Noll was a rarity in sports

From the draft of Hall of Fame defensive lineman Joe Greene – literally on his second day on the job – through the Immaculate Reception, four Super Bowl victories in six years to the end of his 23-year career as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chuck Noll remained a silent, stoic and successful man.

The first NFL coach to win four Super Bowls died Friday after having been ailing for the past few years. He was 82.

He was sometimes misunderstood as being too aloof, especially in later years when success became lacking compared with the 1970s, but Noll was a man of intelligence and dedication to his craft. In a “professional” sport, he truly was a professional, like any executive. When a player’s career was declining, Noll would look for the next player for the position, not because he didn’t care about the veteran but because he had a football team to continue to push to success.

His “Franco who?” quote became the most abused symbol of that side of Noll, a quip to fans who couldn’t seem to move beyond the end of the career of the legendary running back Franco Harris when Noll decided it was time for him to get on with his life’s work.

The players who executed the magic on the field for Noll describe a man who was anything but an uncaring and cold coach. They describe a mentor, a father figure, a professor of the game, a man who reminded them that there was a life they would have to lead after the fleeting years of gridiron fame all-too-soon came to an end. That was what he meant by “getting on with life’s work.”

Noll was the ultimate professional on the sidelines. To look at him, it was impossible to know if the team was ahead or behind by 20. The most uncharacteristic Noll memory for fans might be his playful jog off the field in front of a TV cameraman when the Steelers were behind at halftime in Super Bowl XIV. There were very few angry antics, no outbursts, no temperamental displays.

Indeed, the peaceful world of sailing was his hobby, far different from the speed and flurries of violence that are the six or eight seconds of an NFL play.

His was the lunch-bucket attitude, the guy who went to work and did his job to the best of his abilities, leading other guys to do the same, but instead of being in a steel mill, Chuck Noll’s job was on the sidelines of the crucible of the NFL every weekend.

And when the 23 years of Steelers leadership came to an end, he walked away, we hope satisfied with his accomplishments. Bill Cowher, who had to try to fill Noll’s shoes as the next Steelers coach, said Noll offered him no advice, no tips. Cowher had to be his own man. And Cowher passed the mantle to current coach Mike Tomlin the same way.

We are saddened by Noll’s death, but we are happy that this quiet man took his well-earned reputation as a tough professional to the grave, unsullied, unmarred by strife or controversy or misplaced statements, an all-too-rare occurrence in the world of sports legends.