Book Excerpt: Head of the Class
Noll’s affinity to educate — ‘Play the way you’ve been coached’ — leads to a super start
Excerpt from the chapter titled “Whatever It Takes” from Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work, by Michael MacCambridge. Copyright © 2016. From the forthcoming book by University of Pittsburgh Press.
Noll looks on during a 1969 preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals, with his former coach Paul Brown on the opposing sideline.
photos via University of Pittsburgh Press, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers
The playoffs began in Pittsburgh on Sunday, December 23, 1974, when the Steelers played host to O. J. Simpson and the Buffalo Bills. Simpson was a year past his electrifying 2,003-yard season. But he was still the engine of the Bills’ run-dominated offense.
What Pittsburgh unveiled on the day was a slight wrinkle that would play an increasingly large role as the playoffs wore on. It was a variation on the 4–3 defense which the team called the “Stunt 4–3,” an alignment in which Joe Greene took a different stance, cocked diagonally on the nose of the center from his left tackle position. In the geometric jujitsu of line play, a force like Greene at that point in the line play could wreak havoc. Ernie Holmes was lined up shaded inside the other guard. If the Bills’ center moved to block Holmes, Greene had a clear path to the quarterback. If the center double-teamed Greene with the right guard, Holmes was in perfect position to demolish the play. Simpson was held to 49 yards rushing. “It started out as a pass technique,” Chuck later explained, “but we found it really screws up the offensive blocking. It’s an aggressive defensive play because our front four isn’t sitting and reading the offense. Instead, they’re the ones making things happen.”
From one perspective, installing a new base defensive alignment at the start of the playoffs was folly. But then, so was changing your starting quarterback three times during the regular season. It was that kind of season.
Pittsburgh scored 26 points in the second quarter en route to a 32–14 win. It was Bradshaw’s best performance of the season (12 of 19 passing for 203 yards and no interceptions, plus 48 yards rushing on 5 carries).
With the Raiders knocking off the two-time defending champion Dolphins the day before, Pittsburgh would go on the road, back to Oakland, for the 1974 AFC title game.
“We’re happy to have the opportunity to play them again,” said Chuck. He also announced that the team wouldn’t spend the week in Palm Springs, as they had before the playoff game in 1973. Bradshaw, for one, was happy: “It’s too warm out there,” he said. “We get too soft.”
By Monday morning, Chuck was well aware of Raider coach John Madden’s quote, amid the postgame jubilation after Oakland knocked off the two-time defending champion Dolphins, “When the two best teams in football get together, anything can happen.”
The two best teams. Chuck cared very little about pregame talks, but the assumption grated. He said nothing to his assistant coaches that day, nor to Dan, nor to the PR man Joe Gordon.
But Tuesday morning, Chuck strode in to the team meeting — held at the large conference room in the Three Rivers Stadium — and did something he had rarely done before. He quoted Madden again, in full, and raised his voice slightly for the first part of the quote —When the two best teams in football get together — before slowing down, an octave lower, to complete it. Anything can happen.
Chuck’s jaw was set, and he’d clenched his fists at his side, the telltale sign that he was agitated. “I’ll tell you what anything is,” Chuck said. “Anything is that Oakland isn’t getting to the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is three weeks from now. And the best team in football is right here in this room.”
It was the closest thing to a full-fledged inspirational speech that Chuck’s team would ever receive, and it was greeted with more than the usual affirmations. Greene launched out of his college desk chair, and several other players whooped in affirmation.
“It wasn’t long,” said Jack Ham of the talk. “It wasn’t one of these running speeches kind of thing and, to a man, I’ve got to admit, this one hit a nerve. It hit a nerve for me, and whether we were going to play that way no matter what, maybe we would have, but that did set a tone for the intensity of the week. Not that you needed much. You are playing an AFC Championship Game. You are playing the Raiders. But Chuck set the tone of what this was going to be about.”
On Christmas Day, the Tuesday prior to the game, Marianne and Chris joined Chuck in the basement. She had decorated Chuck’s film projector with a wreath and a red ribbon and surrounded the area with red and green candles. With holiday decorations in place, Chris and Marianne sat down with Chuck while he watched game films of the Raiders.
In the build-up to the game, Chuck was asked about the spotty weather forecast for the game, and how it might affect the Raiders’ often-sloppy field. He said the league office had promised to put a tarpaulin on the field. “I can’t do anything about it,” he added. “Al Davis is in charge of the weather.”
