It seems fitting that I am writing this article about Chuck Noll on Father’s day, because the man that told me about Chuck Noll was my father, Merland Torkelson. You see I grew up in a house hold were the TV was always on ESPN and if it wasn’t on ESPN it’s because the game was on. I grew up watching the Pittsburgh Steelers because that’s who my Dad watched and I became a Steelers fan because that’s who my Dad liked. But it wasn’t just watching the game with Dad that made me such a sports fan, it was the experience that I got from it that made it such a great time. My Dad took the time to teach me about the game. We talked about players and positions and play-action passes, but most of all, my Dad taught me about the history of the game. He’s the reason that I can tell you were most players played college ball, he's the reason I wore 44 when I played, and he’s the reason that I knew about the Steel Curtain and the coach that built a dynasty in the 70’s, Chuck Noll.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had existed for 34 years when they hired Chuck Noll as their coach in 1969. In those 34 years they had 5 winning seasons and 11 different coaches. Little did the Pittsburgh Steelers know that Chuck Noll would be their coach for the next 23 years. In those 23 seasons he will achieve 14 winning seasons and win 4 Super bowls. Becoming arguably the greatest coach in NFL history and winning 4 Super Bowls in just 6 seasons, a mark that may go unmatched.
Chuck Noll believed that you built your team through the draft, when most teams were trading draft picks for proven veteran players. Noll used the draft to build his dynasty. In his first draft in 1969 he was able to draft a defensive tackle in the 1st round from North Texas who would anchor his Steel Curtain defense, Joe Greene. They also were able to add John Kolb in the 3rd round , who protected Terry Bradshaw’s blindside during the their 8 winning seasons during the 70’s and could very well be the best left tackle in franchise history. In the 10th round they picked up another talented defensive player in LC Greenwood. He would go on to start at defensive end during their Super Bowl wins. Some would argue that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. In 1970 he added Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount through the draft. 2 future HOFers, Bradshaw was the first quarterback to lead his team to 4 Super Bowl victories and Mel Blount is one of the greatest defensive backs to ever play the game. 1971, Jack Hamm, yet another Hall of Famer, was a second round selection for the Steelers and Noll teamed him up with my Dad’s favorite player, Andy Russell, at the other outside linebacker spot. Russell was one of the few players that Noll inherited in 1969 that were able to contribute during their great run. My Dad argues to this day that Andy Russell deserves to be in the HOF. Another player that was picked up in the ’71 draft was Dwight White. Noll had put together a fearsome front 4 in 3 drafts in White, Mean Joe Green, and LC Greenwood. The ’72 draft would give the Steelers their most famous player in franchise history. Noll drafted a physical running back out of Penn St. Franco Harris. Franco would go on to complete the most incredible play in NFL history in the immaculate reception. Adding another Hall of Fame player to the roster, Noll drafted a running back that would finish his career second on the all-time rushing list just behind Jim Brown. In 4 drafts, Noll had drafted 5 future hall of famers. The Cincinnati Bengals have only had 2 Hall of Famers in their entire franchise history.
1973 they were able to add a starter in JT Thomas, a cornerback that would start opposite of Mel Blount. They may not have added much talent in the ’73 draft but the Steelers and Noll more than made up for it in the 1974 draft. The ’74 draft was the greatest draft in NFL history and it would shape the NFL for the next decade. Noll, with the help from his best scout, Bill Nunn Jr, drafted future HOFers, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, Jon Stallworth, and Mike Webster. Jack Lambert brought the nastiness that the Steelers loved and a fast middle linebacker that could help out in pass coverage. The Steel Curtain had their general and the offense got 2 playmakers on the outside to help open the field up for Franco Harris and gave to dangerous weapons for Bradshaw to throw to. Webster would man the center position for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 15 years.
Chuck Noll’s record in his first 10 seasons in the NFL was 100-55-1, 4 Super Bowl wins. 30 of the losses came in the first 3 seasons he was there. After struggling for the first 3 seasons, the Steelers would win 4 of the next 6 Super Bowls. Noll wouldn’t have another losing season for 13 years. In 23 seasons of coaching the Steelers his record was 193-148-1 and retired with the 6th most victories as a head coach. He drafted 11 eventual Hall of Famers and 16 All Pro’s. The 1975 team that he coached to the Super Bowl is one of the greatest teams of all time. The defense was so good that they were able to hold 8 of the 14 teams they faced to 10 points or fewer. If you include the playoffs that number would jump to 10 teams, holding the Baltimore Colts and Oakland Raiders to 10 points each in the playoffs.
Noll’s strategy of building the team through the draft is still used by the Pittsburgh Steelers today. Many teams adopted the same strategy after the Steelers dominated the ‘70s. Noll became a face of a franchise and his humble demeanor made him loved by many. Noll’s impact on the game still resonates in the game today. He coached with class and dignity and his teams played that way on the field. His meticulous game planning made it easy for players to practice and perform the plays flawlessly during games. He wasn’t a spirited leader like many coaches. He didn’t get in your face if you made a horrible play, and he didn’t give you a pat on the behind if you made a great play. Mel Blount said,”His pregame speeches were usually him talking about the game plan and how we had to use our fundamentals. But I was talking to Joe Greene about this the other day. The one pregame we never forgot was before our playoff game against the Oakland Raiders in 1974.The week before, the Raiders beat the Miami Dolphins. Somebody saw that John Madden said the two best teams in football played that week and that was the Super Bowl. Chuck came in and said we were going out there and were going to win this game. He said we have the best team. We all looked around and said, "Wow." We had never seen that from Chuck. We went out there, won the game and went on to win our first Super Bowl.”
In a way I can trace back my love and knowledge of football back to Chuck Noll. The way my Dad talked about him and was inspired by him to coach definitely reflects in the way I think of sports and how to handle myself on and off the field. I wasn’t alive to see Noll draft and coach the greatest dynasty in NFL history. But Noll did draft 2 of my favorite Pittsburgh Steelers. Rod Woodson, another Hall of Famer, and Greg Lloyd, a fan favorite and my favorite Steelers player of all-time. I was able to watch his last few years and remember how great it felt to know that the team I followed was being coached by a living legend. His impact on the game and in my life is unforgettable. I raise a glass to a great man I never knew, but influenced my life more than he would ever know.