Immaculate Misconception

Biographer Michael MacCambridge reveals Noll to be a thinker, a private family man, a connoisseur and a consummate leader — as four Super Bowl wins attest.


Noll in his final season. He retired after going 7–9 in 1991, completing a 23-year tenure as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Photo provided by university of pittsburgh press, courtesy of the pittsburgh steelers.

 

The challenge, as author Michael MacCambridge came to understand, was to chronicle not just Chuck Noll the football coach but also Chuck Noll the man.
“In the telling of the story, I was trying to find some way to balance the personal life — and Chuck’s own experience with his wife and his family — with the professional stuff,” MacCambridge explains of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work.”

What resulted from a project MacCambridge started to contemplate seriously in summer 2012 is thoroughly researched and remarkably detailed. It’s a fascinating portrayal that ultimately became, in MacCambridge’s estimation, “a love story” most of all. It’s one that goes far beyond the love that came to be shared by a town and its football team. 
 


Noll’s senior portrait from Benedictine High School in Cleveland, Class of 1949.

photo via University of Pittsburgh Press, courtesy of family of chuck noll

 

Some 25 years after he retired from the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 1991 season, and a little more than two years after his death on June 13, 2014, Noll for the most part remains a mystery to many, even to the most loyal and enthusiastic members of Steelers Nation.

As MacCambridge observes, the only head coach in NFL history with a perfect 4-for-4 record in Super Bowls “was not forgotten, exactly. But neither was he celebrated.

“He never found the place in the public imagination that (Vince) Lombardi and others did.”

Noll was as responsible for that as anyone, shunning the limelight even while building and maintaining a dynasty.

And upon his retirement after 23 seasons at the Steelers’ helm, Noll subsequently “disappeared like Johnny Carson,” says MacCambridge.
 


A high point of his years at the University of Dayton: Football co-captains Noll, left, and Ed Clemens accept the trophy after Dayton won the Governor’s Cup near the end of the 1952 season.

photo via university of pittsburgh press, courtesy of the university of dayton.

 

The coach didn’t embark upon a second career in media or team management. He didn’t open a chain of steakhouses bearing his name or enlist anyone to write his autobiography.

He was just gone.

“Because of this, Noll remains an elusive enigma,” MacCambridge concludes.

Eventually, Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney became determined to do something about that.

“Dan Rooney would go to the league offices in New York, and he’d come back and say, ‘All they ever talk about is Bill Walsh,’” says Joe Gordon, the Steelers’ public relations director during Noll’s tenure. “[He’d say,] ‘There’s only one coach who won four Super Bowls, and that’s Chuck Noll, the greatest coach in NFL history.’

“So he got this bug that somebody’s gotta do a biography of Chuck Noll.”
 


Noll impressed the Cleveland Browns with discipline and technique, earning a job as a “messenger guard” as a rookie in 1953.

photo via university of pittsburgh press courtesy of cleveland browns

 

Bill Belichick since has won a fourth Super Bowl, but only Noll has four wins and zero losses in games after which a Lombardi Trophy is awarded.

Walsh, for the record, won three as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, a detail that apparently was never lost on Rooney.

“This festered for a couple of years, and he finally called me and said, ‘We gotta get this thing done,’” Gordon says.

The search for an appropriate author went through longtime NFL executive Joe Browne and eventually led to MacCambridge.

“His credentials are unbelievable,” Gordon says of the Austin, Texas-based author whose work includes “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” (2004), “Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports” (2012) and “The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated” (1997).
 


Noll beside Browns coach Paul Brown. In seven years in Cleveland, Noll absorbed the philosophy of a leader who expected players “to run on their own gas.”

PHOTO VIA UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS COURTESY OF CLEVELAND BROWNS
 

“He’s a brilliant writer, a skilled interviewer and a relentless researcher,” Gordon says.

​MacCambridge came to Pittsburgh in summer 2012 “just to decide if there was enough critical mass to justify a book,” he says.

