The wizard behind the Steel Curtain

The recent passing of Pittsburgh Steelers coaching legend Chuck Noll prompted the recollection of quite a few football memories – not just for me, but for Browns fans around the country. Unfortunately, from a Cleveland fan’s perspective, not many were memorable in a positive way.

For those who might be otherwise unaware, my mother-in-law’s maiden name is Noll. She happened to be a cousin of Chuck’s (or “Chuckie” as he was/is affectionately referred to by the rest of the family). My father-in-law Andy – still smarting from Art Modell’s dismissal of coach Paul Brown in 1963 – shifted his allegiance to the Steelers in 1969. In hindsight, it was not a bad move.

A native Clevelander, Chuck graduated from Benedictine High School in 1949, was drafted by the Browns out of the University of Dayton in 1953, and played for the Browns through the '50s. But ultimately, his real legacy would be as football coach – not player. Legend has it that the Rooney family, owners of the Steelers, decided to hire Chuck Noll as coach based upon the recommendation of then-Baltimore Colts head coach Don Shula, only after Penn State coach Joe Paterno turned down the offer.

It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Noll his first year. He won his debut contest, but then lost his final 13 for the downtrodden Steelers, the NFL’s “punching bag” at the time. Or, to put it in perspective, the Steelers at that time were what the Browns have been since 1999: awful.

Slowly, the Steelers improved, mostly due to some incredible drafts engineered by Noll. For instance, the 1974 draft produced four future Hall-of-Famers, and the Steelers began an incredible roll of impeccable drafting.

By 1972, the foundation was in place. Consider this: from 1972 through 1979, the Steelers had an unfathomable regular season record of 88-27-1, capturing Super Bowl trophies in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979. The Steelers regularly pounded the Browns, too. It was brutal.

Even after years of lower draft positions due to their run of success, the Steelers remained competitive. I’ll never forget 1989, when the Browns smoked the Steelers in the season opener, 51-0. I was sure Noll and the Steelers' reign had ended (and that was a full quarter century ago). I was even more sure when the Bengals beat the Steelers 41-10 the following week, while the Browns were winning their second straight under rookie coach Bud Carson.

Not quite. The Steelers beat the Browns in their second meeting, and rallied to finish 9-7, making the Wild Card game, just behind the Browns’ 9-6-1. Both teams lost to the Denver in the playoffs that year; Carson’s next year as Browns coach would prove to be his last, while Noll remained as Steelers coach until retiring after the 1991 season.

I only met Chuck one time, when I attended his enshrinement into the Benedictine High School Hall of Fame in 1991. Though he was the “enemy” as coach of the hated Steelers, I’ll never forget the firmness in the grip of his handshake, or the sincerity in his voice when he said it was a “pleasure to meet” me. He was, indeed, a humble man, who never took anything for granted.

The entire sports world – including Cleveland – lost a good one when they lost “Chuckie.”

Jeff Bing

Lifelong Westlake resident who dabbles in writing whenever the real world permits. My forte is humor and horror...What a combo!

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Volume 6, Issue 13, Posted 9:11 AM, 06.24.2014