Panthers' Fox learned from Steelers' Noll
Nowadays, John Fox would just pack his belongings and move to the offices right next door. But, in 1989, after three years as defensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, he moved across town when he was hired by Chuck Noll to coach the defensive backs for the Steelers.
That same year, Fox, 34, was joined on the staff by another college assistant, George Stewart, 31, a linebacker coach at Notre Dame who was hired by Noll to be in charge of special teams.
At the time, neither young assistant realized the impact Noll would have on their careers.
"I think he's the greatest guy I've ever been around," Fox said. "He is very calm, very technique- and fundamental-oriented. He is not a screamer. He wasn't up or down. I think his biggest thing is that he was the same guy every day. He was not an ego guy like, 'Look what I'm doing.' I thought he was a great mentor, I know that."
Stewart discovered much the same right away when he went to Noll during a preseason game and asked him about trying to block a punt.
"He said to me, 'I hired you to coach special teams. [Defensive coordinator] Rod Rust doesn't ask me to blitz. [Offensive coordinator] Tom Moore doesn't ask me to throw deep. If you think you can block it, block it. I hired you to get the job done,' " Stewart said. "I was a young coach, and he gave me total authority. I always respected him for that."
It has 19 years since Noll -- the only head coach to win four Super Bowls -- retired from the Steelers. But his instructive manner, his ability to teach, the life lessons he instilled, remain in all who played for him, and especially those who coached for him.
Remember that tonight when you see John Fox.
There aren't many left who carry the message of Charles Henry Noll. And, unfortunately the list might be shrinking by one soon.
When Fox, now 55, makes what could be his final appearance as head coach of the Carolina Panthers (2-12) tonight at Heinz Field, do not dismiss him as just another guy trying to beat the Steelers. Do not think he is just another coach whose team has hit bottom or remember him as perhaps the third former playoff coach to be fired in 2010.
Instead, appreciate that he is one of three coaches in NFL history to inherit a one-win team, which he did in 2002, and take it to the playoffs two years later. The only others were Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells.
Respect that, from 2002-09, the Panthers averaged 10 victories a year and were one of four teams never to have double-digit losses in any season.
More important, embrace that he is the only head coach in the NFL who remains from Noll's final staff with the Steelers, the last link to perhaps the greatest legacy left by one man on one franchise.
"People say you are what you eat," Fox said. "I think you are what you are around. I was very fortunate as a young coach in the NFL, first time in the NFL, to be around a guy like him. I think you become what you've been around and, in that case, I was very fortunate."
Considering his success as architect of maybe the greatest dynasty in NFL history, it is surprising that Noll had only four former assistants become NFL head coaches. In addition to Fox, the others were Rod Rust (1990 New England Patriots), Bud Carson (1989-90 Cleveland Browns) and Tony Dungy (1996-2001 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2002-08 Indianapolis Colts).
Other assistants such as George Perles (Michigan State) and Woody Widenhofer (Missouri, Vanderbilt) became head coaches in college football. Perles, Widenhofer and former offensive line coach Rollie Dotsch even became head coaches in the defunct United States Football League.
Now, 19 years after he retired, Noll has only three former assistants still on the sidelines -- Fox; Stewart, the wide receivers coach for the Minnesota Vikings; and Moore, who remains in a limited role as a senior offensive assistant with the Colts.
"He was a great teacher," Stewart said from his office in Eden Prairie, Minn., one day after the Vikings lost to the Chicago Bears, 40-14, Monday night. "And football didn't run Chuck Noll. He was a family man first. Football was second to him. We didn't work long hours like a lot of other people. Oh, we worked hard, but he didn't believe in all that late-night stuff.
"He gave his coaches room to work. He believed in the coaches that worked for him."
Stewart said he learned something instantly about Noll when the Steelers opened the 1989 regular season -- Stewart's first with the team -- with a 51-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns and a 41-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Despite their horrid start, the Steelers ended up in the playoffs that year, losing a heartbreaking first-round game in Denver on a dropped pass by Mark Stock.
"I always said Chuck would never die from a heart attack because he took everything in stride," Stewart said. "To see the football team go from 51-0 and 41-10 and you end up going to playoffs and have a chance to go to the Super Bowl? It taught me a lot about pro football. I always try to do the same thing."
The Panthers have the worst record in the NFL and are the only team in the league not to win a road game (0-6). Seven years after he took them to the Super Bowl in 2003, and two years after Carolina won the NFC South with a 12-4 record, Fox is nearing the end of his worst season as a head coach -- a plummet that could cost him his job.
"I've never had a bottomed-out season in 21 years [in the NFL], so this has been my first," Fox said. "I'm not an expert at it. We've never had double-digit losses, so, in my 10 years as head coach, we haven't had a bottom-out season."
Fox, though, is so highly regarded around the league that he would likely be hired as head coach by another team if Carolina owner Jerry Richardson decides to fire him.
"This game is only fun when you win," Fox said. "We obviously have not gotten to do that as many times as we would like. I don't worry about finding employment in the NFL. But, this has been a tough season just because of the losses."
Fox won't scream. He won't be up and down. He will be the same guy, just like his mentor.
First Published December 23, 2010 12:00 am