Memories of Chuck Noll
A young guy starting out covering the Steelers for his newspaper could not have had a better coach to deal with than Chuck Noll.
That is how I feel today. I am not sure I felt that way when the Post-Gazette turned the Steelers beat over to me with three days left in training camp in 1985. Noll could be intimidating, Noll could be unquotable, Noll could be uncooperative.
Yet I gradually learned during the seven years I covered him as Steelers coach is that Noll also was among the most interesting people I ever wrote about. While he may have had little to say, when he said it, it meant something. He also treated everyone with respect, even reporters, whether they worked for the New York Times or the Indiana Evening Gazette.
Noll had a famous saying from his early days as Steelers coach that you should treat the media the way they grow mushrooms – keep them in the dark and feed them plenty of manure. Noll might not want this out, but he did not follow his own advice on that. There were many times that he fed me tasty morsels, stuff that he just could not hold back.
I once asked him at his weekly press conference – it was not yet broadcast live and it was held in a small room – why he would not shake Bengals coach Sam Wyche’s hand after a game. Noll just wasn’t into that kind of stuff and it wasn’t required then as it seems to be now. He answered that he had a sixth-grade teacher who once told him not to follow the crowd, to be your own man.
One month into my first season covering the Steelers for the Post-Gazette, I had my first clash with Noll. Running back Walter Abercrombie, a first-round draft pick in 1982, had complained that the Steelers were abandoning the running game. Two weeks later, he complained again. A couple of us asked Noll about it after practice and he did not say much. But while I was in running backs coach Dick Hoak’s office asking him the same thing, Noll burst in and started hollering at me. He said he had talked to Abercrombie and the player told him he was misquoted.
Later, a handful of us were in the small press room at Three Rivers Stadium talking about the story when Noll burst in again. He was angry and he said some things I was told later he wished he had not. He told longtime Steelers PR man Joe Gordon that he had made a mistake and popped off to some reporters.
I did not quote his salty language for my story the next day nor some of the things he said in that press room. Neither did the few other writers in there. I merely wrote that he was angry and quoted him as to why. It was a good story. You can read it here. It also was a fair story and I’d like to think that how I treated that story led to a better long-term relationship with my covering him.
We were never pals or anything like that, and I continued to write stuff he wished I had not, like the time he hired an assistant coach he thought was coming directly to the Steelers from his job as an assistant at California. In fact that coach had just taken a job as a head coach at San Francisco State and did not tell Noll that (today, that would be impossible). Noll fired him as soon as he found out. There also was the time he fired some assistants after the 1988 season because he was ordered to by Dan Rooney, only I wrote who was being fired before some of the assistants were informed.
Noll never took those things personally. He knew I and others like me had jobs to do and as long as we did them competently, he said nothing. While Noll was coach, I could walk up to any assistant coach at any time and interview him – even in his office, as I was doing with Hoak on that day in 1985. That doesn’t happen anymore.
You could watch practice in Noll’s time and write anything you wanted about practice, provided you did not write stuff about formations and strategy and such. We used to count the number of snaps Bubby Brister and Neil O’Donnell would take in practice and put them in our stories the next day when there was some question about who might start at quarterback that week. Now, they’d ban you from practice if you did such things.
And while Noll wasn’t always quotable for us, he had a way of making his points with brevity, with clarity and often in an entertaining manner. His “Franco Who?” comment during Harris’ holdout in the summer of 1984 was just that, but it was largely misunderstood by the public. Those who covered Noll for any amount of time had to know precisely what he meant. It was not said out of disrespect, it was meant to portray the idea that if you were not there, you were not yet part of the team and he would deal with the situation accordingly, whether you were the 12th-round draft pick or an icon like Franco. That went for injured players, holdouts, retired players, heck, he might have even said it about himself. I heard him say it many times about many players.
Back in Noll’s day, there were always rookies holding out before they signed their contracts. During the first week of camp, Noll would not even field questions about them. But if the holdout lasted about two weeks, you could count on Noll erupting with something about the situation and he never let us down.
