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Chuck Noll defined professionalism
June 16, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
Growing up as a fan of the PIttsburgh Steelers, there are just warm glowing memories for a lot of those 1970s Steelers and maybe a few since. Rocky Bleier remains my favorite, combining true heroism with football heroism, and they are absolutely two different things. John Stallworth was my weekday afternoon interview for a couple seasons when I worked in radio. I’d answer the phone in the newsroom during my afternoon shift and there’d be that high voice on the other end saying, “Hey, Paul, it’s John Stallworth. How you doing today?” It was his assigned duty as a Steeler to do the radio interview with the team affiliates, but it was always professional and fun.
I’ve met Mel Blount and Andy Russell and Franco Harris and Jack Ham and probably a bunch more of the greats from that era.
But, though I respected him and revered his work, coaching four Super Bowl winners of my Steelers in six years, I never felt that same warm spot for Coach Chuck Noll. I think I’m a typical fan in that I didn’t know any of these guys personally but, just judging by their public personas, found Noll kind of cold and calculating, a great success but not a smiling, let’s go have a beer and talk sports kind of guy.
That is, until a Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce event a few years ago that featured Noll as the keynote speaker. That he was accompanied by my all-time favorite Steeler Rocky Bleier and they were both introduced by the loveable, manic, ultimate Steelers fan named Myron Cope was icing on the cake.
Noll was not quite the enigma fans may have thought. He was intelligent, well read, and he possessed both a blue-collar worker’s work ethic and an executive’s acumen for seeing how to continue being successful. And the combination led to misunderstandings among fans. Noll said “Franco who?” when asked about how the team would move on without the sure-fire hall of famer in the backfield.
At the chamber dinner many years after that quip, Noll defined what he meant by that statement. He admitted a twinge of second-guessing the way he said it back in the day, but not what it meant, and it was a business lesson from a master for the ages.
Noll approached football as a business. The men under his charge were men first, young men who needed guidance and advice about life, and not just about what to do on an off-tackle run play. He did care about them. But, when their careers became advanced beyond the capabilities of their bodies to continue to take the pounding, he would do what was necessary for the Steelers — the team, not the glowing collection of legends — to continue to strive for success.
He defined that, and more, that night, and was everything I had hoped. This wasn’t some cold fish. This was a grab a beer and talk kind of guy, but more on the level of a respected professor or businessman than what one might expect from a football coach. Reserved and a gentleman.
He wasn’t outspoken off the field. He wasn’t outspoken on the field. He was a professional football coach, nothing less, to the highest definition of the word “professional.”
No, he wouldn’t ever have been the kind of guy to grab my black-and-gold clad elderly father in the airport and deliver a set of bear-hug noogies like Bill Cowher did. (Really, Cowher did that, and it was priceless and puts Cowher right up there with Bleier in my heart.)
But he was the kind of guy I wish my kids had as a teacher or professor. He knew how to separate the professional from the personal, how to do things as “just business” while still caring about those who brought him success.
And, he did have quite the personality under all that stoicism and studiousness. Because on that evening when I was introduced to him during the pre-dinner meet-and-greet, I went to shake his hand and say thanks to the great coach. He smiled. Gave me a stone-cold glare. Reached out, poked an index finger into my chest. Then put his other hand around the silk Steelers-logo tie I was wearing. After a moment, he smiled and said in a voice that was soft and gravelly, equal parts NFL coach, professor, father and Clint Eastwood, “This is a very nice tie.”
It was all the gratitude for years of fandom this fan needed. And that’s exactly how it was delivered.
That changed the definition of Chuck Noll forever to me. And I like him without reservation.
May he rest in peace.
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