He was even more deadpan when a reporter for the New York Times mentioned the Raiders’ Davis-coined motto, “Pride and Poise,” and asked if the Steelers had pride and poise as well. Chuck’s answer: “Not on our stationery.”
That Sunday afternoon, in Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the Steelers played the game in an angry state. Before the Raiders’ first play from scrimmage, Ernie Holmes was bellowing to the Raiders’ Gene Upshaw that Pittsburgh was “going to kick your ass!” In football terms, that’s what they did. The stunt 4–3 proved particularly lethal as it matched up Greene and Holmes on Oakland’s aging, bruised, undersized veteran center Jim Otto. After the first series — which Greene concluded by beating a double-team block to sack Ken Stabler — the Raiders’ offensive line was on the sidelines with a chalkboard, trying to draw up a suitable response. It never came; the Raiders ran for just 29 yards on the day.
Oakland went ahead in the third quarter, when Cliff Branch beat Mel Blount on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Stabler. The Steelers still trailed 10–3 heading into the fourth quarter, when Harris ran for the game-tying touchdown. From there, the Steelers took over. Two interceptions in the fourth quarter — one by Ham and another by J. T. Thomas — helped put the game away, and Pittsburgh won, 24–13.
“They beat our butts,” said Madden after the game.
The reception at the Pittsburgh International Airport was unprecedented and chaotic, even for the Steelers faithful. As the plane touched down, at 12:56 a.m., more than 10,000 Steelers supporters had crowded into the terminal to greet the team.
The foundation: Noll during his first training camp in 1969, with the first draft pick of the Noll era, Joe Greene of North Texas State.
PHOTOS VIA UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS, COURTESY OF THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS
The challenge awaiting Chuck the next morning was what, if anything, he wanted to do differently than the Colts had done after the 1968 season. When the team gathered Tuesday, he did not tell any cautionary tales about Super Bowl III or the nightmare of recriminations that followed it. But he did warn his players to not invest the game with more importance than it already carried. It was another football game, and the Steelers would treat it as such.
When the Steelers flew to chilly New Orleans on Sunday a week before the game, Chuck brought the players into a banquet room at the Fontainebleu Hotel.
“So the meeting goes, ‘Here is the schedule for the week,’” said Bleier. “There is no curfew tonight or tomorrow night, and Tuesday is media day. We will go to our normal week’s practice as we have done all season long, then we will have Wednesday offense, Thursday defense, combination on Friday as we have done. Nothing will be different. This game isn’t any more important than last week’s game or the game before that. It is just another game.’”
The team reveled in the lack of a curfew that Sunday and Monday night — Andy Russell somehow managed to lose a rental car somewhere in Fat City. Joe Greene didn’t even unpack, just dropped his luggage in the room and headed out with his line mates, L. C. Greenwood, Dwight White, and Fats Holmes. They wound up sitting by the sidewalk in an open-air restaurant along Bourbon Street. “We had you-peel-it shrimp,” said Greene. “And we drank Heineken until they had no more.”
The night left Dwight White with a case of food poisoning and, eventually, admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, which seemed certain to rule him out of the game. Everyone but White reported for meetings Tuesday morning and prepared as usual.
There was a sense that freedom on the first nights in New Orleans, along with the innate confidence that the team had gained, left them looser for the game itself.
That week, Radakovich showed the offensive line old game footage of him playing for Penn State against Jim Brown and Syracuse in the ’50s. Chuck even allowed the players’ wives to stay with them the night before the game.
On the eve of the Super Bowl, Chuck and Marianne and Dan and Pat Rooney dined at a Mexican restaurant in the French Quarter. That Saturday-night meal was marked by an impassioned conversation, Chuck evincing annoyance with all the league-mandated activities that took him, the staff, and the Steelers out of their weekly routines. “Chuck and I got into this big discussion, ‘What’s more important: the package or the product?’” said Pat Rooney. “The league handled everything. You didn’t have much say about it. But you know, just back and forth.”
Bud Grant’s Vikings had been mauled twice — in Super Bowl IV against Kansas City and in Super Bowl VIII against Miami — but they returned to New Orleans intent on running the football against as formidable a defense as they’d ever faced.
