Charles Henry Noll is the first NFL head coach to win four Super Bowl championships.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on this date in 1932, he was the youngest of three children raised by a butcher and florist. Noll played youth football with Harold Owens, nephew of Olympic track star Jesse Owens, and got a job in seventh grade so he could afford to attend Benedictine High School, a private, Catholic, college preparatory school for boys and alma mater of former pro golfer Tom Weiskopf [Daily Dose, July 14]. Noll was a good student—graduating 28th in a class of 252—while also excelling on the football field, where he was an All-State running back and tackle. He planned to attend Notre Dame but lost his scholarship after suffering an epileptic seizure at a practice before his freshman year. Noll accepted a scholarship to the University of Dayton, where the “Pope”—so nicknamed for his infallible grasp of the game—served as a lineman, linebacker and co-captain for the Flyers before graduating with a degree in secondary education in 1953.
The Cleveland Browns picked Chuck Noll in the 20th round of the 1953 NFL Draft. Although selected as a linebacker, coach Paul Brown used the undersized Noll as one of his “messenger guards” to shuttle play calls to the quarterback. Noll earned only $ 5,000 per season playing football, so he supplemented his income as a substitute high school teacher and insurance salesman while also attending Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at night. The Browns won the NFL championship in 1955 and 1956 but Noll retired in 1959 after losing his starting guard position to John Wooten. He was 27 years old. The following year, Sid Gillman offered Noll a coaching position with the American Football League’s Los Angeles [later San Diego] Chargers for their inaugural season. In 1966, Noll joined Don Shula [Daily Dose, September 22] as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Colts. On January 12, 1969, the 13-1 Colts, led by a Noll-coached defense that only allowed ten points per game, were 18-point favorites over the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. The Jets won in one of the most stunning upsets in pro football history and, 15 days later, Chuck Noll was introduced as the new head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers after Penn State’s Joe Paterno had turned the job down. The following day, the 1969 NFL Draft was held in New York City.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, founded in 1933, had enjoyed six winning seasons and no championships prior to Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969. Attendance was down and local interest in the team was waning. Steelers fans wanted Noll to choose Notre Dame’s Terry Hanratty, a quarterback and local boy, with the fourth overall pick in the draft. Instead, Noll took a little-known defensive tackle from North Texas State named Joe Greene, who would become the cornerstone of the Steel Curtain defense and best player in franchise history. The Steelers went 1-13 in Noll’s first year and won a coin flip with the Chicago Bears, who had also gone 1-13, for the first overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft. Noll selected quarterback Terry Bradshaw [Daily Dose, September 2] and nabbed cornerback Mel Blount in the third round. He grabbed linebacker Jack Ham the following year and running back Franco Harris in 1972. Four years into the Chuck Noll era, Pittsburgh played in its first playoff game, beating the Oakland Raiders on Harris’ “Immaculate Reception.” Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster were drafted in the next two years and the foundation of the Steelers dynasty was in place. Noll won the Super Bowl in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979—four world championships in six years–and drafted nine future Hall of Famers over a six year period. He won every Super Bowl he ever coached and posted a winning record in 15 of his final 20 seasons before retiring in 1991.
Chuck Noll saved football in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were laughable losers before his arrival but he transformed the team–and the city–with his no frills, disciplined approach and singleness of purpose. In the late 1960’s, Pittsburgh was gripped by the corrosion of the steel industry and the football franchise was rudderless, with mounting losses and empty seats in Pitt Stadium. Chuck Noll’s Steelers grew, evolved and grabbed the NFL by the throat and held on tight for eight glorious years. Noll gave the people of Pittsburgh a reason to be proud as the city struggled to reinvent itself from Steel City to corporate headquarters, allowing them to be champions at a time when not many other things in their lives were successful. In 23 seasons in Pittsburgh, Noll won four Super Bowls, nine division titles and was 209-156-1, including a record of 19-8 in postseason play. Mr. Noll built the “Steel Curtain” Steelers into one of the most dominant teams in pro football history and deserves to be remembered alongside the greats that came before him, including George Halas, Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi. In the 33 seasons before Chuck Noll’s arrival in Pittsburgh, the Steelers had zero championships. In the 44 years since Noll, the Steelers have had a winning record 32 times. He won twice as many Super Bowls as Don Shula or Jimmy Johnson and his total equals that of Vince Lombardi and Tom Laundry combined. In addition, Charles Henry Noll was a pilot, sailor and connoisseur of fine wines. “The Emperor” is the seventh-winningest coach in NFL history and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
“A person who could adapt to a world of constant change. But most of all as a teacher.”– Chuck Noll, on how he wished to be remembered