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Art Rooney bought the Pittsburgh Steelers at the height of the Depression for $2,500, money earned by betting on horses and promoting local fighters. And the team was so bad for so long -- only eight winning seasons in its first 36 years of existence -- that fans sometimes challenged the players to fights in local bars. By the end of the 1968 season, the team had hit rock bottom. Bill Austin, a disciple of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, hired solely because the great coach had given Austin a sterling recommendation, led the Steelers to 11 wins in three seasons, including just two in 1968, and was let go. And Dan Rooney, Art's oldest son, was charged with filling the job.
Dan Rooney's first choice to be the new head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers was a local coach who was building a dynasty just down the road: Joe Paterno. That year, Paterno's Penn State team had gone undefeated and won the Orange Bowl. But Paterno wasn't swayed by the NFL. Truth was his Nittany Lions team was probably better than anything the Steelers could put on the field. That year. Or most years prior.
|With Chuck Noll at the helm, the Steelers captured four Super Bowl titles to dominate the '70s.|
So Rooney continued to survey the league. He spoke to owners and head coaches about assistants on their staffs. He read team media guide coaching bios searching for an overlooked genius. One name kept coming up in conversation, one bio looked better than all the rest: Chuck Noll's. His pedigree was unmatched: He played for Cleveland and Paul Brown, the coach who wrote the NFL's first playbook; he was hired as an assistant in San Diego by Sid Gillman, father of the NFL's modern offense; and when Rooney found him he was Don Shula's defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Colts, who were about to play Joe Namath and the Jets in the Super Bowl. Football had been the focal point of Noll's life from the time he was a boy growing up in Cleveland, where he helped Benedictine High win its first city title. Noll was poor growing up, and he was small. But to be a boy living in Ohio in the 1940s and '50s was to dream of playing football. And not just for anyone, for Paul Brown. As the coach at Ohio State, Brown led the Buckeyes to the 1942 national championship. He joined the Browns after the war and, utilizing forward passing schemes and the skills of quarterback Otto Graham, Brown's teams went to ten straight championship games, winning three of them. Because Brown's teams were so good, and because he was so revered, the entire state seemed to become a breeding ground of acolyte coaches who followed the Paul Brown way, including a wunderkind named Don Shula.
Brown's way meant studying the best technique and being smarter, not just better, than your opponent. In his football the angle at which someone was tackled was taken as seriously as how hard the tackle was. The cerebral, slightly built Noll understood that a running back planting his foot two inches inside a hash mark, rather than at the mark, was the difference between hitting a hole at full speed and being forced to stop and start again.
Noll played offensive tackle in high school. But in college, at Dayton, he switched to linebacker, where he played well enough that Brown drafted him in the 21st round. The match between pupil and teacher was perfect. Noll played both ways, linebacker on defense and "messenger guard" on offense. Every other play, he and the other guard switched off, relaying plays in from the sideline. "After a while," Brown once said, "Chuck could have called the plays himself without any help from the bench. He was that kind of student."
Noll was always asking Paul Brown, "Why, why, why?" And he wasn't just curious about football, either. He went to law school during the off-season. And sold insurance. And worked at a trucking firm. And studied wine and classical music and how to tend roses and how to fly airplanes. He lived his life the way he approached football: Knowledge was the ultimate prize.
After seven NFL seasons, Noll retired from the Browns. He was healthy, but he wanted to coach, and he was hired by Gillman to handle the defense for the AFL's Chargers. Gillman revolutionized NFL offenses with his precision passing game. His players ran exacting routes, dissecting the field into finely calibrated geometric angles, the distances they ran perfectly timed to how many steps the quarterback dropped back. Today it's called the West Coast offense, and its timing patterns are a staple in every NFL team's game plan.
But Gillman also believed in learning the tics and tells of opponents, basing his schemes on how a defensive back turned his shoulders or what kind of depth a linebacker used in coverage. And the only way to figure that out was by painstaking film study. Gillman used so much film that he was one of the first coaches to hire full-time cameramen. Each of his assistants was required to splice together their own reels, specific to their coaching assignments, and then break down the opponent's schemes for their boss. It could take hours of manual labor to cut and analyze a single set of downs. Most coaches hated it. Except for Noll. He had studied film as a player -- but what Gillman offered was a master class in editing, in using the tools that were being offered to their greatest advantage. He'd spend hours in the darkness, taping together pieces of film, running projectors back and forth. This was where he'd find the answers. It was hard for Noll to turn it off, to stop himself from sharing what he learned, even when it earned him derision. Fellow assistants called him "The Pope," "Knute Knowledge" and "Knowledge Noll."
But outside of coaching circles few people knew of Noll. He was studious and dry-witted, not the most alluring traits to owners with bad teams who needed a fresh face to sell tickets. And, in January 1969, Noll was perhaps best known as the architect of the defense that had somehow just lost Super Bowl III to Namath and the Jets.
The day after that game, at the urging of Shula, Dan Rooney and Noll sat together for the first time. "We met for two hours," Rooney wrote in his autobiography. "Noll's general knowledge of football and his specific knowledge of the Steelers strengths, weaknesses and potential struck me as extraordinary. I mean, it's the day after the Super Bowl, with all the attendant hype, hoopla and pressure and he's telling me things about our offense and defense I thought only our coaches would know."
Still, Rooney wouldn't settle for the first guy with a strong reference from a powerful coach. The Steelers had been down that road before. He did his own accounting of candidates, speaking with other assistants and scouring the college ranks for potential head coaching gems. He'd end up interviewing ten coaches. But he kept in contact with Noll on the phone. They were similar in so many ways: They were the same age, both had been overshadowed by dominating personalities, both were confident but self-effacing; it never occurred to them they had anything to prove to anyone. "Dan kept saying, 'Chuck is one of us,'" says Art Rooney Jr. "But Chuck wasn't like a Rooney at all. He was really one of Dan."
Several days after that first interview Rooney and Noll met again, this time at the Roosevelt Hotel. Art Rooney was there. So was Art Jr., then the Steelers head of scouting. They talked for several hours, discussing personnel philosophy, coaching strategy, expectations. Noll spoke as he always did, assured without being emphatic, respectful without being a yes-man. He answered questions as if he had been thinking about how he'd run a franchise for his entire life. He had the countenance of someone who'd been there, as he talked less about winning than about building.
Soon after Noll left Pittsburgh that day Dan Rooney decided to hire him. And he didn't want to wait to spread the news. He hastily arranged a press conference at the Roosevelt and said, "When I first talked to Noll after the Super Bowl game, I thought he was young for the job. But when we brought him to Pittsburgh he sold himself to us...we have some good personnel and expect to draft a few more good prospects. We just need someone who can put it together."
It had all the grand expectations that come with a team's rebirth. Only one thing was missing: The new coach.
Noll was still in Baltimore, packing his boxes, making his plans.
Chad Millman is editor in chief of ESPN.com. He and Shawn Coyne are co-authors of "The Ones Who Hit The Hardest," a book on the 1970s Steelers. Their book is available on amazon.com.