It poured down rain in the gray New Orleans morning, and the wind chill made it feel like it was in the low 20s. Prior to the game, equipment manager Tony Parisi was fitting the players for new shoes that he’d gotten from Canada, with spiral cleats. When Dwight White barged into the door of the locker room, his Steelers teammates let out a rousing cheer. He’d lost nearly 20 pounds in the hospital, but he was determined to play.
The players weren’t expecting a rousing speech from their coach, and they didn’t get one. “Play the way you’ve been coached,” Chuck said. “You’re going to have a good time.” After the buildup and the preparation, he had the team’s attention and could have said more. But there was nothing left to say, so he turned and the Steelers headed out for the field.
In the tunnel, before pregame introductions — starters on the Vikings offense and the Steelers defense were being introduced individually — Glen Edwards spied his old Florida A&M teammate, Vikings’ tackle Charles Goodrum, and shouted a greeting. Goodrum looked nervously over to Edwards and didn’t respond. Finally Edwards went over to slap hands and wish Goodrum good luck. But Vikings coach Bud Grant had forbade his players to even speak to the Steelers. Agitated and emboldened, Edwards said, loud enough for everyone in the tunnel to hear, “Okay, I’ll tell you what. Y’all better strap it on, m————–, ’cause you’re about to get your asses whipped!” Once again, the Steelers’ defense would deliver on a guarantee from a member of their defense.
The Vikings had gained 164 yards on the ground against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, and they’d seen the film of the Steelers using the Stunt 4–3 against Oakland. But as in the earlier Super Bowls, they never adapted. Aging center Mick Tinglehoff was overmatched against Greene to begin with, but he had no chance with Greene tilted at an angle, knifing forward at the snap. “The way [Greene] played, he basically charged into the ‘V’ in the neck of the center in such manner so the center could not reach him if it was a strong-side play,” said Bud Carson. “If you weren’t prepared for it, it made the guard totally ineffective.”
The first half had a stultifying feel, to match the cold. The Steelers drove across the 50 twice, close enough for two field-goal attempts, but the elfin Gerela pulled one field goal wide, and then Walden, his holder, bobbled the snap on another attempt. When Fran Tarkenton mishandled a handoff to the Vikings Dave Osborn, the ball squirted free, was accidentally kicked back toward the end zone, where the Vikings’ quarterback scrambled on top of it, just in time to be touched down for a safety.
In the final two minutes of the half, Pittsburgh leading 2–0, Edwards’ pregame words would prove prophetic. The Vikings were driving, nearing the end zone, when Tarkenton threw to John Gilliam, coming across the middle. Edwards hit Gilliam high with a nasty shot — a pair of forearms to Gilliam’s facemask — sending the Vikings’ receiver backward and the football squirting back into the air, where Blount made the interception. The teams got to halftime with the score still 2–0.
Bradshaw was unabashed at halftime. “We’re whipping their asses off and still ain’t got but two points!” he said. Mansfield allowed that two points just might be enough. Chuck spoke to Bradshaw about finding tight end Larry Brown more often.
The second half began with more special teams calamities, Gerela slipping on the wet turf during the kickoff, which squibbed in and out of the hands of the Vikings fullback Bill Brown, before the Steelers’ Marv Kellum recovered. Harris’s outside run to the left, behind a stellar block from pulling right guard Gerry Mullins, put the Steelers up 9–0.
The Vikings were completely toothless, their vanilla offensive schemes easily stifled by the defense. Russell had studied their tendencies so well — and could see that they were stubbornly sticking with them — that he would yell up to Holmes and White, “Hey, it’s gonna be 17 straight! Play it . . . left hand, left shoulder, Fats.”
That’s where the score stayed until another special teams miscue, Minnesota’s Matt Blair breaking free to block Walden’s punt, resulting in the Vikings’ Terry Brown recovering in the end zone to make the score 9–6 (though the Vikings then failed to convert the extra point). With 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the entire season on the line, the ball was in the hands of the Steelers and Terry Bradshaw.
He’d grown a bristly playoff beard, and the facial hair gave him an aspect of maturity. Five years of playing under Chuck had given him a toughness; if he was not quite assured, he possessed a deeper understanding of his role. Now, he expertly mixed the runs to Harris and Bleier with key passes — including third-down throws to Larry Brown for 30 yards and a 6-yard toss to Bleier on third and five. On third and goal from the 4, the Steelers called time out. A touchdown would nearly seal the game. Being held to a field goal would leave Pittsburgh vulnerable to a late Vikings drive.
