- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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PITTSBURGH -- George Perles didn’t snap at me when he received a call during the dinner hour. Instead, the former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator and defensive line coach thanked me for giving him the opportunity to remember Chuck Noll.
The Steelers released statements from a who’s who list of the teams that won four Super Bowls in six seasons. Statements are anodyne by nature. These were heartfelt testimonials from the likes of Joe Greene and John Stallworth, both Hall of Famers.
Merril Hoge compared Noll to Gen. George S. Patton, another one of his heroes. He recalled a story that had little to do with football but said everything about Noll.
“Hershey wanted him to sign his autograph, and they were going to put it on the back of every Hershey’s candy bar,” the former Steelers running back said. “He wasn’t going to have to do anything else but sign it and give them the right to put it on the back [of candy bars] for $100,000. That would be like half a million dollars today, and he said no because he stayed true to who he was. He was the greatest man I’ve ever been around.”
Here, in their own words, is a collection of memories from Steelers who played for or coached with Noll, who died Friday at 82 in his Pittsburgh-area home:
Andy Russell played linebacker for the Steelers from 1963 to 1976 and made the Pro Bowl seven times. He recalled his first meeting with Noll.
He called me and asked me to come over and talk to him, and as I was going over, I was actually thinking he’s calling me to compliment me on making my first Pro Bowl [in 1968]. Nooo, that was not it at all. He had me sit down across from him, and he said, “I don’t like the way you play. You’re too aggressive, you’re out of control, you’re making too many mistakes. I’m going to have to change the way that you play. You’re going to be a better player in your 30s than when you were in your 20s.” He did make me a better player, so I have a lot of respect for him. He was the perfect mentor. He’s the greatest coach in the history of the league, I think.
Dick Hoak played running back for two seasons for Noll and then coached the Steelers’ running backs for 20 seasons under Noll. He recalled a Noll teaching moment shortly after he joined the Steelers’ coaching staff in 1972.
I didn’t get there until after the draft. They had already drafted Franco [Harris] and one of the preseason games Franco had a really good game. We’re on the practice field and I’m saying something to Franco, coaching him about something, and after Franco walked away, Coach Noll walked up to me and said, “Dick, don’t overcoach him.” I always remembered that. You see a lot of coaches, they get in that film room and they run that projector back about 10 times and say you should have done this and they forget that guy had a split second to make up his mind. And [Noll] taught me that. He taught me so many things about coaching.
Joe Greene, Noll’s first draft pick, played defensive tackle for the Steelers from 1969 to 1981 and is arguably the greatest player in franchise history. He recalled, in a statement released by the Steelers, a unique Noll moment a week before the 1974 AFC Championship Game in Oakland.
He said those people in Oakland said the championship game was played yesterday [when the Raiders beat the Miami Dolphins in the 1974 playoffs], that the best two teams in football had played. He said, “I want you guys to know that the Super Bowl is played three weeks from now. And the best team in football is sitting right here in this room.” That statement doesn’t mean a whole lot if he said something like that every week. Chuck never said anything like that prior to that or after that, not in that way. At that point in time, the Raiders, after Chuck talked to us, they had no chance of winning that ballgame. I felt that never changed throughout the course of our preparation and during the game. Even when we were down at halftime and even when they took away a touchdown from John Stallworth, that never changed. They just weren’t going to win the game. There were many times Chuck said things just about winning football games that proved to be so true. The man was just so consistent in his belief that we just believed everything he said. He was a man who wasn’t about any kind of hyperbole at all. You got the same Chuck all the time.
Joe Gordon became the Steelers’ director of communications in 1969, the same year they hired Noll as head coach. He remembered a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it Noll moment.
It was before one of the championship games against Houston, either ’78 or ’79, and in my office I had these files and one of the parts that opened to the file was broken. He came into my office and saw it lying on top of the [file cabinet], and he says, “What’s this?” This was about two hours before the game and I told him. Paul Zimmerman, who was working for Sports Illustrated, came into the office, and he saw Chuck down on his hands and knees repairing that file folder as though he had nothing else on his mind. That was really a great example of how focused he could be and how wide-varied his interests were.
J.T. Thomas played cornerback for the Steelers from 1973 to 1981 and made the Pro Bowl in 1976. He recalled a Noll teaching moment early in his career.
