Chuck Noll: More than football coach


Editor's note: senior writer John Clayton covered Chuck Noll and the Steelers for Pittsburgh-area media from 1972-86.

Chuck Noll loved collecting and drinking fine wines, a tip to the remarkable persona of one of the best coaches of all time. He was complex, sophisticated and classy, and like a fine wine, Noll aged one of the NFL's greatest football dynasties in the 1970s.

On Fridays during an NFL season, Noll was gracious enough to take 15 to 20 minutes of his time to give me a one-on-one interview in advance of a game. When asked questions about the team or injuries, Noll measured his words. If you brought up a football subject in which he could educate you, he would be expansive, but some of the best conversations I had with him didn't involve football.

Noll, who died in his sleep Friday in suburban Pittsburgh, would discuss weather patterns at length. I learned about the "lake effect"' around the Pittsburgh area from Noll and how Lake Erie created less snow for Pittsburgh and more for areas closer to Buffalo. I learned about thunderstorms. I learned about wines. Often, Noll would discuss subjects he had heard driving into work on the local National Public Radio station. He wasn't trying to steer the interview away from football, he was just being himself.

Above all, Noll was a teacher. He was well-educated, communicated well and studied everything. It was one of the reasons he was a Hall of Fame coach. The Pittsburgh Steelers were perhaps the best-prepared team in their era because of Noll's knowledge and style. At the time, some coaches were beginning to use computers, and some delegated complex game plans to assistants or interns. Noll didn't do that. He would work his weekly preparation by hand.

What the players appreciated most was his consistency. He was clear about what he wanted from them. Rarely did he raise his voice in team meetings. He presented game plans that players could execute in practice and perform flawlessly in games. That consistency created a great work environment. Some coaches are control freaks, but that wasn't Noll. He gave the players freedom to speak their minds. If the words got too out of control, he would mention it to them. Because of Noll, the Steelers rarely said disrespectful things about opponents. The result was a classy team.

One of the most amazing things about Noll was his efficiency. He drove to work in Pittsburgh through the Fort Pitt Tunnel around 8 a.m. and left for home at the dinner hour. Noll stressed to his assistants that they should finish their work around the same time so they could spend time with their families. As he would drive home listening to NPR, his mind was clear. His team was prepared. His coaches were ready. By Sunday, the most talented team in football was ready to dominate.

I'll never forget a training camp interview in which Noll revealed that he might be allergic to wine. Reporters were stunned because they knew his love for wines. Noll lamented that he might have to give his prime wines to his son. Fortunately, a few weeks later, he found out he didn't have a wine allergy, and all was right with the world.

Noll always treated reporters with respect, but he did try to keep a distance from them. Success breeds intense reporting. The Steelers were one of the hot franchises during their Super Bowl run, and everyone wanted to know everything about them. Practices were open, assistants were allowed to talk and players were always available. We all had a laugh when Noll's son told him he wanted to be newspaper reporter. That created an allergic reaction. He laughed at how poorly that thought went over in the Noll household. Chuck liked reporters, but he was relieved when his son chose another occupation.

One subject that was taboo was his mentor, Paul Brown. Noll came from great stock. Brown coached him. He worked on a great Sid Gilman staff. He was Don Shula's defensive coordinator. But if you broached a Brown question, he would get a little upset. Brown coached the Cincinnati Bengals around the time Noll was transforming the Steelers into a power. Those games were fascinating. For a few years, Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson used Bill Walsh's play calling to challenge the Steelers physically and mentally. After games, the Steelers would say how mentally fatigued they were from the mind games the Bengals played. But Noll guided the franchise through almost every challenge. He will be missed.