'He set the precedent': Chuck Noll changed culture of Steelers organization

One summer at Steelers training camp, Chuck Noll conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on the grounds of Saint Vincent College. He did so with the same gusto and aplomb that he brought to coaching the Steelers for 23 seasons.

Four of those seasons ended with Super Bowl victories. He was the only coach to win four, and he never lost one.

He took over a franchise that had been a laughingstock on the playing field, that had been in only one playoff game and lost that. His team made the playoffs in his third season, 1972, and by his fifth won their first of four Super Bowls in six years, a span of success that has gone unequaled in the game's 48 years.

Chuck Noll: the emperor, the coach, the legend

Chuck Noll, the coach who led Steelers to 4 Super Bowl titles, dies at age 82. Noll died in his sleep from natural causes at his Sewickley home, leaving behind a legion of admirers. (Video by Melissa Tkach and J. Monroe Butler II; 6/14/2014)

Nine players from those Super '70s Steelers went on to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Chuck Noll joined them in his first year of eligibility in 1993.

He coached the Steelers from 1969-91 and compiled an overall record of 209-156-1. A Cleveland native, he made his mark in Pittsburgh and he will be laid to rest Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

Noll used words conservatively. He was not a coach who reveled in hearing himself talk. Fortunately, others are more than willing to go on about the coach and the man they knew while working during that heady time for the Steelers that were the 1970s and beyond.

Here is what some of them had to say about a coach who long has been the fourth man listed in the Steelers directory as an administration advisor. The three before him are all named Rooney.

• • •

"The thing I remember most, there was a change in the whole attitude, the whole culture of the organization," said Art Rooney II, the Steelers president and the grandson and son of the two men who hired Noll, Art Rooney Sr. and Dan Rooney. He was a ballboy in Noll's first year as coach, as he had been in previous years under coaches who were not so successful.

"He expected every day to stay focused on the goal, which was to win a championship. He just demanded to stay focused and do whatever it took -- which was his saying -- and he expected people to live by that, how they conducted themselves whether players, coaches and ballboys.

"Something I remember: Obviously his first three seasons were not great successes. We won one game his first season, no playoffs in the next two. With people outside the organization, there was a lot of 'Same Old Steelers' kind of stuff, but for everybody inside the organization, you could feel we were building something, making progress and you could feel he was in control, had a plan and people believed in it.

"That was a big difference for what it was like around here before he came."

• • •

Bill Cowher, who succeeded Noll as coach, said the best gift his predecessor gave him was to give him no advice on how to perform his job.

"The one thing I would say about him is when you follow him, you inherit a team and you're not sure what the culture is. When I came to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992, this was a football team that had a tremendous work ethic, had a sense of purpose and he instilled that in them.

"I didn't have a lot of interaction with him. I remember one trip, we were together on a private plane [in 1992]. He was going down to Kiawah Island and I was working out a player at Clemson. I kept asking him questions, what about Bubby Brister, what about Neil O'Donnell. His answers were very succinct, very short, not a whole lot of insight. It was more, 'How are you?' More personal stuff.

"What I took away from it was pretty much the fact he did not want to give me pre-conceived thoughts about anything, how things operated in the business or in the building. He allowed me to form my own judgment, figure it out on my own. I gave Mike Tomlin the same advice Chuck Noll gave me -- none.

"That to me, speaks volumes. There were no judgments being passed. He did the job his way and the next person needed to do it their way. That to me is what he left behind: Do it your way.

"He set the precedent, he set the standard, he created the opportunity to talk about what it meant to be a Pittsburgh Steeler," said Cowher, whose own Steelers team won the franchise's fifth Super Bowl in 2006. "It was a privilege to be a Pittsburgh Steeler and he created the mystique, the standard for anyone who came there.

"When I first got there, I tried to build on the tradition. It doesn't mean you do it the same way, you do it the right way."

