NEW YORK — Denver Broncos coach John Fox had a baptism by fire when he made his debut as an NFL assistant with the Steelers.
He left as Pitt’s defensive coordinator to become secondary coach under Chuck Noll in 1989.
Season opener, at home: Cleveland Browns 51, Steelers 0.
Second game, Cincinnati Bengals 42, Steelers 10.
No one would have been surprised had Fox asked Noll if he could return to Pitt at that point. Yet the young assistant learned important lessons in those weeks he would carry with him right up to his team’s Super Bowl matchup Sunday with Seattle.
“It wasn’t a very tremendous start,” Fox recalled of those early days in his first NFL job nearly 25 years ago. “Everybody was down. Fans, as they be, were a little bit on us.”
Noll acted as if they had not yet played a game.
“He stayed even keel,” Fox said. “That was the most valuable lesson [I learned], is be the same guy, don’t go through the highs and lows, because it’s very easy to do, especially with outside influences.”
Fox, 58, had a major outside influence of his own this season. On Nov. 2 while golfing near his home in Charlotte, N.C., he had trouble breathing. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where he had surgery to fix a bicuspid aortic valve he said he was born with.
The procedure occurred on Denver’s open week. Fox missed four games, returned to coach the Broncos and said he now feels better than he has in a long time.
“I am 180 percent better than I was eight months ago. I had a valve that was the size of a pinhead, now it is the size of a 50-cent piece. What you do is that you learn to deal with stuff in life.”
Perhaps he applied the coaching philosophy he learned under Noll to that detour he had to take from football in November: Don’t get too high or too low.
“I made it back a little early, worked hard to get back,” Fox said of his return to coaching, “Really, once that started, I never really gave it a second thought. I had a plan and we executed the plan, and just like I tell players, sometimes setbacks are setups for better things to come.”
Something he no doubt learned again from 1989. Noll’s Steelers won their next two games after that 10-92 start, made their way into the playoffs, won in overtime at Houston and were beating John Elway’s Broncos late before losing by one point in Denver. Had they won that game, they would have played for the AFC championship in Cleveland the following week.
“I really think that staying even keel,” Fox said, “and not experience the highs and lows that a football season can bring to you, and really the technique and not more of the ‘want to’ but ‘how to’ play football.”
Noll did not believe in the emotion of the game as much as he did in a player performing proper technique. Everything else would flow from that, Noll believed. To this day, it is the way Fox coaches.
“He was a tremendous technician, the individual fundamentals of football were something that was very important to him,” Fox said. “I still believe it comes down to blocking and tackling, even at this level. Sometimes you lose sight of that with the schemes and stuff.”
This is Fox’s second Super Bowl visit as a head coach. He coached the Carolina Panthers to their only Super Bowl after the 2003 season, his second with them. They lost to New England by three points on Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard field goal with four seconds left in Houston 10 years ago Saturday.
The Panthers never made it back and after nine years as their coach, Fox’s contract wasn’t renewed. Denver immediately hired him, and three years into his tenure, Fox has the Broncos going for their third Lombardi Trophy.
This is the 15th team he has worked for — seven in college, one in the USFL and seven in the NFL. He has made an impression to many along the way, including former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi when Fox was their defensive coordinator for five years.
The New York Giants’ two coordinators for a time in the 1950s were Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. For a few seasons in the early part of this century, they had Fox and Sean Payton.
“Not many had coordinators like Fox and Payton,” said Accorsi, who became friends with Fox.
Like many younger coordinators, Fox wanted to become a head coach. He asked Accorsi if he would interview him as if he were applying for a job.
“I put him through a rigorous interview, I even asked him to wear a coat and tie,” said Accorsi, a Hershey, Pa., native who worked in the Penn State athletic department in the 1960s and still lives in New York after retiring as Giants GM.
“What really impressed me is — I asked him what offensive philosophy you will have and what offense you will run. If candidates say it depends on who I hire, I scratch them off my list; I’m not hiring an offensive coordinator, I’m hiring a head coach.
“When I asked him that, he knew exactly what he wanted to run, knew exactly what his offensive philosophy was going to be, he had conviction. It told me he was going to run the football team.”
Tom Donahoe, a former Steelers director of football operations, saw the same thing in Fox’s three-year tenure as secondary coach, where he was tutoring such young players as Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake.
“John is a football coach through and through; that’s what he is, that’s what he does,” Donahoe said. “He loved talking about players, talking about getting better — this guy’s not good enough, this guy’s got potential. I just liked being around John because he’s a football guy.
“You could see back then, even with the Steelers, he was destined to do a lot more than that.”
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.