Chuck Noll, a Hall of Fame coach who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to an unprecedented four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s and molded the team into one of the greatest dynasties in pro football history, died Friday at his home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He was 82.
His death was announced by the National Football League. He had Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments.
Noll was a square-jawed former lineman who led the Steelers out of a long history of mediocrity. Seldom drawing attention to himself, he became one of his sport’s most successful coaches and remains the only coach in NFL history to win the Super Bowl four times.
His teams had plenty of stars — Noll drafted and developed 10 Hall of Fame players — but the true measure of the Steelers during his 23-year tenure derived from thorough preparation and a cohesive team spirit. He guided the team to prominence by following a meticulous, old-school style of adherence to the fundamentals of the sport.
No aspect of football escaped Noll’s attention. At times, he would interrupt practice to teach professional players the proper way to position their feet or assume a three-point stance.
“You can’t make a great play,” he said, “unless you first do it in practice.”
Noll had never been a head coach until he was hired to take over the hapless Steelers franchise in 1969. His team finished a miserable 1-13 in his first season.
“When Chuck became our head coach, he brought a change to the whole culture of the organization,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. “He set a new standard for the Steelers that still is the foundation of what we do and who we are.”
Noll brought an unusual stability to the franchise by building a core of players through careful drafting. In his first 16 years in Pittsburgh, Noll traded for only 10 players.
He drew on his background as a teacher to prepare his players endlessly in practice.
“The one nightmare I always had,” he said, “was going into a game unprepared.”
The first player Noll drafted in 1969 was defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene, who became the cornerstone of Pittsburgh’s impregnable “Steel Curtain” defense. In the next few years, Noll — who acted as the team’s de fact general manager as well as coach — drafted such standout defenders as cornerback Mel Blount and linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert.
His offensive unit came to include quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, center Mike Webster, and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. All of them entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“The single most important thing we had in the Steelers of the 1970s,” Noll said, “was an ability to work together.”
The Steelers had their breakout season under Noll in 1972, when they finished 11-3. In their first playoff game, against the Oakland Raiders, Bradshaw threw a long pass intended for John “Frenchy” Fuqua. The ball was deflected by Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, then caught on the run above his shoe tops by Harris, who raced into the end zone for the winning touchdown.
The play, forever known as the “Immaculate Reception,” gave Pittsburgh a 13-7 victory and is considered one of the greatest moments in NFL history.
After the 1974 season, the Steelers won their first Super Bowl, beating the Minnesota Vikings 16-6. A year later, the Steelers won again, defeating the Dallas Cowboys 21-17.
Pittsburgh returned to the Super Bowl against the Cowboys after the 1978 season. When Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson mocked Bradshaw’s intelligence, Noll delivered one of his many dry, pithy comments: “Empty barrels make the most noise.”
Bradshaw was named Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl as the Steelers beat the Cowboys 35-31. The next year, Bradshaw won his second straight Super Bowl MVP award, engineering a fourth-quarter comeback to lead Pittsburgh to a 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, giving Noll his fourth Super Bowl title in six years.
During the eight seasons from 1972 through 1979, Noll’s team was 88-27-1. The Steelers were the most powerful team of the 1970s in the way Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers were the top team of the 1960s and Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers dominated the 1980s.
Yet Noll was not named the NFL coach of the year until 1989, two years before he retired. If the snub bothered him, he never admitted it.
“The thrill isn’t in the winning,” he said, “it’s in the doing.”
Charles Henry Noll was born Jan. 5, 1932, in Cleveland.
He was a 1953 graduate of the University of Dayton, then played seven years for the Cleveland Browns as a guard and linebacker under Paul Brown, a coach Noll cited as his greatest influence. He later spent six years as an assistant coach to Sid Gillman of the San Diego Chargers, then three years as a defensive backfield coach with the Baltimore Colts under Don Shula.
Noll was known as a man of refined tastes, with an interest in fine wines, science and literature. He was a scuba diver and private pilot and had regular seats at the Pittsburgh Symphony. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Marianne; a son; and two grandchildren.
“I’m a teacher,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1980. “Players win, coaches teach them. I teach.”