On the sidelines, Bradshaw deferred to his coach. “What do you want to run?” he asked.
“Goal line three thirty-three,” said Chuck. It was a run-pass option, meant to give Bradshaw time to make his decision and punish the Vikings if they bunched up for another inside run.
Chuck watched quietly as Bradshaw returned to the field, called the play, rolled out to elude the rush, and found Larry Brown open in the end zone. The pass was sharp and accurate and gave the Steelers a 10-point lead that, with the way the defense was playing, seemed insurmountable. Wagner intercepted Fran Tarkenton on the Vikings’ next play, and the celebration on the sidelines soon began.
Joe Greene had dominated the game, made an interception and recovered a fumble, but Franco Harris won the MVP for his then-record 158 rushing yards. Now Greene and Harris lifted Chuck up in their arms — not quite to their shoulders — and carried him off the field. Roy Blount Jr. had returned to spend time with the Steelers for the game and later wrote about “the winning smile on Noll’s face. I had never seen Noll’s mouth so wide open. It was as though the Dragon Lady had gone all soft around the eyes and said, ‘Oh, baby.’”
In the commotion of the locker room after the game, the team and the commissioner celebrated Art Rooney, as the Chief — his ever-present cigar lodged firmly in his jaw — accepted the Super Bowl trophy. Chuck mostly stayed out of camera range. “Chuck never wanted to be in the front row,” said Jack Ham.
Then came the congratulations, the press interviews, the return to the hotel room, and the handshake with Marianne.
All through the scenes of celebration, Chuck’s smile was genuine. Only the words were forced. Even that night, at the Steelers’ victory party, he was still not able to articulate the emotional weight of the accomplishment. “I remember going into his room that night,” said Andy Russell. “I don’t know if a number of us decided to congratulate him. And he was like, ‘Okay, guys. This is why we work. This is why we pay the price, blah, blah, blah.’ He wasn’t one of those guys who was gonna run around the hallways, all excited.”
“It was one of my early lessons,” said Chris Noll. “My father liked a good party, a small one, at home. But Super Bowls, he was always kind of . . . he cares about the doing and once the doing is over it is a huge letdown. Even though you won.”
Chuck wasn’t totally oblivious to the emotion. Of the last drive, he said of his team, “You could see it in their eyes; we were going to be number one.”
On NBC’s Super Bowl postgame broadcast, Curt Gowdy was attempting to put the win in perspective. “They’re still a very young team,” said Gowdy. “I would say their best years are still ahead of them. A team that may not have reached its peak, and their future opponents are going to have some trouble.”
Throughout the 1974 season, Noll vacillated between starting quarterbacks Joe Gilliam and Terry Bradshaw (above).
PHOTOS VIA UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS, COURTESY OF THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS
With several decades of hindsight, the chaotic circumstances in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl in the 1974 season remain unprecedented. There have been a scattered few instances in which a future Super Bowl champ changed quarterbacks during the season (Washington in 1987; Baltimore in 2000). For the state of constant flux, the closest analog may have been the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, who began the year with Len Dawson, replaced him with Jacky Lee when he was injured, replaced him with Mike Livingston when Lee was injured, then went back to Dawson — then Livingston again after Dawson was re-injured — then back to Dawson for the end of the regular season and the playoffs. But that shuffling was all based on the future Hall of Famer Dawson’s gimpy knee. The ’74 Steelers were in a different realm with three different quarterbacks starting, and all three being benched for poor performance at one time or another during the season. The tinkering, if it had ended in anything other than a Super Bowl title, would have left Chuck exposed to charges of indecisiveness or over-coaching.
Perhaps the re-jiggering really did scar Bradshaw for the rest of his career, as he would argue in later years. But it’s equally likely that the insistence on accountability — that no quarterback would keep the job if he didn’t perform — revealed the true character of each quarterback. Hanratty, though well-liked by his teammates, didn’t have the arm for the job. Gilliam, brilliant, mercurial, in a difficult role with unseen pressures, ultimately buckled (and may have started to buckle before he lost the starting job). Bradshaw — the eternal insecure child, the headstrong, naive country boy who’d spent too many Sundays after awful performances with his head on the steering wheel of his car in the parking lot, sobbing in frustration — kept with it, kept trying, kept studying. He worked to become the quarterback Chuck wanted him to be. Eventually, in 1974, he found the form to lead the Steelers to the title.
