As far back as high school, Chuck Noll didn't want to let the world in. On the football field, it was one thing. Noll would be a gritty, hard-working lineman who directed his teammates with a coach's assurance even as a teenager, and he didn't mind being noticed there. Remark on his savvy play, compliment his understanding of the game, offer him a college scholarship -- all that was fine.
But off the field? The former Pittsburgh Steelers coach cherished his privacy and didn't say much, even then. Few of his classmates at Benedictine High School knew that he worked at Fisher Brothers meat market on Cedar Road after school, applying his 55 cents an hour to the $150 annual school tuition he paid himself. They didn't know his father, William, suffered from Parkinson's, and that the entire family had to help whenever the disease gripped him.
When Noll arrived at the University of Dayton to play football, hardly anyone knew that he was there entirely because Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy was afraid to let Noll play after an epileptic seizure felled him during a practice before his freshman season.
There was the time in 1979 when Steelers receiver Lynn Swann was Christmas caroling through a Pittsburgh neighborhood and reached Noll's door. The coach invited his star receiver inside, played the ukulele for him, showed him pictures of rare birds that he'd taken himself, was relaxed and casual and chatted for two hours.
As Swann walked out the door, he wondered who the man was that he'd just met.
"Chuck always seemed to have a real distance between himself and developing a real personal relationship with players," Swann said.
Chuck Noll is 76 now, and cherishes his privacy more than ever. His football days, the ones where he led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles, are over. Debilitating back problems limit his movement, and close friends whisper of glimpses of the first stages of Alzheimer's. Some days are good. He recently played nine holes of golf near his home in Bonita Springs, Fla., with his nephew. But those days come less often than before.
"It's almost like he's disappeared," former Miami coach Don Shula said recently. "You never see him."
Shula's perfect Dolphins of 1972 a big scare in the AFC title game before Miami claimed a 21-17 victory at Three Rivers Stadium.He was a man of few words even when he was at the top of his game, and he remains that way now that he is out of the public eye. Even so, for Clevelanders in particular, it is hard to forget Noll. He is the foremost reason the Browns-Steelers rivalry that was once so lopsided toward Cleveland became so heated and venomous. He was the one who turned around a 29-9 Browns advantage when he began coaching in Pittsburgh in 1969 to a 50-34 Cleveland edge by the time he retired in 1991.
As the Steelers now lead the series, 58-55, and have won the past 10 contests with their turnpike rival, Noll is held as another example of a homegrown product who got away from Cleveland.
Born and bred on the city's East Side, he attended Benedictine, went to college in Dayton and returned to Cleveland to play for the Browns as one of coach Paul Brown's messenger guards who rotated in on every down. He used Brown's own style against the Browns once he became head coach in Pittsburgh, combining a passion for teaching the game with his own sparse coaching style.
He never rallied his team with pep talks. He discouraged flamboyant demonstrations on the field. He never even spoke of any special venom for Cleveland when coaching Pittsburgh. Noll is a private man, a man of few words who chooses what to say when with great care, but whose impact still reverberates.
The Steelers of the 1970s, the Steel Curtain crew that dominated opponents with its stifling defense, was a direct reflection of Noll's personality. Stingy, demanding and hard-working, they exemplified traits Noll learned growing up in a house near Cleveland's E. 74th Street. Noll lived in the same house where his mother grew up with her 12 siblings. His father was a butcher, his mother worked for a florist. He was the youngest of three siblings by eight years, which at times made him feel like an only child.
"We never had much, but we always thought we didn't have to have those things," said his sister, Rita Deininger, who now lives in Bedford. "We had one another, and that is what really made us a good family."
Chuck Noll dreamed of going to Benedictine as a child, so he started working after school in seventh grade and saved enough money so that he had two years of tuition by the time he began high school. He was made a lineman when he had trouble holding onto the football as a fullback, and his tenacious play helped Benedictine earn an undefeated season in 1948, its first.
Education was the highest priority, however, as he graduated 28th in a class of 252 -- and he began working on the teaching side during his early years on the football team.
Once, when Benedictine was playing Holy Name and had the team pinned back on its 10-yard line to punt, Noll rushed over to his center, Ray Gembarski. Noll had a brainstorm to pull one teammate off the line, and have Gembarski rush in and block the punt.
"And by God, it happened," Gembarski said. "I blocked the punt.
"He was competitive all the time -- that's what I mean when I talk about him trying to coach out there. He knew what he was doing."
He was such a natural teacher that he was still instructing when he began playing at Dayton after his Notre Dame dream fell through. Though he was a late addition to the Flyers team, he took charge from the start.
"He was really into coaching in that he would tell you something and you'd say, 'That's not the way it is, Chuck,'" said Len Kestner, Noll's Dayton roommate. "And he'd say, 'Yes, that's the way it is.'"
That's how he earned the nickname "The Pope" -- for his unbending belief that his philosophy of football was always correct.
"I used to say, 'What the hell, are you infallible?'" Kestner said. "But he was very firm in his convictions. He was a very humble person, but very strong in his convictions."
Paul Brown liked what he saw in Noll, drafted him to be one of his guards in 1953, and Noll's football education accelerated. Brown believed in the art of teaching the game, and Noll was an eager student.
High school: Benedictine
College: University of Dayton
Professional career: Played guard for Cleveland Browns 1953-59.
Coaching career: L.A./San Diego Chargers, assistant coach, defense (1960-65); 1966-68 -- Baltimore Colts, assistant defensive backs coach (1966-69); Pittsburgh Steelers head coach (1969-91).
Accomplishments: Won four Super Bowls with Steelers, 1975, '76, '79 and '80. Was 209-156-1 all-time with the Steelers. Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Named NFL Coach of the Year in 1989. Was 25-21 against the Browns.
