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|Chuck Noll began coaching under Sid Gillman en route to unprecedented success in Pittsburgh.|
ESPN celebrates the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's birth with the "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" series, saluting the finest innovators, motivators, tacticians, teachers and champions ever to stalk the sidelines. Follow along as we reveal our list of the top 20 coaches of all time and document the lineage of the league's most influential coaching trees.
The Chuck Noll branch of the Sid Gillman coaching tree is documented below with features on Noll and his many disciples.
The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New England Patriots 24-3 on Dec. 9, 1990, at Three Rivers Stadium.
At first glance, it wasn't a notable game. Merril Hoge rushed for two touchdowns as the Steelers improved to 7-6 on the season, while the Pats' record dropped to a miserable 1-12. More interestingly, Chuck Noll won his 200th game as a head coach -- all with the Steelers.
Perhaps it was fitting that the milestone victory came against the Patriots, the franchise that passed him over for its head-coaching job in 1969.
It turns out that then-Patriots owner Billy Sullivan was considering two coaching candidates after the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. He selected Jets offensive coordinator Clive Rush off the staff of Weeb Ewbank, passing over Noll, defensive coordinator of the Colts under Don Shula. Sullivan later admitted he was worried about media reaction if he hired an assistant from the losing team, and soon after the Steelers hired Noll.
Rush went 5-16 with the Patriots and resigned halfway through the 1970 season.
Noll went on to become the only head coach to win four Super Bowls.
Looking back, it's not surprising Noll experienced such success. His NFL pedigree was impeccable, having served under legendary coaches Paul Brown, Sid Gillman and Shula. He played for seven seasons under Brown as a guard and linebacker with the Cleveland Browns. He cut his teeth in the coaching ranks as a defensive assistant under legendary innovator Gillman with the AFL's San Diego Chargers. Then he served as Shula's defensive coordinator with the Colts. Noll counted Tony Dungy and John Fox among his lieutenants over the years in Pittsburgh.
Few coaches were as organized as Noll. Coaching in the NFL isn't a 9-to-5 job, but Noll was efficient enough to make his schedule manageable. He'd drive to the Steelers' office in the morning and would leave in time to have dinner at a normal time with his wife.
There was no sleeping in the office. There were no ridiculously long meetings. Noll even told his assistants to get their work done in time to get home and spend time with their families. Yet Noll and his staff had perhaps the best prepared team in football.
Noll came to Pittsburgh with a mission. His focus in building a winning organization was as sharp as his game preparation skills. With the help of a talented scouting department, Noll built one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.
From the moment Noll took the reins of the Steelers, he showed his maturity and patience in trying to build a winner. With a defensive background and some of the top assistants in football, Noll built the famed Steel Curtain defense around stalwart defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene.
Bud Carson was Noll's first defensive coordinator. Together, Carson and Noll came up with a plan in which Greene would angle his body in front of the center to give him the ability to beat the center or a guard on either side. This unique 4-3 alignment helped Greene become one of the dominating forces in his era.
Noll was a tremendous teacher, and his players displayed sound technique. Offensive linemen were smaller and more athletic. Linebackers were playmakers. Noll drafted physical and skilled players. The Steelers' 1974 draft -- in which the team selected future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster -- is widely hailed as the best in NFL history.
As the Steel Curtain got older, Noll shifted the Steelers into a more offensive, big-play team with Terry Bradshaw at quarterback and switched to a 3-4 defense.
Despite being one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, Noll never tried to cash in nationally. He had a personal policy of not doing commercials, although he did a small local ad for a friend. That happened only once.
Noll is a humble man, and unlike many coaches who operate in secrecy and try to control how players act and talk, he kept practices open to the media and let his players speak their minds.
When the Steelers played in their first Super Bowl, in January 1975 in New Orleans, he told his players to enjoy Bourbon Street early in the week and get the partying out of their system. There were no curfews early in the week. Noll's teams were loose and confident and played their best in big games.