The day after the game, back in Pittsburgh, 120,000 revelers gathered in the Golden Triangle despite 26-degree temperatures and 12-mph winds — to toast the champions. In the glow of their victory, it was the team leader Greene who made the definitive statement about the Steelers’ collective mind-set going into the game. “The Man handled it so perfectly, just like he always does,” he said of Chuck. “He told us to stay cool and enjoy it. Almost everybody took the whole week in just that mood, and we had a great time.”
Noll in the parade during his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
PHOTOS VIA UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS, COURTESY OF THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS
A few weeks after the Super Bowl, the phone rang at the Noll home. After Marianne answered, Chuck said, “Hi!” Rather than his usual businesslike tone on the phone, he sounded playful, mischievous.
She knew instantly something was afoot.
“Lord . . . what have you done?”
“If I buy this plane, this man says he’ll teach me how to fly it.”
It was a Beechcraft Bonanza, known colloquially in the flying community as “The Doctor-Killer,” due to its unusual controls (doctors had the means to afford the plane but often not the time to learn how to handle its peculiar flying style).
Chuck loved it. He started building up hours in the midst of the miserable winter weather of 1975. (“Some people fly only when it’s nice,” said Marianne. “But then you never learn how to deal with difficulties.”) Soon he was taking Marianne and Chris out for touch-and-goes and practiced stalls. Others were more circumspect. Lionel Taylor soon refused to ride with Chuck (“No small planes for me,” he said; “if I’m going down, I want it to be on TWA”). Red Manning brought his boys out to the airstrip and let them go up with Chuck. He chose to stay on the ground.
Chuck had rewarded himself and spent that off-season — and several to follow — lost in his new passion. Flying was both a practical and an artistic pursuit. But on a more pragmatic level, it was one of the dwindling few places where he could truly get away.
The month of June became the getaway, the re-set. At the condo on Sanibel Island, the Nolls would unwind, usually with one or more of the Deininger nephews and members of the Manning family.
It was also when Chuck spent the most time with Chris. They would snorkel off the coast of Sanibel, but soon Chuck took Chris and Kenny down to the Florida Keys for scuba diving, going 80 feet down to augment Chris’s seashell collection.
“He did a lot of scuba diving when I was in high school, but that was my passion and he just did it to be with us,” said Chris. “We all learned and became certified.
He would fly me down in his plane just because I loved it. He got excited by it, too. Diving, birds, those were all kind of family things that weren’t his passion, but was a way for the family to do things.”
That summer, on vacation in Florida, the Nolls were walking into a morning Mass when a stranger walked up and said, “Chuck, you look great, you lost some weight!”
Marianne’s thin smile matched Chuck’s, while the 17-year-old Chris stood in shock.
“I was just kind of like, Oh, God,” Chris said. “I remember thinking, ‘We are public now.’ I was offended, but at the same time stunned. And then you started seeing how people recognized him all the time. It was harder to go to the store. But in terms of him and what we did — it didn’t change anything.”
Or perhaps it did. Even the most rudimentary errands — trips to the barbershop and to fill the car with gas — were now obstacle courses of adoring fans. People remained polite, but they were more invasive, more insistent, and there were a lot more of them.
For his part, Chuck strived to stay out of the public eye. He hadn’t done a TV show in years, and for the most part avoided any endorsement offers. “He did one, for Pittsburgh National Bank,” said Chris. “He did it as a personal favor for a guy. The ad said, ‘Save $500, get this free shirt, and you’ll look good, too.’ It showed him wearing the shirt, smiling, with his arms folded in front of a blackboard that had C-15T diagramed on it, a tackle trap. He thought it was going to be a one-shot deal, a newspaper ad, but they put it on billboards all over town, one of them just as you enter the Fort Pitt tunnel. He had to see it every day when he drove to work, and every time he passed it he groaned.”
Even going out became a problem. “In the first couple of years, there wasn’t an issue there,” said Marianne. “People weren’t that interested in the Steelers. And then it got crazy. But the funny thing is, everybody will know he is in the room or at the airport or something. But nobody comes over until one person does. Then you are descended upon.” Chuck was unvaryingly gracious, but uncomfortable, with the constant public attention.
“Pittsburgh has this mentality of ownership,” said Patricia Rooney. “You’re the head coach and you won and now you’re ours. I think they enjoyed it but I think they were a very reserved, very quiet couple. I think up to a point it was okay. But they sure were not prepared for it.”