"He grew up like I did under the Paul Brown School of Football," said Shula, the Grand River native who played for the Browns from 1951-53. "That was Paul Brown's main attribute -- he, too, was
He was an actual teacher, too, to supplement his income. Because Noll's football contract paid only $5,000 annually, he worked as a teacher at Holy Name, and sold insurance on the side.
By 1959, Noll had lost his job with the Browns to John Wooten, and realized his future would be in continuing his teaching career -- in coaching.
Noll's first stop was in the American Football League, as a defensive line coach for the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers. In six years with the Chargers, the team won five division titles and one AFL championship. He soon slid over to coach the linebackers and secondary, and the Chargers led the AFL in pass defense each of his last three seasons.
He joined the Baltimore Colts in 1966 working under Shula on a staff where four of the five assistants later became NFL head coaches, along with Bill Arnsparger, Don McCafferty and John Sandusky. Again in charge of defense, Noll's coaching philosophy began to solidify. The 1968 team set an NFL record for fewest points allowed with 144.
"Chuck was just a natural teacher," Shula said. "He explained how to do things and wrote up the techniques. He was one of the first coaches I was around that wrote up in great detail all of the techniques used by players -- for example, the backpedal and the defensive back's position on the receiver. He was
After three years of polishing, when Penn State coach Joe Paterno spurned the Steelers' head coaching advances, Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney liked what he saw in Noll. He liked the way Noll evaluated players and the way he showed no prejudices. And he liked how Noll was a true teacher who would succinctly break down goals and plans.
In Noll's first team meeting with the 1969 Steelers, in fact, he told players that the goal was to win the Super Bowl. A few players snickered -- the Steelers were coming off a 2-11-1 season in 1968, after all. Even so, those players weren't at training camp for much longer. "Mean" Joe Greene, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle, was in his first year in the NFL but understood what Noll was saying.
"Our goal wasn't necessarily that year or the next year or the next year," Greene said. "But the goal was to win the Super Bowl. He set it in place. The ideas and philosophy were implanted in us. ... What he was instilling in everybody there was the mind-set and the belief in what we were doing, and the belief in one another."
From that day on, Noll built the Steelers in his image -- gritty, tough and focused. After Pittsburgh went 1-13 his first year, they improved each of the next three, finishing 11-3 in 1972. He melded Greene with quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Swann and running back Franco Harris, sewing together a team that would send nine players and Noll to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It was a conglomeration of fiercely individual personalities -- he battled with Bradshaw through the years -- but Greene said Noll had a gift of allowing players to be themselves within the team system. Only when behavior became detrimental to the team did Noll say something.
Greene earned his "Mean" nickname for his growling anger and temper. Once, after Greene erupted at a referee, Noll finally approached his star defensive tackle.
"You know, Joe," Noll said, "those officials are people, too. They don't like being talked to that way."
"He just said it very matter-of-factly," Greene said. "And from that day on, I changed how I responded to those guys. It was something about Chuck and the way he goes about his words."
Noll was so determined to stay out of the spotlight that in his 23 years in Pittsburgh, he agreed to just one endorsement deal -- as a favor to a friend for Pittsburgh National Bank. Noll didn't realize his mug would be plastered on billboards all over town, and he grimaced each time he drove by one. He didn't have a TV show or radio show, didn't write books.
"It's just my nature," he once told Sports Illustrated. "I've always been that way. I've always avoided publicity. I've never been good copy at any stage of my life. I don't strive for it, because I don't think it's important whether I'm good copy or not. The two can go together, if that's your personality, but every person on this earth is unique. I've never tried to pattern myself after anybody. You have to be what you are, and this is what I am."
A man of few words is never a good quality for reporters. At one Steelers' Super Bowl appearance, someone reportedly posted a note in the press box bulletin board that said: "Highlights of Chuck Noll's Press Conference." A large white space sat underneath.
Media vote for the NFL coach of the year, which might explain why Noll never received the award until 1989. He didn't get it once over the span of 1974 to 1979, when the Steelers won four Super Bowls.
"That's a crock," Swann said. "I think that was one of the worst disgraces by those who voted for the award throughout the '70s."
But that was Noll's choice. Occasionally, he would show glimpses of his world -- he loved fine wine, flew planes, enjoyed boating, loved photography and taught his nephews about the beauty of nature and rare birds. Occasionally, but not often.
"I lived a block away from him, literally, for six years of my career," said former Steelers safety Mike Wagner. "He didn't say, 'Hey, come on over anytime you have questions.' He kept his social life private and his interests to himself."
His fingerprints are still all over this Steelers-Browns rivalry, with a 25-22 record against Cleveland -- though he never felt any extra incentive to top his hometown team. Greg Rufus, the son of Noll's Benedictine coach, Joe, said Noll once showed up at a Cleveland hospital to visit his dad unannounced -- the morning of the Browns-Steelers game.
"Chuck, what are you doing here?" a flabbergasted Joe Rufus asked.
"Joe, you coach during the week," Noll said. "There's nothing I could do on a Sunday morning that's going to make my team win. My team learns to win Thursday through Saturday."
For Noll, football and life rarely intersected. He was passionate about the game during the week and on the field, but just as vehement about keeping his private life out of view.
So no matter what anyone says, this Browns-Steelers game didn't incite extra emotion from Noll, didn't cause him to plead with his players to win one for him because the city and the team once meant so much to him.
And his players never wanted to see that.
"Then I couldn't tell you what I'm telling you about Chuck," Greene said. "That wouldn't have been him. In my view, it would have devalued him. He still would have been Chuck, but that wouldn't have been him if he'd shown those kinds of emotions. Chuck was special."
Even if not many have ever been able to see it.