Despite his tremendous success, Noll was a well-rounded man who wasn't wholly consumed by football.
He typically set aside 15 to 30 minutes on Fridays for the media during the regular season to provide insight on the week. But football was sometimes a secondary topic. Noll would speak about weather patterns in Pittsburgh, explaining at length how the lake effect influenced the weather in western Pennsylvania and parts of New York. Often, Noll would discuss interesting things he learned from a local NPR station while he was driving to work. Any question about fine wine was answered with enthusiasm and in-depth reviews.
When the conversation got around to football questions, answers were quicker and to the point. Reporters wanted injury updates and background on how players were developing or being used. Those questions weren't much of a challenge. Football was Noll's specialty, but he was more than a coach. He realized there was more to life than just the game.
Games and practices allowed those who covered the team the chance to learn about Noll the coach. Those Fridays in his office gave them the chance to know Noll the person.
-- John Clayton
Carson briefly served as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, but he's best known as the man behind Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s.
Carson, who played defensive back at North Carolina, coached at the high school level and was head coach of Georgia Tech from 1967 to 1971 before joining Chuck Noll's Steelers staff in 1972.
During Carson's tenure as defensive coordinator, the Steelers won two Super Bowls. He spent six seasons in Pittsburgh but left to join the Los Angeles Rams' staff in 1978. He was the Rams' defensive coordinator the following season when they faced his old team in Super Bowl XIV. Carson later worked for the Baltimore Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets before Cleveland hired him as head coach in 1989. He led the '89 Browns to the AFC title game but was fired the next year after a 2-7 start.
He was defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1991-94 and for the St. Louis Rams in 1997.
-- Shawna Seed
Dungy turned the perennially bad Tampa Bay Buccaneers into a consistent winner before a dominant run with the Indianapolis Colts, where he became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.
He also helped popularize the Tampa 2 defense. Despite the name, Dungy said the scheme was derived from the defense run by Chuck Noll's 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers. Dungy was heavily influenced by Noll. He played defensive back for him in Pittsburgh (1977-78) and got his start as an NFL coach there, too. He was an assistant for Noll's Steelers from 1981-88, including five seasons as defensive coordinator.
He later served as an assistant to Marty Schottenheimer with the Kansas City Chiefs and to Dennis Green with the Minnesota Vikings.
Dungy, in turn, had a strong influence on the careers of other African-American coaches. Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell and Leslie Frazier all worked under Dungy before becoming head coaches.
Dungy's Colts reached the playoffs in each of his seven seasons at the helm (2002-08). They won five division titles during that span and never won fewer than 10 games. They went to two AFC Championship Games, winning in the 2006 season on their way to the Super Bowl XLI title. That was after Dungy led the Buccaneers to the playoffs four times in six seasons (1996-2001), including a trip to the 1999 NFC Championship Game.
Dungy played quarterback at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, where his backup was future Bears head coach Marc Trestman. Dungy transitioned into a defensive back after joining Pittsburgh as an undrafted free agent in 1976. He was pressed into action as an emergency quarterback once in 1977 for the Steelers, going 3-for-8 with two interceptions in a loss to the Houston Oilers.
-- Kevin Stone
Smith won three division titles and went to a Super Bowl in nine seasons as the Chicago Bears' head coach (2004-12). He was the first African-American head coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl, beating Indianapolis' Tony Dungy to that milestone by a few hours in the 2006 postseason. Smith would lose to his mentor when Dungy's Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
After working multiple high school and college defensive assistant jobs, Smith broke into the NFL in 1996 as the Buccaneers' linebackers coach. It was there he was immersed in the Tampa 2 defense of Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Smith would later use a version the scheme in Chicago, with much success.
Smith left the Buccaneers to become St. Louis' defensive coordinator in 2001 and went to Super Bowl XXXVI with the Rams.
Lovie is his real first name; he was named after his great aunt Lavana.