“At that point I don’t think I knew more than the average fan knew about Chuck Noll. But I certainly knew how successful he was and how reticent he was.”
MacCambridge explored his potential subject with Joe Greene, Rocky Bleier, Jack Ham, Dick Hoak, George Perles and Tony Dungy. Visits with Chuck and Marianne Noll, their son Chris and their niece Joanne also provided “a sense of how private he was and how protective the family was of him,” MacCambridge says.

“But clearly they had agreed the time had come to tell his story.”
 


Noll, his wife Marianne and son Chris, who was born Dec. 22, 1957.

photos via university of pittsburgh press courtesy of family of chuck noll.

 

Noll by then was battling Alzheimer’s disease, but he still retained specific memories and details of his childhood, MacCambridge says.

In more than 300 interviews MacCambridge conducted, others filled in the blanks and eventually shed light where it rarely, if ever, had been shown in a public forum.
So did his study of the massive scrapbooks kept by the Steelers, containing much of the coverage written about the team during Noll’s tenure.

So did the viewing of each Steelers highlight film produced annually by NFL Films, beginning with 1968, the season prior to Noll’s arrival, and running through 1992, the first year after his departure.
 


Dan Rooney, left, prepares to introduce Noll at the 1969 news conference announcing his hiring as the new head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

photo via university of pittsburgh press, courtesy of pittsburgh steelers

 

Access granted by the Noll family included the discovery of a bulletin from Noll’s grammar-school commencement ceremony among the papers he’d saved (integral to MacCambridge’s efforts to contact childhood friends) and the chance to watch the video of Joanne’s wedding reception, held at the Noll home.

“The Nolls are private people, and I’m grateful they agreed to go outside their comfort zone and cooperate for the book,” MacCambridge says. “They may even share some of the frustration that Chuck’s players and assistants felt: It has to be maddening to work in close quarters with one of the greatest coaches ever, see him accomplish so much over the years — but then when you turn on the TV on Sundays and people are discussing the great coaches, his name rarely comes up.”
Noll’s life, if not his life’s work, included attending the Cleveland Indians’ parade after that team won the 1948 World Series and working as, among other things, a pin-setter and a grave-digger to earn the $125 needed for a year’s tuition at Benedictine High School in Cleveland.

On the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he first had to overcome being sent home from Notre Dame before freshmen classes had started by then-head coach Frank Leahy after suffering an epileptic seizure on the practice field, and being passed over for the head coaching position at the University of Dayton as his career as a messenger guard and linebacker for Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns was ending.

“Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work” digs deep enough into the Super Steelers to include the play called that resulted in “The Immaculate Reception” (“half-right, split-opposite, 66 out-and-in”).
 


Noll and his sister Rita, with whom he shared a deep bond, during their final visit in spring 2010 in Pittsburgh.

photo via university of pittsburgh press, courtesy family of chuck noll

 

But it is much more than just another celebration of the Team of the 1970s.

“The thing that struck me when I was going back over it: When he started coaching in 1969, the cult of personality among coaches was at an all-time high,” MacCambridge says. “It was about Lombardi of course, but also Tom Landry and George Allen. Everybody had a mystique.

“Chuck attempted to demystify all that and distill the job to its most basic, salient elements, which can be summarized as, ‘coaching is teaching.’”

Noll’s story is one of a man who came to embrace a philosophy that maintained “success was not a fixed point, but an ongoing state of mind, a series of habits and commitments,” on and off the field.

In the end, no commitment would ever mean more to him than the one he had made to Marianne.

“He remained engaged with her and who she was to the very end; that’s the most touching thing for me,” MacCambridge says.

“Somehow, through the connection they had and the constant presence that Marianne kept and [his] Herculean efforts to remain mentally active … they kept that connection.

“That was heroic in its own way, as well.” 

Print and broadcast journalist Mike Prisuta is the host of the Steelers Radio Network pregame show and has covered sports in Pittsburgh since 1985. He writes “Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section” each week for pittsburghmagazine.com and is the sports director for WDVE-FM.
 

Read the book excerpt here

 

Categories: Steelers