He also loved dropping certain news on reporters and did so matter-of-factly, perhaps getting some measure of enjoyment out of watching their reaction to something they thought they should have known before Noll told them. He did that when he let everyone know that first-round draft pick Darryl Sims broke his thumb during a training camp practice in 1985. That actually helped get me on the beat because the person the Post-Gazette had hired that summer to cover the Steelers downplayed that story and the bosses later decided to make a change.
Covering Noll was easy for many reasons. He did not have favorite national writers or broadcasters that he would slip inside information and make the local writers look bad. Of course, he did not slip us the information either. Nothing we wrote seemed to bother him – the Abercrombie story aside – unless it was just flat-out wrong or twisted in a way that did not portray what actually happened.
I have a few personal favorite moments of mine about Noll that are not newsworthy but experiences I will always remember:
--- Late in his career, he and others gathered in a room at Saint Vincent College that was called either the beer room or the “5 o’clock club.’’ It was open to coaches, the media, scouts, and visiting coaches and scouts. On this particular evening, a group of visiting football coaches from Japan were in attendance. Noll spent much of his time in that room that night getting into various stances such as a three-point -- as he might have when he was a pulling guard for the Cleveland Browns – to show the Japanese coaches some football technique. It was pure Noll.
--- He and I walked together across a baseball field atop the hill back to the old Bonaventure dorm at Saint Vincent (where Noll, like everyone else, had a room with no air conditioning). As we did, a boy ran up to Noll and asked him for his autograph. Noll asked the boy his name. “Jim Brown,’’ the boy answered. Noll replied, “I knew someone else by that name,’’ signed his autograph and that was that. To this day, that kid may not know who Noll meant.
--- Early-on in my tenure covering the Steelers, the NFL held its March meetings in Maui. Because of the time difference, our work was done mostly by mid-afternoon and, at the suggestion of Noll, I sometimes would snorkel right off the beach at the hotel where we stayed. The next day, I’d describe to him the ocean life I saw. On our final day there, I returned from breakfast and bumped into Noll and his wife, Marianne. We chatted and they informed me they were going snorkeling in a little bit and would I like to join them. I politely declined, said I had some stuff I had to do. I really wish I had said yes.
--- At another NFL meeting, I was invited to dinner with Noll, the Rooneys and some others with the Steeler party and their spouses. I was seated across the table from the Nolls. The menu included an entrée for lamb chops, but it was an entrée for two and could only be ordered that way. Chuck wanted the lamb chops and asked if anyone else would join him so he could order it (he really could have ordered it for two and just eaten what he wanted, but that was not how he operated). When no one responded, I volunteered I had never had lamb chops and what better time than to split a meal with the Emperor! I did not like them (and never had them since). When Noll asked me if I enjoyed my meal, I told him it was delicious.
--- On Dec. 26, 1991, Chuck Noll entered Dan Rooney’s office, and told him “I think it’s time,’’ and resigned as Steelers coach 10 days before his 60th birthday. Noll called his assistant coaches and broke the news to them. After that, he walked down the end of the hall at Three Rivers Stadium to a kitchen area where a small group of us were having coffee, awaiting the expected news that would come out of his meeting with Rooney.
He poured himself a coffee and chatted for some time with us. He was in a good mood. We talked about all kinds of things, but no football and nothing about his job status. Finally, Dan Rooney walked down and said to Noll, “It’s time.’’ His final press conference was about to begin.
It lasted 20 minutes before Noll, near tears, ended it by saying, “You’ve got enough now, before it gets tougher.’’
The following is from my 1993 book, “Dawn of a New Steel Age,’’ that describes what happened next:
With that, Noll pulled on his black overcoat and moved toward the door. He shook hands with several reporters, one of whom once asked him how he would like to be remembered.
“Don’t leave anything on the beach but your footprints,’’ he answered.
He walked briskly down the hall, out the front door, hopped in his car and was gone. He never glanced at the four gleaming Super Bowl trophies in the lobby as he passed them.
Those are Chuck Noll’s footprints.