Gene Collier: Noll left superbly, quietly into night



At the end, Charles Henry Noll left this world just about exactly the way he strode through it for more than eight decades, as quietly and inconspicuously as could be.

As an unintended little salute to a life spent modestly in the deep background, the first email I got about the death of the only coach to win four Super Bowls had his name spelled wrong.

Of that Noll would be bemused.

But you should know that he would absolutely detest what we're doing right now, searching for the words and sentiments that best illuminate our loss, which he would find so unnecessary and, worse, so inefficient. He would urge us then, quietly and in but a few pointed words, to end this exercise and get on with our lives' work.

Even on the practice fields where he turned the Steelers from a bad joke into an enduring empire, Chuck rarely could be heard by anyone save the occasional player he would pull aside for some corrective instruction. He carried no whistle, and yet commanded the attention of everyone attuned and often fearful of his every utterance. When it was time to end one practice period and start another, he would just whistle through his teeth and jog to another station.

Not just an NFL Colossus and not just the most cerebral architect of a dynastic football brand, Noll was among those people you must be grateful just to have encountered in a life.

Though he was by no means a humorist, Noll's wit could gleam like a razor. Once, on the lawn at Saint Vincent College, he was asked when a particular player might return from injury.

"The doctors say it takes an average person four to six weeks to recover," Noll said, "and Chris fits into that category."

See? A second ago there was nothing, and now, blood everywhere.

Once I got in my stupid columnist's head that it would be funny if I could get Noll to address the evident shortage of cheerleaders around the club, the kind that had been making so many NFL sidelines gyrate.

"Would it help us win?" he said, very nearly smiling, but without turning his head.

"Would it hurt?" I said.

And then he did turn his head toward me. Slowly. And oh the glare. It was clear he would not be taking any follow-up questions on that topic.

Noll encounters were best in the summer, which he considered the start of the school year. He was Dean of Students.

Over some 30 years, the best thing I ever saw in Latrobe was probably Chuck Noll conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony, a good part of which had arrived one evening right after dinner for a short concert. Though he hated his minimal public relations responsibilities and harbored a loathing for gimmicky that ran deep into his own playbook, Noll took a position in front of some of the world's greatest musicians without an ounce of self-consciousness.

This was no bear-on-a-unicycle show.

Noll wanted to do this.

He loved music. Played guitar. And his hands that night moved with the purpose of a conductor, with rhythm and purpose and even flourish. The smile he wore that night and the ones he flashed while holding any of the four Lombardi Trophies could not be differentiated.

"Whenever you generalize," he'd say. "You're wrong."

One night in July 1987, I was walking out of the dorm and heard some coaches arguing in what was then The Beer Room. I figured perhaps tensions were just a bit high that summer, with the club coming off a 6-10 season and fairly desperate to return to competence. I was wrong.

It had been a loud "discussion," sources indicated, led by Noll, who was not happy with the performance of one Oliver North at the Congressional hearings into the Iran-Contra affair.

"He broke the law!" was Noll's point of emphasis, according to my source.

North had been the point man in an elaborate scheme to sell weapons to Iran and use a portion of the proceeds to fund Nicaraguan rebels, the Contras. He had been preceded to Capitol Hill for hearings by his chief document shredder, the lovely Fawn Hall.

That it was heartening to me that Noll could scare up a discussion in a room full of NFL coaches who purported to be following the Iran-Contra hearings, most of whom probably thought Fawn Hall was the campus building next to the Saint Vincent cafeteria, it was also a foreshadowing.

In some ways, at least professional, Noll was becoming "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

A pilot, a sailor, a wine connoisseur, a musician, a student of seemingly everything, Noll stood out in a post-dynastic decade when the league's hottest young coaches, such as Joe Gibbs and Dick Vermeil, had begun sleeping in their offices to gain any possible margin of football intelligence on their opponents.

The world was going hyper-focused, and Noll's mind was way too vast and fertile and uber curious for that kind of thing. He would never admit that, and why should he?

But over the next five years, Noll's teams would go 38-41, and after the 1991 season, when Dan Rooney wanted coaching staff and front office changes, Noll considered an abridgement of his authority, the coach said it was time to go.

Knowledge is power, and maybe it's a powerful thing to know that Noll won more games than all the Steelers coaches who preceded him combined, and that he won more games than Bill Cowher and more games than Mike Tomlin and more Super Bowls than any coach ever.

But the even more powerful thing to know is that none of that, in the end, came close to explaining this one long, modest, quiet life.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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