Chuck Noll became one of the most successful coaches in the NFL and he did it with a team that had previously been persistent losers. He built a team that won four Super Bowls in six year through the draft. Steeler fans know about those glory years, but how many appreciate that Noll learnt his trade in Cleveland where he played until retiring early aged 27.
Boxing Day 1991 should have been just another quiet day in the office for Coach Noll, but when he announced that he was ready to retire, the news reverberated around America. Before he took control of the Steelers, four Lombardi trophies for a team was only a dream so the news of his retirement was big and captured all the sports headlines.
The Pittsburgh Press ran with “Pro football here will never be the same,” and then Bob Smizik went on to say that a great football coach and a great man had walked out on us yesterday.
Pro football in this town will never be the same. It might be better. It might be worse. But never the same. He had a way no one else has. He wasn’t cut from the same cookie cutter that so many coaches are. “He brought dignity and integrity to the coaching profession,” offered Dan Rooney
Smizik described how relaxed Noll had been before a press conference that stunned Pittsburgh and then added how the coach found it difficult to talk about giving up his life’s work and after twelve minutes in front of the press said, “I’d like to leave… if you’ve got enough now before it gets tougher.” But there was one more question. It was from another Pittsburgh icon Myron Cope, the man he was closest to in the media.
Cope wanted to know if Noll had mellowed over the years and the coach replied, “You’d have to ask someone else that. I think I stayed the same, but who knows.”
The retirement was unexpected, but followed a disappointing 7-9 season. The Rooneys were expected to suggest changes to the coaching staff, specifically with Joe Walton whose offensive game plan was much criticised and considered too complicated. Maybe that was the excuse Noll needed to make the enormous decision to leave professional football behind.
COACH NOLL’S PRO FOOTBALL PLAYING CAREER
Noll was drafted by the Browns in 1953 out of the University of Dayton and then spent nearly four decades in the sport as player and coach.
Due to injuries to their starters, Noll alternated at right guard in his rookie season until an injury November 8 in the 34-16 defeat of the Steelers saw him miss a couple of games. Noll was part of the offensive line protecting one of the NFL’s all-time greats, quarterback Otto Graham.
The Browns’ perfect season was foiled on the final day of the regular season when they lost 27-42 to the Eagles before losing by a point to the Lions in the Championship game.
Noll was due to be the starting right guard the following season, but wrenched his left knee during preseason and suffered with a back problem that restricted his playing time. Even when he got onto the field, he suffered. In the win over Washington he lost a couple of teeth due to playing without a face guard.
In the Championship game, the Browns went on to thrash a Lions team 56-10. Detroit were seeking a hat trick of Championships, but with Otto Graham throwing three touchdown passes and running in another three, Cleveland took the honours.
With linebacker Tom Catlin leaving in 1955 to join the Air Force because of the Korean War, Paul Brown moved Noll into the vacant slot which he made his own after competing with Sam Palumbo. Noll also played on special teams, forcing a safety after blocking a punt in the 26-20 win over the Chicago Cardinals.
His interception against the Steelers helped the Browns to a 41-14 victory and his interception returned 14 yards for a touchdown gave the Browns a three-point lead before Frank Gifford kicked a field goal for the Giants to tie the game 35-35. Against the Steelers the following week, he plucked another interception from the air in the Browns 41-14 win.
Noll finished the season with five interceptions and the Browns’ 9-2-1 season took them to the Championship game they won 38-14 defeating the Los Angeles Rams.
For 1956, as the defensive call maker, Noll’s position as linebacker seem assured although he had to overcome some stiff preseason competition. The Browns struggled in their first season without star quarterback Graham who had retired and it was Noll’s fumble recovery he returned 39 yards for a touchdown that opened the scoring when the Browns won only their second game that season.
His interception two weeks later topped a Browns’ defensive performance that held Philadelphia scoreless and with just 71 yards of offense. The dominant effort by the defense ruffled the Eagles’ feathers and Noll was involved in an altercation at the end of the game as a Philadelphia player sought retribution.
Three different quarterbacks were tried as Paul Brown attempted to find winning formulae, but while his defense shone giving up fewer points than any other team, the offense struggled to a 5-7 finish for the season.
The following year Noll was again listed as a linebacker in a defense that Pat Livingston, writing in the Pittsburgh Press, called “the finest defensive team in the game.” Unfortunately, while the team improved its performances, Noll suffered a double fracture of his right forearm in the fifth game of the season, a 17-7 win over the Chicago Cardinals.
He didn’t return for the rest of the campaign while the team finished with a 9-2-1 record and lost the Championship game 14-59 to their old enemy, the Detroit Lions.
After losing his starting linebacker position because of the injury, Noll was slotted in as a guard for 1958 with Coach Brown knowing he had a good backup in the player as a linebacker if needed. Noll would be part of an offensive line that saw 2-year veteran Jim Brown explode with 1,527 yards rushing for the season.
The huge numbers Brown put up for a 12-game season failed to get the Browns to the Championship game. They finished on 9-3, the same as the New York Giants. With no tie breaker in place, they played the Giants in a playoff game they lost 10-0.
In his final year with the Browns, Noll began preseason with the linebackers as Coach Brown evaluated whether he had sufficient guards for the offensive line. Joining Noll in training camp was Dick LeBeau, a fifth round draft pick for the Browns. LeBeau stayed in camp until the final cut to a 36-player roster when he was let go.
As Noll reverted to linebacker again, his flexibility was being recognised. Paul Brown once joked that the other players called Noll, “The Pope – He can do no wrong.” In addition to running in plays from the sidelines in both positions, he sometimes played center on punts.
Noll suffered a bruised foot in preseason that prevented him from playing in the first exhibition game, but he took to the field as a linebacker spot for the rest of preseason.
When Browns offensive guard Gene Hickerson suffered an injury against the Cardinals in week two of the regular season, Noll was moved into his position for their next two games. At 215-pound, Noll was described by UPI as blond, good looking and a little light for a guard, “but makes up for it with speed and alertness and has played the position before.”
Noll filled in at guard when injuries hit the Browns offensive line, but he still had two interceptions in his linebacker role. He justified his “handyman” title and it would have provided a rare insight into all phases of football and contributed to his success as a coach with his versatile playing experience.
How many players won Championships when playing on offense and the following year on defense? Noll proved throughout his football career as player and coach how unique he was.
NOLL TURNS TO COACHING
In January 1960, after conferring with Paul Brown, he applied for the vacant head coach job at his alma mater in Dayton. “It looks like a good opportunity so I just tossed my hat in the ring, “ Noll said. The lack of success in his application didn’t deter him from pursuing a career in coaching.
After talking to Sid Gillman, head coach of the LA Chargers of the AFL, he joined him as a defensive line coach. Also on the coaching staff was Al Davis. A year later, Noll was given more responsibility with a move to defensive backfield coach and coordinator of defense position.
His coaching prowess was being recognised and within a decade he would find himself in Pittsburgh to finish his life’s work.