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Chuck Noll, Steelers coach who won 4 Super Bowls, dies at 82

By Gerry Dulac

McClatchy-Tribune

PITTSBURGH -- Success was never a destination for Chuck Noll. It was not a road that had an ending, rather always a new beginning. It was a journey, a path that never allowed for complacency or made room for satisfaction. Along the way, the lesson he instructed was always the same, whether it was life or football: Getting to the top is not nearly as difficult as staying there.

No head coach in National Football League history has ever enjoyed as much success as Charles Henry Noll, the only coach to win four Super Bowl trophies. And he did it in a six-year span of the 1970s in which the Steelers, the franchise he transformed from doormat to dynasty, became one of the most dominating teams of any NFL era.

Noll died in his sleep Friday night from natural causes in his Sewickley, Pa., home, leaving behind a legion of admirers that includes former players, coaches and thousands of Steelers fans. He was 82 and had been in ill health for a number of years with Alzheimer's disease, a heart condition and back problems.

"He will go down as the guy who helped create the mystique that exists now with the Steelers," said former coach Bill Cowher, who replaced Noll in 1992 and accumulated 161 victories and one Super Bowl title in 15 seasons with the Steelers, second only to Noll's 209 victories in 23 seasons.

The late broadcaster Myron Cope once dubbed him the "Emperor," the leader of what eventually would morph into Steelers nation. And his professional journey eventually landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, alongside nine of the players he coached during their Super Bowl halcyon days.

But, along the way, Noll always traveled with the same dose of humility and purpose, never seeking attention and always trying to prepare his players for a career after football -- a stage he always referred to as "their life's work."

"He had a really interesting perspective on life," said former linebacker Andy Russell, who was in his fourth NFL season when Noll became head coach in 1969. "He'd tell us life is a journey and you never arrive. He was always telling us at some point to find our life's pursuit. I love the guy. He was a tremendous mentor in my life."

Born and raised in Cleveland, Noll and his wife, Marianne, maintained a condominium in Sewickley while also living in Bonita Springs, Fla., never wanting to abdicate their ties to Pittsburgh, which Noll helped transform into the "City of Champions" in the 1970s.

"He had a great curiosity about things totally unrelated to football or sports," said former Steelers publicist Joe Gordon, who has remained one of Noll's closest friends. "He has an amazing appetite for knowledge. It's incredible. Even in the later years, he's the same way. That's the thing that always impressed me about him."

"He was a hell of a man," Gordon said last night. "He was special. He was not your typical football coach, that's for sure."

Noll was a licensed pilot and sailor and was so well-versed in wines, cooking, gardening and home repairs that Cope, a longtime friend, referred to him as a "Renaissance man."

Once, upon arriving at Cope's Upper St. Clair home to tape a pregame radio show in the broadcaster's basement studio, Noll immediately asked about a stereo system that was sitting on the floor, not set up for use. Cope told Noll he had been unable to hook it up.

"Well, out came the spectacles from the pocket and, for 20 minutes, he sets up the stereo," Cope said. "From them on, I called him my handyman."

Noll was 34, the youngest head coach in NFL history, when the Steelers hired him on Jan. 27, 1969, after Penn State coach Joe Paterno turned down an offer to coach the team. At the time, Noll was in his third season as a secondary coach with the Baltimore Colts under Don Shula. Before that, he spent six seasons with the San Diego Chargers under coach Sid Gillman.

Even as a player, Noll was so smart that former Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown employed him as a messenger guard who relayed the plays to the quarterback. But, at age 27, Noll retired as a player because he wanted to coach.

After winning his first game and losing 13 in a row his rookie season with the Steelers, Noll slowly transformed the hapless franchise into winners, going 5-9 in 1970 and 6-8 in 1971 before leading the Steelers to their first-ever playoff appearance in 39 years in 1972. And their first-ever playoff game even had a magical ending -- Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception that beat the Raiders, 13-7.

Two years later, the Steelers won their first of four Super Bowls under Noll, beating the Minnesota Vikings, 16-6.

"Chuck was an innovator, believe me," said former Houston Oilers coach, the late O.A. "Bum" Phillips, whose team staged several epic battles against the Steelers in the 1970s, twice in the AFC Championship game. "He was really intelligent, and most of us coaches aren't in the real intelligent class. His players played hard and clean. They were tough now, don't get me wrong. They'd knock your head off and hand it to you. But he believed in playing fair. He lived his life that way and coached that way."

When he presented him for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on July 31, 1993, team president Dan Rooney said of Noll: "I would like to thank him for what he did for all of us. Pittsburgh became the most livable city. The Steelers were the standard which every team in the National Football League tried to emulate. All of us became committed to being the best, including the fans."

It was a special time. It was fun when the road to the Super Bowl ended in Pittsburgh."

Noll, who received his degree in secondary education at the University of Dayton, once said he would have been a history teacher if he wasn't a football coach. Nonetheless, he was a teacher, a professor, and his classroom was the football field. He gave his players the "how to" -- his words for teaching them the way to block, the way to pull, the way to trap, the way to run.

Noll's son, Chris, is a history and English teacher at a private girls school in Farmington, Conn.

"He wasn't one who put his arm around you and pumped you up," said former running back Rocky Bleier. "His way was, 'I don't have time to motivate you. My job is to take self-motivators and show them how to become better.' He wasn't very comfortable at having to go pat guys on the back or jack them up. He will not go down in the annals of history as a great, halftime rah-rah guy."

Said Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham: "Chuck always said that if he has to waste time or spend time motivating players, he's going to get rid of those kind of people. He coined the phrase 'self-starters.' I always knew was going to be fair, no matter if you were (Terry) Bradshaw or the 45th guy on the team."

To those who didn't know him, and even to some of his players, Noll was viewed as cold, distant, something of an enigma. Once, he kept his hands in his pockets and refused to shake hands with Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche after a 1984 game because he didn't like Wyche's coaching style.

After another game in 1987, Noll grabbed former Oilers coach Jerry Glanville with one hand and angrily waggled a finger at him with his other, threatening to punch out Glanville because he felt the Oilers were deliberately trying to injure his players

"He told me the first time we played, 'Now, I'm not going to come across the field and shake hands with you,' " Phillips said. "When the game is over, I'm going to go ahead and do it because I just want you to know, win or lose, that's the right thing to do.' I said fine, Chuck. I didn't want to make him mad, not with all those players he had."