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Paul Zimmerman
July 28, 1980
While other NFL coaches revel in being regarded as demigods, Chuck Noll of the Steelers wants to be known as a pedagogue
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July 28, 1980

The Teacher

While other NFL coaches revel in being regarded as demigods, Chuck Noll of the Steelers wants to be known as a pedagogue

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But when Keating was released in 1974 after the strike, after he'd been an officer in the Players Association, his views were different. "With Chuck," he said then, "it's my way or the highway."

In 1978 John Clayton of The Pittsburgh Press broke the story that the Steelers were dressing their rookies in pads during off-season practices. This was clearly a violation of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with the players and cost the Steelers a third-round draft choice. Noll, in a show of anger, said, "The story had no news value whatever. The only way I can read it is as espionage."

"Reflecting on that incident," Noll says, "I made no attempt to hide that practice session. It was a silly rule and the league knew how I felt about it. Anytime you've got people going full speed on a football field, they've got to wear pads—for their own protection. My views weren't any secret. But it was written as if I'd tried to put something over. The writer didn't call me about it to hear my explanation. He simply called the league and said, 'What are you going to do about it?' Then he asked Ed Garvey [head of the NFL Players Association] the same thing. That's why I got upset."

Noll's assistant coaches represent another paradox. When Noll got the Steeler job in 1969, 16 of his 37 years had been spent in pro football, as a player and 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 Steeler 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 colleges. No member of Noll's staff has become a head coach, even in college. The biggest shock came when Perles, with all those Super Bowl wins behind him, applied for the Michigan State job this year. Everyone thought Perles was a lock, but he was turned down in favor of Muddy Waters from Saginaw Valley College.

"I don't know the answer," Noll says. "There are guys on this staff who are fully ready to become head coaches. I wish I knew why they aren't. It's a nagging thing."

Noll and his assistants form a tight little band; they socialize together, eat together, play poker together. They have their own vocabulary—"velours," for instance, are poker hands that are absolute mortal locks. After every Super Bowl, Noll and his staff and their families take a 10-day vacation; twice they've gone to the Bahamas, twice to Acapulco. And together they've made history.

History. The inexact science that has received so much of Noll's scorn. Ever since Noll's second Super Bowl win, in 1976, people have asked him: How will history evaluate the Steelers? Are they really a dynasty?

"Can't tell now," Noll says. "It's like sainthood. You have to wait 10 years.

"This whole area of historic evaluation bothers me. It's not so much that I dislike history; it's just the interpretation of it that screws everything up. It's always the way they see it, as opposed to the way you see it. I remember once we double-dated with Marianne's roommate. The next day I heard her talking about the party we'd been to; I had a hell of a time recognizing that party from her description. One of the best things in Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln is his description of the second Inaugural Address and the various editorial comments that followed. They were so different. It was amazing that so many people could read such different things into one speech. It comes back to the same thing. You hear what you want to hear. It's the same in teaching. You think to yourself, 'Boy, I did a great job teaching today,' but it's no good if the words fall on infertile ground. It's teaching, plus the common repeated experiences, that make the whole thing work."

So, how do we evaluate Chuck Noll, a basic person and something of an intellectual, too? A man who inspires reverence in the people who work for him. "He's brilliant," Perles says. "I could never be as good as he is, and anyone who thinks he could hire one of us to be as good as Chuck is whistling Dixie."

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