pennsylvania are quietly removing their hardhats and looking to the sky. Legendary National Football League Coach Chuck Noll, at the age of 82, ascended to heaven.
Noll was Pittsburgh. He was football. He was the most important man ever associated with the Steelers not named Rooney. Now he is up in the sky with the voice of God John Facenda directing his narrative.
A running back for the Cleveland Browns, Noll began his coaching career under some of the few legends equal or greater to him. He was an assistant to offensive genius Sid Gilman in San Diego and then under Don Shula in Baltimore. Noll and Shula would both move to different franchises and wage epic battles in the 1970s as rival coaches. It was Shula who recommended that Steelers owner Art Rooney hire knoll after Joe Paterno turned down the job.
Noll took over losers in 1969 and turned them into winners. He built the famed Steel Curtain defense, with “Mean” Joe Greene being his first draft pick. Despite having the worst record, Pittsburgh would win a coin toss to use the top pick in the draft to pick “Blonde Bomber” Terry Bradshaw.
That coin toss was the first stroke of luck, but an even bigger one occurred after Noll drafted running back Franco Harris. On December 23, 1972, after years of futility, the Steelers hosted a wildcard playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. A brutal game saw the Raiders take a 7-6 lead with just over one minute to play. With 22 seconds left, the Steelers faced fourth and 10 from their own 40 yard line. Then came the most famous play in football history, known as the “Immaculate Reception.” Noll had his first playoff victory as a head coach. Although the Steelers would lose the following week to Shula’s perfect Dolphins, football was now forever a football town with Noll as its leader.
After losing a playoff rematch with the Raiders in 1973, Noll’s 1974 draft is still considered by many to be the greatest draft in NFL history. In one fell swoop, Noll added four future Hall of Famers in center Mike Webster, middle linebacker Jack Lambert, and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
Yet it was the Steel Curtain of Mean Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood that became the team’s legacy.
With Bradshaw throwing deep, Franco’s Italian Army running hard, Stallworth and Swann making graceful catches, and the defense punishing opposing offenses, Noll had assembled a football machine that would rival Vince Lombardi’s Packers in greatness. The Steelers would face the Raiders five straight times in the playoffs, including three straight AFC Title Games, winning the first two. Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls in six years. Two of those wins came against Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and the legendary Dallas Cowboys. Super Bowl wins over Bud Grant’s Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams provided bookends.
While the Steelers would not win another Super Bowl, Noll stayed on and rebuilt the team. While never having players as talented in the 1980s as he did in the 1970s, Noll’s overachieving 1989 Steelers did win a playoff game. Noll retired after the 1991 season after 22 years at the helm. In 1993 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where plenty of his players would join him.
In addition to championships, the Steelers have also been known for promoting minorities before others. Noll made Joe Gilliam the first black quarterback to start an NFL game. He took an unknown defender named Tony Dungy on as a player and then an assistant coach. Dungy would go on to win a Super Bowl of his own.
After 22 seasons of Noll came 15 seasons of Bill Cowher and a decade of Mike Tomlin. Both Cowher and Tomlin coached the Steeler way, the Rooney way. They coached the Noll way, with toughness, grit, smash mouth offense, and hard-nosed relentless defense.
Noll is gone now, up in heaven talking football with Art Rooney, Sid Gilman, Tom Landry, Don Coryell, Al Davis, Bud Adams, Bum Phillips and other legends Noll battled with and against on epic NFL Sundays. One could say those stories would constitute an immaculate collection.
Noll is gone, but in NFL cities everywhere and Pittsburgh especially, his spirit rings eternal.