"Well, I came through it, and now I'm much closer to him. He's very loyal to his players and the people who work for him. He's the most loyal human being I've ever met."
The relationship with Bradshaw is a hard thing for Noll to discuss. The end product is there for everyone to see, the greatness of Bradshaw as a player and a competitor, but it was one of the few times Noll's ability as a teacher was strained. "I always wanted Terry to be a leader," Noll says, "but you can't just tell someone to go out and lead. You become a leader by doing."
The same philosophy carried over into the way Noll raised his son. He wanted Chris to learn and grow by experiencing things. Scuba diving, bird watching—they were all methods to bring the family closer. Chris played a little high school football and kicked extra points for a while at Rhode Island, but then he switched to soccer. Noll never pushed football on his son, never urged him to compete, but he didn't deliberately try to steer him away from pressure situations.
"I know people who say, 'I want to keep my kids from ever being in a pressure situation,' " Noll says. "What a terrible thing to do to a kid. You wind up with someone who's leaned on other people to make the decisions for him. All of a sudden he's an immature kid of 26 who's never solved a problem in his life. We don't try to keep our son from stressful situations."
At his home in Rhode Island, Chris pointed to an old Steelers poster in his room and a Steelers mirror next to it. "It's funny, until this year I couldn't put them up," he said. "I'd always known my father as, well, Dad. We had fun together, even though discipline was tight. I think I must have resented what he was. I'd be introduced to someone and they'd say, 'This is Chris Noll.' And two minutes later, 'He's Chuck Noll's son.' I think that's one of the reasons why I went to Rhode Island and not Penn State.
"But in the last year I've been able to see my father as a whole person; I've been able to appreciate his accomplishments. Do you know that when his sister's husband died 17 years ago, he took on responsibility for the whole family? I'd bring friends to the house and they'd say, 'Gee, he's just like anybody else.' I can understand how his whole life has been devoted to sharing everything with his family."
People who haven't been around Noll long have trouble understanding the paradoxes. At times he'll show the utmost patience, at other times he can move swiftly and decisively, almost ruthlessly. After Noll's first season in Pittsburgh he got rid of Roy Jefferson, one of the team's few stars, because he read Jefferson as a disruptive influence. The same with Preston Pearson five years later. Yet he could look the other way when cornerback Mel Blount threatened to sue him for slander in 1977; the affair was smoothed over, and Blount is still making the Pro Bowl as a Steeler.
People who are aware of Noll's absolute control of the Steelers are surprised to find he runs an open operation. When defensive tackle Tom Keating joined Pittsburgh from the Raiders in 1973, he couldn't get over the fact that everything was announced at the team meetings—all the squad moves, the personnel changes, everything. Says Keating, "Chuck would stand up and say, 'We picked up so-and-so on waivers today. We feel he can help the club.' When I played in Oakland, the only way you'd know about a move was to read it in the papers."
Noll's assistant coaches represent another paradox. When Noll got the Steelers job in 1969, 16 of his 37 years had been spent in pro football, as a player and a coach. But in hiring assistants, he has leaned more and more toward people without any professional experience. He felt that college people are more likely to be teachers, and he wanted men whose minds were free of other NFL systems. He got away from that idea a little when he hired Rollie Dotsch, with seven years' experience as a pro assistant, as his line coach in 1978. But Dick Hoak, the offensive backfield coach, is the only Pittsburgh assistant who played in the NFL, and Noll's two defensive assistants, George Perles and Woody Widenhofer, who have been with him through all four Super Bowls, came straight from the college game.
Noll and his assistants form a tight little band; they socialize together, eat together, play poker together. After every Super Bowl, Noll and his staff and their families have taken a 10-day vacation; twice they've gone to the Bahamas, twice to Acapulco. And together they've made history.