My rookie year, I’m on the kickoff team and my job is to break up that wedge. So we’re watching film from a preseason games, and Chuck said, “J.T., is that you running down there?” I was going down cautious to make sure I don’t get clipped or anything. So he says, “I don’t see that 4.4 speed.” Now the whole team is sitting there, and he says, “Where is that 4.4 speed?” And then he made a comment that was directed at me. Being from the Bible belt and [Noll] knowing that I knew biblical works, he says, “You know what? They say the meek shall inherit the earth.” Now no one knew what that was, I don’t think, but I knew what he was talking about. His greatest asset, I think, was the way he communicated. He communicated with everybody differently, and it was amazing to watch him go around the locker room and communicate with guys on their level.
Bill Cowher succeeded Noll as the Steelers’ head coach in 1992, and he coached 15 seasons and led the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl victory in 2005. He told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh about his first extensive talk with Noll after the Steelers hired him.
There was an opportunity for me to get on a private plane and I was going to work out a player at Clemson and I think he was going down to his vacation home. I probably had about 25 questions and I don’t want to bombard him right away, and as we started talking, his answers are very short and didn’t really give me a whole lot of insight. He’d come back with more a response of, “Well, how’s your family?” I got off the plane, and I just said, “Jeez, I really didn’t get a whole lot from that conversation.” But what I took out of it was he didn’t want me to have preconceived thoughts. You need to do it your way. You need to figure out how to work within that building with the Steelers organization. I thought that was one of the best pieces of advice that was ever given to me. When people asked me what did I say to Mike Tomlin when Mike took over [in 2007], I laughed and I said “I gave him the same advice Chuck Noll gave me. None.” You pass your own judgments, and I think in today’s world to be able to work through it yourself and not be convoluted with other people’s opinions is refreshing. I always will take that away from Chuck Noll.
Tony Dungy, the most prominent member of Noll's coaching tree, joined the Steelers in 1977 as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Minnesota. Converted by Noll into a defensive back, he played on the Steelers' Super Bowl XIII team and returned to Pittsburgh in 1981 where he served as a member of Noll's staff for eight seasons. Before he shared anecdotes about Noll, Dungy paused and said, almost to himself: "I'm not even sure I can even express how great he was, how important he was in my life and all that I learned from him."
Dungy on Noll’s message to players about football and life:
The first time I ever saw Chuck Noll, I was a rookie on the first day of minicamp in 1977. The Steelers had just won two Super Bowls. I sat down, opened my notebook and my playbook, preparing to write down everything he said -- what to do, how to make the team and win Super Bowls just like Chuck Noll. And the first thing he says is, "Gentlemen, welcome to the National Football League. You are getting paid to play football now so that makes it your profession, but don’t ever mistake football for your life. Football can’t be your life. I am your coach but my job is to help you find your life’s work. We’re gonna win some games along the way and become a great football team, but I don’t want you to think life is all football." And I sat there, blown away. That certainly wasn’t my view of the world at the time. My life was all football. And that was the greatest lesson I learned from him: that you could be excellent at what you do in football but it didn’t have to consume you. There was a lot of Coach Noll that went through me and a little bit, I think, now running through Jim Caldwell and Lovie Smith and Mike Tomlin.
Dungy on his job interview for defensive coordinator:
In 1984, I was on his staff and I was pretty sure I was going to get the defensive coordinator job, but I was only 28 or 29 at the time so I wasn’t completely sure. We were at the combine, which was in New Orleans at the time. He asks me if I want to go out to dinner with him, and I just figured that’s what we’d talk about, football, coaching, the job. So we go to dinner and instead he’s telling me about New Orleans food. Then we go to Preservation Hall for some jazz and then he walks me around to look at all these incredible historical sites in the city. In all, I’m with him for about four hours and we get back to the hotel and he says, "I really, really enjoyed this tonight." Then he gets on the elevator and goes to his room. My wife calls and says, "Well, do you have the job, are you the coordinator?" And I say, "Um, I don’t know." When we got back to Pittsburgh I finally asked him, and he said, "Well, of course you got the job." That was just him. Given the chance to enjoy New Orleans, to enjoy life, it never occurred to him to interrupt that to talk about football.
