Hall of Famer Chuck Noll dies at 82

Updated: June 14, 2014, 7:11 PM ET
By Scott Brown | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers icon Chuck Noll, the only coach to win four Super Bowls, died at his Pittsburgh-area home Friday night. He was 82.

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner said Noll died of natural causes at 9:45 p.m. ET.

Noll went 209-156-1, including the postseason, while coaching the Steelers from 1969-91. The hiring of Noll, a one-time assistant coach to Sid Gillman and Don Shula, set the Steelers on a path to greatness.

He led the team to four Super Bowl titles from 1975-80 and became every bit as revered in Pittsburgh as stalwarts from those teams such as "Mean" Joe Greene and Franco Harris.

"Chuck Noll is the best thing to happen to the Rooneys since they got on the boat in Ireland," Art Rooney Jr., the oldest son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr., said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Noll was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, less than two years after he retired.

"Coach Noll's quiet leadership produced extraordinary results that deeply inspired players, coaches and fans," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Saturday in a statement. "He always put the team, his players, and the game first. His legacy of excellence will forever be an important part of the history of the Steelers and the NFL."

Noll had battled health problems in recent years while splitting time between Sewickley, which is in suburban Pittsburgh, and Florida. The Steelers still listed him prominently in their staff directory as an administration adviser even when he was in ill health and not working for the team.

"He was not a pizzazz guy," Rooney Jr. said, according to the Tribune-Review. "He knew where he was, where he was going and where he wanted to go and how to do it. He had a very, very strong moral compass. ... My dad respected that."

[+] EnlargeChuck Noll
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesChuck Noll was 209-156-1 as head coach of the Steelers, guiding them to four Super Bowl titles.

Noll receded from the public eye following his retirement in 1991. His name still resonates in the Pittsburgh area and far beyond the hills of Western Pennsylvania.

The football field at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, where the Steelers have held training camp since 1966, is named after Noll.

A street near Heinz Field, which opened a decade after Noll called it a career, is also named after the coach, who Steelers chairman Dan Rooney once said deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of George Halas, Curley Lambeau and Tom Landry.

"I think he ranks with Halas and Lombardi. There are many other good coaches over the history of the NFL, but I think Chuck Noll ranks up there with those other two guys right at the top," Dan Rooney said Saturday in a statement. "No other coach won four Super Bowls, and the way he did it was with dignity. His players were always his concern, both in treating them well and giving them what they needed to succeed on the field."

Noll had been the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Colts before the Steelers made him the youngest head coach in NFL history at the age of 34. They first offered the job to Joe Paterno, who opted to stay at Penn State, before hiring Noll in 1969.

The Steelers went just 1-13 in Noll's first season, but he took Greene, a defensive tackle from North Texas State, with the fourth overall pick of the 1969 draft, and a year later Pittsburgh drafted quarterback Terry Bradshaw with the first overall selection.

Those picks laid the foundation for the teams that would dominate a decade like few others in NFL history.

"He was a teacher, he was a father figure, he was a coach. He was the stability we all needed," said Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount, who played for the Steelers from 1970-83. "We were all young kids, great talent and everybody had their own goals and dreams, but he was able to keep us focused on one thing, and that was winning.

GreeneChuck was just the ultimate leader. 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.

-- Joe Greene, on Chuck Noll

"He gave Pittsburgh a sense of pride. When the Steelers hired Chuck Noll, they were the doormat of the National Football League. And then he drafted Joe Greene, which in my opinion was the beginning of everything that happened to us."

Bradshaw, who was benched early in his career by Noll and had a contentious relationship with his head coach, said in a statement Saturday that he is "proud" to have played for Noll and credited Noll's tough love for helping him develop into the first quarterback to win four Super Bowls, a feat that has only been matched by Joe Montana.

"My relationship [with Noll] wasn't good, but he made me understand my responsibilities because I had to grow up," Bradshaw said. "I came out of an environment with nothing but pats on the back and love. With him it was nowhere near that. He made me mentally strong, which I wasn't, and he instilled in me a great work ethic. He was an amazing guy."

The Steelers won their first-ever playoff game in 1972, beating the Oakland Raiders, 13-7, after Harris scored on the final play of the game on what has been dubbed "The Immaculate Reception."

Two seasons later the Steelers won the first of their four Super Bowls, beating the Minnesota Vikings with a display of force that could be traced to keen drafting under Noll as well as his acumen for coaching defense.

"We had some of the most amazingly, complicated defenses I have ever seen," said former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell, who starred on the Super Bowl-winning teams in 1974-75. "I remember telling Bill Walsh about some of the things we did and he couldn't believe it."

The Steelers won three more Super Bowls after the 1974 season, and they might have added another one in 1976 had injuries not sidelined Harris and Rocky Bleier for the AFC Championship Game, which they lost 24-7 at Oakland.

"One of the lessons I learned from him was that you've never arrived," said Hall of Fame receiver John Stallworth, who played on all four championship teams. "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.

"You could always get better at something. Don't just settle for where you are. I think I carry that more than anything. You can always be better."

The Steelers never made it back to the Super Bowl under Noll after beating the Los Angeles Rams in 1979 for a fourth world championship.

He coached for 12 more seasons before retiring in 1991 and concentrating on his many interests outside of football.

"He was the glue," Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham told The Associated Press. "He was the guy that got all of us to buy into how to win a championship. He took the lead."

"I know his players really appreciate him," said Dick Hoak, an assistant coach for the Steelers from 1972-2006 who is retired and lives in the Pittsburgh area. "A lot of them will say the most valuable guy they had when they won all of those championships was Coach Noll. He had the respect of all of his players.

"He was a great teacher. He not only taught the players, he taught the coaches. I thought I knew a lot about football until I got with him. Everything I have I owe to him and the Rooney family."

Noll is seventh on the NFL's all-time list for regular-season wins by a coach, and in 23 seasons he went 193-148-1 during the regular season.

"He looked at intensity and desire and will to win and he thought that was just as important as physical talent," Tony Dungy, who both played and coached under Noll, told ESPN.com on Saturday. "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."

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who replaced Noll and is second to him in victories (161) with the team, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "[Noll] will go down as the guy who helped create the mystique that exists now with the Steelers."

Cowher also commented on Twitter.

The flag at the Pro Football Hall of Fame was lowered to half-staff on Saturday in Noll's memory.

"When Chuck became our head coach, he brought a change to the whole culture of the organization," Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. "... He set a new standard for the Steelers that still is the foundation of what we do and who we are. From the players to the coaches to the front office down to the ball boys, he taught us all what it took to be a winner."

The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Paul's Cathedral, which is located in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

Noll is the second towering figure from the Steelers' dynasty in the 1970s to die in the past month.

Longtime scout Bill Nunn, who opened a pipeline to historically black colleges and helped the Steelers assemble top talent that turned them from also-rans into champions, died on May 6 at the age of 89 of complications from a stroke.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Scott Brown

ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter

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