• • •

Dick Hoak played two years for Noll as a veteran running back, then joined Noll's staff in 1972 one year after his retirement as a player. He remained on his staff and on Cowher's through the 2006 season.

"Where to start? I wouldn't have or be what I am now or gone through the experiences I did without him," said Hoak, who became emotional when talking about his old boss. "I owe an awful lot to him, which a lot of guys do and they know it.

Hoak was head coach at a high school in Wheeling, W.Va., with a 1-9 record when Noll called for him to coach in Pittsburgh.

"I don't know what he saw. I played for him two years and he knew what I wanted to do, he saw what I did in those two years as a player.

"He would go to work and it was always the same. He was never too high, and he was never low. You could never tell what kind of day he was having when talking to him. We could have won, 50-0, or lost, 50-0, but on Monday, you wouldn't know what happened on Sunday. He didn't carry that over.

"I've always told people this thing about him: If something happened to me and I needed someone to take care of my family, he would have been the guy I would want to do that. He knew so much, an intelligent person. He had his beliefs and he stuck to them. Just things like that.

"My wife had some problems, a seizure one game. [The Steelers wives'] seats were up in the upper deck. From that moment on, she sat in the box with Marianne [Noll]. He was just that way. When we won the Super Bowls, he always took us somewhere. He treated the assistants and our families great."

• • •

Tom Donahoe, a Steelers ballboy before Noll, worked as a scout and later as the top personnel man in the front office in Noll's final eight seasons.

"That was a special man. We lost a great one. He was a unique," said Donahoe, who still calls him Coach Noll.

"The first thing that comes to mind when you look at his career: Nobody's ever done it better and with more humility and less ego than Chuck. It was a remarkable characteristic of his, he was always on an even keel and consistent. Coaches talk forever that you can't get too high with the highs or low with the lows, but nobody does it. Chuck did it.

"We used to have a running joke: I told him if I didn't go to the game and saw you on Monday, I couldn't tell who won the game. It was remarkable. I think that's one of the reasons his teams got so good. They never got too excited or upset. It was remarkable.

"When I got elevated and worked more closely with him the last couple years, one of the things we always tried to do at the Senior Bowl was have dinner, him and me. He had one rule: We can't talk football. That put me at a disadvantage. It was fascinating listening to him. It might be politics, raising kids, motivating people. It would be anything. He was a fascinating guy to be around.

"I never saw a guy who loved training camp more than Chuck, because it was teaching. If there was something that set him apart, he was first and foremost a teacher.

"He avoided fanfare at all cost. He probably could have made a small fortune, whether commercials or TV work after he was done. Who could you have better than Chuck Noll analyzing a football game?

" It was a privilege that I had a chance to work with him. I appreciate all he did for me. It was a heck of an experience."

• • •

"He was an amazing guy," said Robert "Woody" Widenhofer, who spent 11 seasons as a defensive coach on Noll's staff from 1973-83 and now lives in the Dallas area.

"As we all know, what a bright, great teacher he was. If he didn't know something about something, he'd get a couple books and read up on it.

"He always had a little dinner party for the staff after minicamp at his home. He was telling me he was going to make some dandelion wine, but wasn't sure how to do it. He went out and got a couple books and made the best dandelion wine I ever had.

Widenhofer left Noll's staff after the 1983 season to become head coach of the USFL Oklahoma Outlaws.

"He was very supportive but one of the toughest things I ever did was to leave him like that. He was always for you, he'd help you get jobs if you wanted. He wanted you to succeed and go do the best you could do.

"He was always striving to get better, fundamentally, technique wise. He was reading a book about a Russian track coach. The guy said you could improve your speed by running downhill. So his next big deal was to do that. We had that big hill at Saint Vincent and we had Joe Greene and guys like that running down hill. We had a couple guys tumble down the hill and he said that's enough of that."

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.

READ MORE: Post-Gazette coverage of the passing of Chuck Noll, a Steelers Legend

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