Thank goodness, there's a wonderful little Mexican restaurant right down the road. That made it a little easier to celebrate the life of Charles Henry Noll, who passed away Friday night at 82. So what if the other patrons looked at me Saturday afternoon as if I were crazy when I lifted the icy Margarita to the sky and offered a silent toast? They didn't know what I did. They couldn't possibly know about the amazing blue agave plant.
The story goes back more than three decades, to a steamy summer day at Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College. Noll was an NFL legend, a four-time Super Bowl winner, almost bigger than life to a young reporter who still was relatively new to the Steelers beat. I didn't know Noll well yet, but I knew enough not to ask him about that morning's practice when, by chance, we met at the front entrance of Bonaventure Hall for the walk across campus to lunch. I was terrified, not of Noll so much, but of the conversation we were about to have. What in the world were we going to talk about for the next 10 minutes?
"Have you tried that Mexican restaurant in town? I had a good meal there last night," I finally said to Noll.
Pretty lame, I know.
But Noll seemed interested.
"Did you have a Margarita?" he asked.
"I did. I like 'em."
Noll stopped and looked hard at me. For a second, I thought I would have been better off asking if he thought Jack Lambert still had game.
"Do you know how they make tequila?" Noll asked.
That walk produced a memory that has lasted a lifetime.
With tequila, Noll said, it all starts with the blue agave plant. He went into such great detail. It was as if he had just made up a batch in his dorm room.
"Remember that the next time you have a Margarita," Noll said as we parted.
I remember every time.
Noll was in a terrific mood that day. It was early in training camp, which was his favorite time of year. He loved taking a new group of players and molding them into a team. He worked just as hard with the undrafted rookies as he did with his Hall of Famers. But the end of camp was rough on Noll. He had to tell certain players they weren't good enough to make his squad and realize their dream. He hurt for them, sure. He was much more caring than he let on. But he also hurt for himself. He was a teacher, first and foremost, and he hated that feeling of failure, the feeling that he somehow might have let those players down.
For Noll, it always was about the journey, never about the destination. That's why he was miserable at the end of each season, even those that ended with Super Bowl wins. "The thrill isn't in the winning. It's in the doing," he said more than once. July seemed so far off. It was going to be a long time until the start of another training camp with a new group of players, the chance to build a team again.
Noll commanded respect. Many of his players will tell you he was the smartest man they knew and that they appreciate the many life lessons he taught. He seemed to know everything about just about everything, including, yes, tequila. He had so many interests beyond football that he was able to easily settle into retirement after the 1991 season. His life was never just about the game. He wasn't one of those coaches who worked 20-hour days and slept in his office. He believed he could look at only so much film. His way was pretty successful, won't you agree? He's still the only coach to have won four Super Bowls.
But some players didn't like Noll despite all of the winning they did together. They thought he was too cold, too distant, too harsh. Terry Bradshaw comes to mind. He created a public rift with Noll that kept him away from the Steelers for years after his retirement. Noll was too smart to fight that unnecessary battle. He never once shot back at Bradshaw. He didn't have to fire back. He didn't do anything wrong and never held anything against Bradshaw. Maybe he could have been a little softer with Bradshaw and stroked his ego a little more, but that wasn't him. He cared only about making his players better. He helped to make Bradshaw a Hall of Fame quarterback and a millionaire many times over later in life. Bradshaw is a fool if he doesn't realize that.
It's a shame Noll isn't more highly regarded nationally. Do you believe there are people who still mix him up with Chuck Knox? But Noll has to take some blame for that. He never sought fame. He believed that was for the players. He was a lot like the late, great Herb Brooks that way. He never wrote a book. His news conferences were pure vanilla and not very forthcoming. He didn't care much for talking football with the sporting press. He didn't do endorsements or make public appearances. He wanted that extra money to go to the players. He helped to make a lot of them millionaires.
Noll virtually disappeared from public view after his retirement, although he did appear at several Steelers reunions. It always was such a joy to see him. By then, he seemed to be comfortable soaking in the adulation. He deserved every bit of it, just as much as the Bradshaws, Lamberts, Greenes, Blounts and Hams.
I remember my final substantial talk with Noll. It was in his office at Three Rivers Stadium and it had a decidedly different tone than our one-sided discussion about tequila. The Steelers of the 1980s weren't nearly as successful as their 1970s teams. Many in the fan base were urging the Rooneys to fire Noll. The most cynical urged him to get on with his life's work.
"Does the criticism bother you?" I asked Noll.
I got a frosty glare, the one that often made his players feel like running away and hiding.
"The critics are always right," Noll said, biting off his words. "The only way you shut them up is by winning."
The man really was wise.
Noll was gone a few years later. Now, there will be no more interviews with him. In that sense, it is a sad day.
Thank goodness for that Mexican restaurant.
Thank goodness for the memories.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.