Dungy on Noll’s knack for finding players for his system:
His genius was in finding players who fit what he wanted to do. People look at the 1974 draft and say it was one of the greatest drafts of all time. But you had Lynn Swann who was kind of an undersized receiver. And Jack Lambert, he was a 205-pound middle linebacker from a small school. John Stallworth was a kind of running back, slash, slot receiver from a tiny school. Mike Webster was a short, undersized center who was not fast at all. Those guys would not have been drafted by a lot of teams. The Dallas Cowboys would not have even had them on their draft board based on their size and speed. But with Coach Noll, they were just what he was looking for. His players didn’t fit a cookie cutter. He could take what you did and were great at and plug it into his system. He looked at intensity and desire and will to win, and he thought that was just as important as physical talent. And then, he was strong enough as a person and coach to get a lot of talented individuals with strong personalities to come together and buy into the team’s scheme first. That is very, very difficult to do as a coach. And that was Chuck Noll’s genius.
Craig Wolfley played offensive tackle and guard for the Steelers from 1980 to 1989 and is a color analyst/sideline reporter for the team’s radio broadcast. He recalled his first encounter with Noll -- and a hit he will never forget.
When I was a senior at Syracuse, Chuck flew up and he worked me out. We’re doing pass rushes and he’s teaching me the punch, and I’ve never seen a punch like that in my life, the extension of the hands and everything else. So he’s telling me, “When I rush and I throw a swim, arm over or arm under, punch me in the chest.” So we do this a few times, and I can see that he’s getting a little chagrined. He knows I’m not getting it, I’m not really punching him. He said, “I really want you to punch me.” The next pass rush he comes and throws this arm over and I just drill him and [his fist] ricochets off his arms and I punch him right in the mouth. He’s bleeding from the mouth, and I’m standing there going, “OK, this is probably over. He’ll never draft me. I just bloodied his lip.” And I could see that little flash of anger in his eyes and that bulldog look that I’d come to know in the future years. Then he just kind of slowed up and started to laugh and said, “Now that’s a punch.”
Merril Hoge played running back for the Steelers from 1987 to 1993 and is now an ESPN NFL analyst. He remembered how Noll rallied the Steelers from an awful 0-2 start in 1989, the last season the team made the playoffs under Noll.
Our opening game, we played the Cleveland Browns and we got beat 51-0. We go on to play Cincinnati the next week and we got beat 41-10. Now, when you get hammered like that in back-to-back weeks, there’s not much hope for your team. Everybody was writing us off, saying we may end up being one of the worst teams ever. I went in Monday and we were deflated as a team. I remember needing direction more than ever and thinking, “How can he possibly dig us out of this one?” We went over what had happened the last two weeks and what had happened to us. He said, “Nobody believes in you, but I do.” And when he said, “but I do,” you talk about life in that room. His belief in us, I’m telling you, that’s what I thought he did the very best. He’d challenge you. He’d put obstacles in front of you to see how you handled them, and based on how you handled them, if you earned that respect, then he believed in you. Knowing that was all you needed. I’ve passed that on, not only to my son but all of the youth kids I’ve coached. I’ve been able to teach them principles in the form of football. I’m one of many that’s been lucky enough to be able to play for him for all of the things he would teach you as a human being. He goes way beyond being a coach.
George Perles coached on Noll’s staff from 1972 to 1982, serving as a defensive line coach and then as defensive coordinator. He remembered how Noll never wanted the focus to be on him.
When he first started a TV show, I went with him, and when we finished, we said, “Well, after the season, that’s the end of that.” He wasn’t interested in putting makeup on and all of those things that go with being on TV. He was a humble guy. He never took anything with endorsements. He wasn’t interested in making money on the side by doing commercials, and he said to give it to the players. There’s only so many guys like that. This guy could have been a priest, and he was obviously one of the great coaches. That doesn’t go hand in hand a whole lot. He was a perfect gentleman. He was a real leader of men.
John Stallworth played wide receiver for the Steelers from 1974 to 1987 and now has a small ownership stake in the team. He remembered, in a statement released by the Steelers, how Noll helped him develop into a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
I went through a lot of things as a player, but I always thought that Chuck was there for me. We did have some personal conversations when some issues that came up were dear to me. He never brushed them off. I think he deeply considered what I was feeling and what I was going through, and he tried his best to make that easy. That made the relationship special. He had 40, 50, 60 players to deal with, but I always thought he was knowledgeable and considerate of what was going on in the life of John Stallworth. One of the lessons I learned from him was that you’ve never arrived, that you never get to the point where you are the best that you can be, and you should admit you are always striving to be better and to get better in whatever it was -- as a football player, as a father, as a business person, as someone who was active in the community. I think I carry that more than anything.
Senior writer David Fleming of ESPN The Magazine contributed to this report.