SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
August 23, 2007
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August 23, 2007

Teacher, Scientist, Innovator, Coach


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THE DATE: FEB. 11, 1980. WE ARE DRIVING THROUGH A LIGHT SNOW to Chuck Noll's house in suburban Upper St. Clair, south of Pittsburgh. It is starting to get dark, and the streets have an Old World look as we climb through Dormont and Mount Lebanon, past the lights of stores open late, gliding over the still-used trolley tracks. Upper St. Clair is half an hour from the Steelers' offices at Three Rivers Stadium, less if you take the main highway, but Noll's wife, Marianne, says he likes to go through the towns. � We drive in silence for a while. We pass a frozen pond. � "What do you think of when you see that?" Noll asks. I tell him I think of our pond at home and my kids skating and the way it looks in the late afternoon. � "A poet. You see it as a poet," Noll says. "What fascinates me is the science of it. Frozen on top, strong enough to support weight, yet warm enough on the bottom to maintain life. The miracle of life."

He stares out the window again. The pressures of the long season, of a Super Bowl that his friends say created more pressure on him than any other game in his 11 years as the Steelers' coach, seem to have almost disappeared. He spent a week at Hilton Head Island, S.C., after the game, and he tells a story about the day he was out on the driving range, hitting golf balls.

"The pro came over and watched me for a few minutes," Noll says, "and then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Relax. Calm down. The season's over.' "

The Steelers had pulled out the 31-19 Super Bowl victory in the fourth quarter, when their big-play people came up with the big plays: two long passes from Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth and a deep interception by Jack Lambert. "Chuck's basic strategy is to make them stop our big-play people," Andy Russell, the linebacker, once said. Big-play people. Good draft picks for the most part, matured and nurtured on the fertile teaching ground of the practice field and the film room, the products of day after day of "good learning experiences," as Noll would say.

"Before Chuck came, our drafts weren't really that bad—when we didn't trade them away," Dan Rooney, the Steelers' president, says. "The problem was that we ran off rookies before they had a chance to show what they could do. That's why it means so much that Chuck is so patient with them."

"I think Chuck is unique in that he doesn't fit that winning-is-the-only-thing coaching philosophy," says Upton Bell, who was head of player personnel for the Colts when Noll was an assistant to Don Shula. "With him, teaching is the only thing, developing a man to fulfill his potential. If he does a good teaching job, winning is the natural by-product."

We were on Noll's street now, a quiet thoroughfare in an unpretentious neighborhood. A college professor's neighborhood. He pulled into his driveway. Snow covered the walk to his house, and I asked him if he was expected to shovel it.

"The Lord giveth," he said, "the Lord taketh away."

THERE IS NOTHING IN NOLL'S HOUSE TO INDICATE that his profession is football. No lamps made out of helmets, no football pictures on the wall, no game balls in glass cases. "The only football stuff we have is in packing cases downstairs," Marianne says. "When we first moved into the house," son Chris says, "it was painted a dirty brown. My mother and dad were standing in the front yard trying to decide what color to paint it, and they settled on yellow with black trim. I said, 'Oh, boy, the Steeler colors.' They both said, 'Oh, my God.' They hadn't thought of that. The next week we had a green house."

On the Sunday night before Christmas last year Lynn Swann and his wife and sister, Terry Bradshaw and his wife, and Gerry Mullins and his girlfriend (now his wife) went out caroling. They ended at Noll's house. He invited them in. It was the first time they had seen the inside of the house.

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