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.
The son of a Cleveland laboring man who died in his 40s of Parkinson's disease, Noll had come poor to football and culture. He thinks of himself not so much a coach as a teacher, and is totally confident of his ability. Steelers crowds booed him and critics panned him when he refused to call plays for Terry Bradshaw, who after playing quarterback at Louisiana Tech, was finding the transition to the NFL roughly equivalent to trying to fly a lunar rocket after 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."
So the teacher brought up his young pupils quickly and somewhat sternly. "On Monday morning," said one Steeler the day the team clinched the Central Division title, "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 in to Pittsburgh headquarters observed unprecedented signs of warm loquaciousness in Noll. Not long ago, pressed to assess Pittsburgh's 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 gathering steam. Of the 40 men on the roster, no fewer than 24 were 24 years old or younger. Twelve were second-year men from the '71 draft, and six of those were starters. Let Redskins coach 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 Steelers offices on the ground level of Three Rivers Stadium, a brilliant hand-stitched tapestry covered the righthand 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.
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 the city's long-gone Irish First Ward, "How ahr ya?" To his favorites he would proffer an expensive cigar.
They had every right, these young studs collected by Noll, to wonder, What is it with this old man whose history of failure lies upon us like a millstone, perpetuating our ridicule? He had, in fact, been a great all-around athlete, one who knew football as well as any owner, but he had run the Steelers as a sportsman torn between two loves, the other being horse racing. More often than not he hired coaches who shared his feelings for the track, and he let them run their teams unencumbered. "I think that was my whole mistake, letting the coaches have a free hand," he has said. "I was able. I was competent."
At Three Rivers now, his personal attentions to Noll's players, rather than causing him to appear the fumbling fool, dissolved the athletes' worldly veneer to reveal them as boys far from home. Their cynicism crumbled in his presence, for what other owner in the league knew the names of the lowliest rookies? African-American quarterback Joe Gilliam, an 11th-round choice who in December would save a vital win over Houston, had entered a four-way fight for three jobs, pessimistic that he would receive an impartial evaluation. Briefed however by his soul brothers, he said, "I'm not worried about Mr. Rooney."