-- Kevin Stone
Marinelli holds the unfortunate distinction of being the head coach for the first 0-16 team in NFL history. He has a much better track record as defensive assistant, mainly working with defensive lines.
Marinelli became the Detroit Lions' head coach on the strength of his success as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive line coach under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. But the Lions won just 10 games in his three-year tenure, which was capped by the historically futile 2008 season.
Marinelli was the Bucs' defensive line coach for 10 seasons (1996-05). During that span, no line in the league accumulated more sacks than Tampa Bay's. Marinelli was part of Gruden's staff when the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII.
After the Lions fired Marinelli, he reunited with former Bucs linebackers coach Lovie Smith in Chicago, helping run a version of the Cover 2 scheme used by Dungy in Tampa Bay. The Bears defense finished among the top five in takeaways in each of Marinelli's three seasons as their defensive coordinator (2010-12).
-- Kevin Stone
Caldwell took the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs twice during his three-year tenure as head coach, including a Super Bowl berth.
Although he would later be known for his work with quarterbacks, Caldwell played defensive back at Iowa and began his coaching career as a defensive assistant at Southern Illinois and Northwestern. His first experience coaching quarterbacks was at Colorado, where he was originally hired to coach linebackers. After stints at Louisville and Penn State, he served as head coach at Wake Forest from 1993 to 2000.
In 2001, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Caldwell to coach quarterbacks under Tony Dungy. In 2002, Caldwell followed Dungy to Indianapolis, where he worked with Peyton Manning.
Caldwell was named Indianapolis' head coach in 2009, and in his first season led the team to Super Bowl XLIV, where the Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints. The Colts returned to the playoffs in 2010, but the team fell to 2-14 the following season without the injured Manning, prompting Caldwell's firing.
The Baltimore Ravens hired Caldwell in 2012 to work with quarterback Joe Flacco and promoted him to offensive coordinator in December. The '12 Ravens won the Super Bowl, and Flacco was named the game's MVP.
-- Shawna Seed
Fox was the second coach in NFL history to inherit a one-win team and take it to the Super Bowl two years later, following Bill Parcells. Fox's 2003 Carolina Panthers came up short against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, losing on a field goal by Adam Vinatieri in the final seconds.
That was Fox's second Super Bowl experience. He was the New York Giants' defensive coordinator when they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV.
Fox also led a quick turnaround in Denver, taking over a 4-12 team and producing a 13-3 record two seasons later (thanks, in part, to the arrival of quarterback Peyton Manning). That was after he was dismissed by the Panthers in 2010 as the franchise leader for games coached and wins.
At San Diego State, Fox played alongside former NFL head coach Herm Edwards in the same secondary in 1976.
He was a college defensive assistant for seven seasons at six schools before becoming the Steelers' defensive backs coach under Chuck Noll in 1989. He worked as an assistant for the Chargers (1992-93), Raiders (1994-95) and Rams (1996) before joining the Giants (1997-2001, under Jim Fassel), his last stop before becoming a head coach.
-- Kevin Stone
McCoy, who built a reputation for getting the most out of his quarterbacks, was hired for his first head-coaching job by the San Diego Chargers in 2013.
McCoy never made it in the NFL as a player after starring at quarterback for Utah, but he played in Europe and the CFL. He cut his teeth as a coach with the Carolina Panthers (2000-08), working a variety of offensive assistant positions under George Seifert and John Fox. McCoy was the position coach for quarterback Jake Delhomme when the Panthers won the 2003 NFC championship and reached the 2005 NFC Championship Game.
When Josh McDaniels became the Denver Broncos' head coach in 2009, he hired McCoy to be his offensive coordinator. McCoy held that job for four seasons, including two under Fox, who replaced McDaniels in 2011. McCoy adjusted to a variety of quarterbacks in Denver, from Kyle Orton to Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning.
-- Kevin Stone
Special thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau for research assistance in compiling this project.