Review by Budd Bailey
You might have heard a lot about the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. Coming from a 1-13 season in 1969, the Steelers built up their base of talent quickly and won four Super Bowls between the 1970 and 1979 seasons.
The Steelers sent a huge contingent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton when all was said and done. Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Mike Webster and Jack Ham have all been inducted.
Someone had to coach those guys, of course. Sure enough, Chuck Noll led the Steelers to a 4-0 record in Super Bowls. It was part of a record of excellence that lasted almost a quarter-century in Pittsburgh, one that will be remembered for the lifetimes of their fans.
It’s interesting that the players have become more famous than their coach, which probably isn’t true for most dynasties. Part of the “problem” is that Noll was never good about talking about himself, and didn’t really like doing it anyway. He went to work, did the best he could, and went home. Day after day.
Therefore, Noll’s story is something of a doughnut – we never knew what was in the middle of it. It took Michael MacCambridge to supply the filling.
MacCambridge put together a biography called “Chuck Noll” over the course of three years. It answers the basic questions about the now-legendary coach. What was he like? What did he value? Who surrounded him?
The author spent three years tracking down people and facts surrounding Noll, who died a few years before this book was completed. He was a smart man from Cleveland who loved to teach – indeed, he probably would have been a teacher if he didn’t find his way into football. It led to a playing career with the Browns, and from there he went on to coach. Noll eventually became an assistant coach with the Baltimore Colts, and was a hot commodity as a potential head coach after the Colts’ 1968 season that ended with a surprising loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III.
The Steelers convinced Noll to take over the coaching duties there, and slowly he brought professionalism and judgment to the organization. It took a few drafts to build up the base of talent, but Pittsburgh was in the playoffs in 1972. In January 1975, the Steelers won their first-ever Super Bowl. Western Pennsylvania had always been a blue collar area associated with mining and manufacturing, and it had always loved its football. Now it head a team to celebrate, and Noll was the primary reason why – even though he’d be the last to take credit.
MacCambridge collects stories from those associated with those teams, and it’s amazing how many co-workers say they never had a one-on-one conversation that lasted more than a few minutes. But many of those same people found themselves paraphrasing Noll in terms of passing on life lessons, such as how striving for excellence should never be a part-time portion of your personality.
Apparently visitors to the Noll household could tell what was important as soon as they walked in the front door of his home. There were family photos everywhere, while football mementos were stashed elsewhere. Chuck was the curious sort, always searching to become an expert at flying or photography or stereos or something else. And when a member of the extended family needed help, Noll was there to provide it.
All of the family members contributed to the book – Chuck himself when he was alive (he died in 2014 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s), wife Marianne, son Chris and niece Joanne all were extraordinarily open in discussing the family’s life. About the only person of consequence who didn’t talk to MacCambridge was Bradshaw. The quarterback apparently still hasn’t come to terms with his feelings about his coach, which is more than a little sad.
It’s as simple as this – you won’t read a better biography than “Chuck Noll.” It fills in the gaps in his personality that were public knowledge at the time, and it explains why those Steeler teams were so good. Fans in Pittsburgh certainly have been reading this book since it came out. Those of us who are late to the party will enjoy it thoroughly as well.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)