Chuck Noll, 36, defensive backfield coach at Baltimore under Don Shula, scarcely cut a figure to trigger excitement. Vaguely handsome with an F.D.R. chin and the sloping shoulders of a linebacker, he wore a tweed jacket and in a light voice evaded pointed questions. He did it with the same tactful smile he would employ four years later when, barring cameramen from practice, he explained, "Fellas, it's icy out here. You might slip and break your expensive equipment."
During his first season in Pittsburgh Noll would look into the stands and say to himself, "My goodness! What strange football crowds." He thought back to his first pro coaching stint with the Chargers in Los Angeles and San Diego, where he had seen brightly frocked women on the arms of their husbands and often, too, the little ones tagging along from Sunday school. Here he saw middle-aged boisterous men wearing their old high school football jackets, their faces grown beefy on Polish sausage or Italian bread or corned beef and cabbage. These men invariably showed up in high humor only to plunge, as often as not, into teeth-gnashing rage. The previous season, under Coach Bill Austin, the Steelers had won but two games; now they won but one. If all those ex-high school tackles from the river towns of Aliquippa and Beaver Falls and McKees Rocks had known that the new coach frequently tied on an apron to prepare gourmet dishes, that he religiously attended concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony or that his fondest wish (granted by his wife last Christmas) was to putter among Martha Washington geraniums in his very own greenhouse, they might have passed up the deer season for an armed assault on Steeler headquarters.
"The problem we had," says Noll of that first year, "was to find out about our players. And the only way was to play them."
Noll is, beyond anything, resolute. While a low-salaried linebacker and messenger guard for Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns, he completed three years of a four-year night-school law course, with no intention of ever practicing law. "I felt that just playing football and doing nothing else was a waste of time, so I went to law school simply with the idea of gaining background," he says. Always a superior student and once described by Jim Brown as the only player who could score 100% on Paul Brown's playbook examinations, Noll sees nothing incongruous in his having studied Blackstone in the casual spirit of a suburban housewife taking classes in ceramics. When he coached in Baltimore, the newspapermen there dubbed him, not entirely without envy, "Knowledge," and when Pittsburgh sportswriters assayed his efforts he privately objected less strenuously to pieces that panned him than to those written without style.
The son of a Cleveland laboring man who died in his 40s of Parkinson's disease, Chuck Noll had come poor to football and culture. He thinks of himself not so much as a coach as a teacher, and is totally confident of his ability. Steeler crowds booed him and critics panned him when he refused to call plays for Terry Bradshaw who, after having quarter-backed at Louisiana Tech, was finding the transition to the NFL roughly equivalent to trying to fly a lunar rocket after having six lessons in a Piper Cub, but Noll was serene.
"Chuck feels," says Dan Rooney, "that if the quarterback is totally involved, even to the point of helping form the game plan, he'll feel freer to audibilize and to consider a story from a receiver who says he can get clear. I don't think our quarterbacks draw up the game plan, but I think that's what Chuck would like it to come to."
So the teacher brought up his young pupils quickly and somewhat sternly. "I have never had an extended conversation with the man," said one Steeler the day the team clinched the Central Division title. Noll's premise, no doubt, was that attachment to players destroys objectivity. "On Monday morning he'll smile passing you in the hall and say, 'Good morning," and just from the way he smiles you're damn sure he's telling you, 'You played a terrible game yesterday.' The feeling you get is not that you're only as good as your last game, it's that you're only as good as your next game. You never know where you stand with Noll, so you're always working like hell to keep your job. But he is so knowledgeable, so cool under fire, that you have tremendous respect for him." During the recent off-season, players who dropped into Steeler headquarters observed unprecedented signs of warm—and fatal?—loquaciousness in Noll, who previously had restricted such impulses to haranguing the Steelers into believing they were better than their opponents. Not long ago, pressed to assess the Steelers' difficult 1973 schedule, Noll finally said, "We have an easy schedule. We don't have to play the Steelers."
Yes, having risen, our Steelers are given to flippancy, for they have the look of an express still gathering steam. One afternoon last November, Joe Gordon, the publicist, looked up from a sheaf of statistics and said, "Hey, listen to this." Of the 40 men on the club's active roster, no fewer than 24 were 24 years old or younger. Twelve were second-year men from the 1971 draft, and six of those were starters. Let George Allen chew on that while he's turning up the thermostat to keep his old folks warm.
In the spacious lobby of the new Steeler offices on the ground level of Three Rivers Stadium, a brilliant hand-stitched tapestry covered the right-hand wall. Avant-garde and dazzling, it depicted a football-play diagram exploding into meteors of black and gold. The Chief frowned over his cigar as he studied the spectacular work. It was the summer of 1970 and this was his first visit to the new offices. At last he pronounced his verdict on the artist's creation. "It looks," he said, "like a hockey play."
The past seemed to have been obliterated by one fell swoop of decorators, except that one anachronistic note remained. Each day the Chief would enter the vast, lavishly appointed new dressing room, pause inside the doorway to get his bearings and then wander from locker to locker. To players dressing for practice he would offer his hand and say, in a dialect surviving Pittsburgh's long-gone Irish First Ward, "How ahr ya?" To his favorites he would proffer an expensive cigar.