Rocky Bleier recalled how Chuck Noll once tried to tell a joke.
“It went on and on and he told it so poorly,” formerPittsburgh Steelers running back Bleier said on an episode of NFL Network’s “America’s Game,” chronicling one of the Steelers’ four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s.
The joke landed with a thud.
Bleier and other Steelers teammates recounted on “America’s Game” how Noll, the legendary coach who died the other day at age 82, was right to never quit his day job when it came to comedy.
That day job, of course, was helming the Steelers to the tune of those four rings and spearheading the resurrection of a franchise that was 1-13 in Noll’s first year in 1969.
The Steelers, with Noll’s great influence, drafted with a precision never seen before or after in the NFL. The Hall of Famers kept getting plucked off the board, and not just in the first round.
In 1969, Noll drafted defensive lineman Joe Greene first. In 1970, the Steelers added QB Terry Bradshaw. Those were first-rounders, but throughout most of the ’70s, Noll and the Steelers found diamonds in the rough.
By 1972, just three years after the 1-13 debacle (the Steelers’ only win that year was against the Lions, of course), Noll had the Steelers in the playoffs, as they beat the Oakland Raiders with the famous Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris.
Two years later, the Steelers started their assault on the league by winning their first of four Super Bowls between 1974 and 1979.
Noll’s stoicism and lack of humor was likely forged by playing for Cleveland’s staid Paul Brown, for whom Noll was an offensive lineman from 1953-59, spending his last three years blocking for Jim Brown.
The NFL from the 1950s through the 1990s was nicely segmented into decades that belonged to select franchises.
The ’50s belonged to the Browns and the Detroit Lions. Those two teams accounted for six of the ten champions in the decade, and they usually did so by beating the other for the title.
The 1960s was the Green Bay Packers’ decade. The 1980s and ’90s belonged to the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, respectively.
And the 1970s were, unquestioningly, the years of the Steelers.
Noll was Don Shula’s defensive coordinator for the 13-1 Baltimore Colts of 1968—the team that was upset by Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
As an assistant, you could do much worse than Noll, who not only worked for Shula, but also for offensive wizard Sid Gillman in San Diego (AFL).
So it was with that pedigree that Noll was hired by Art Rooney Sr. to coach a Steelers team that had long been the sad sacks of the NFL.
The Steelers, for much of the 1960s, were the anti-Packers. A typical year was 5-9. Actually, that was a good year in the Steel City. In those days, Pittsburgh was as associated with winning football as ice cream is with sardines. Noll took over a team that finished 2-11-1 in 1968.
Despite the drafting of Greene, the Steelers went 1-13 in 1969 but the groundwork was being laid.
But it was the drafting of Bradshaw from Louisiana Tech that began one of the most contentiously successful relationships in pro sports history.
Noll and Bradshaw were the Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer of the NFL.
“My relationship wasn’t good, as you well know, but he made me understand my job responsibilities, because I had to grow up,” Bradshaw said in a statement. “He was a tough coach to me, and I spent more time with him than anybody, so I know. I learned how to be mentally tough with him, and for that I can never say thank you enough, because that got me through divorces, Super Bowls, and those times when I had bad moments in big games.”
The Bradshaw Era ended on a sour note in 1983, when the quarterback felt that Noll rushed Bradshaw back from an elbow injury too soon. Bradshaw re-injured the elbow throwing a pass—his last, which went for a touchdown—and retired.
The bad taste stuck in both parties’ mouths.
But like Weaver and Palmer with the Baltimore Orioles, Noll and Bradshaw managed to win despite their chilly personal relationship.
Noll’s drafting and coaching up of late round picks combined to form a tornado that swept through the NFL in the 1970s. And after those Steelers players retired, Noll was able to re-tool and bring the Steelers back to the AFC Championship game in 1984 with Mark Malone and David Woodley—two guys who, combined, couldn’t hold Bradshaw’s jock—at quarterback.
The great coaches in the NFL have one common thread, and that is the impact they have on their players that extends beyond the playing days. Lombardi’s Packers players will talk all day about how their coach made them better people.
“Vince was proud of two things. Making great football players out of men, and making men out of football players,” Lombardi’s wife Marie once said. “But I think he was more proud of making men out of football players.”
Noll had that same aura with his players in Pittsburgh.
“Chuck was just the ultimate leader,” said Greene, who played his entire career for Noll. “He had truth and belief in what he was saying, and over time all of those things he said were validated, the things about winning football games and being a solid citizen.”
They don’t make them like Chuck Noll anymore. Today’s football coaches in the NFL, I believe, subconsciously are too aware of trying to be one of the guys. It’s a so-called “player’s league” now and that means you can’t be too tough—or else you’ll find yourself getting the ziggy in favor of someone who is more lenient.
But Noll was much more than a football coach. He was a mentor, a supreme detector of pro football talent and, as corny as it may sound, a father figure to many of his players.
One of Noll’s former players who turned into a heck of a coach himself, Tony Dungy, had a favorite Noll-ism.
“Everyone’s job is important, but no one is indispensable.”
It was that kind of drive that kept a group of Hall of Famers focused and on their toes enough to win the brass ring four times in six seasons. Complacency was a dirty word in Steeler Town.
Noll once explained the key to the Steelers’ success.
“The single most important thing we had in the Steelers of the ’70s was the ability to work together … If someone else was having a tough time on a particular day, they reached down and got it (going) a little more. … Whatever they had to do, they did it to win.”