I grew up in North Ridgeville, Ohio. We lived on Noll Drive, Dick Noll was the Mayor, and my grandmother’s name was Clara Noll Fitzpatrick. Chuck Noll was the first cousin of Clara Noll, which would make him the grandson of my great-great grandfather, or my first cousin twice removed. It must have been easier for my dad to tell us kids that he was our uncle when we were growing up. None of it mattered, anyways, as we were Cleveland Browns fans, and I never wanted to see the Pittsburgh Steelers win anything. I have fond memories of the Noll-Fitzpatrick-Carney Reunions, but by the time I started to figure out who was who, and what was what, “Uncle” Chuck took a break from attending our extended family get-togethers—he was busy winning Super Bowl Championships for the hated rival.
The only time I remember cheering for the Steelers was when they were playing the Dallas Cowboys. I still remember back in 1979 listening to Super Bowl XIII on a pocket transistor radio with an earpiece while attending a roller skate party for my school — Who schedules a roller-skate party on Super Bowl Sunday? I remember the experience because it felt odd cheering the Steelers on to a 35-31 victory over the Cowboys. The following year, the Steelers repeated as champs by winning Super Bowl XIV by defeating my other favorite team, the LA Rams, and my new favorite player, Lawrence McCutcheon, by a score of 31-19. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of my first cousin - twice removed - making history by coaching his team to four Super Bowl Championships in six years.
Fast-forwarding to recent years, after spending two years (2013-2015) as the Orange County Public School District Athletic Director, my admiration has grown for my “Uncle” Chuck. One of the things I enjoyed most while serving as the District Athletic Director was the opportunity to teach a class that all OCPS coaches were required to attend during their first year of coaching, and then once every three years thereafter—The OCPS Approach to Athletics Coaching Theory class. I love teaching, so the class was a welcomed opportunity to rekindle my passion for instruction. While researching and preparing for the class, I discovered the true genius of Coach Chuck Noll. I found his theories and coaching style to be among the very best that I’ve ever come across over a lifetime of being involved in sports. A considerable amount of what I relate while teaching the OCPS Approach to Athletics class comes right out of his playbook. To honor him at this time, I would like to share just a few of his theories and quotes, both by him and about him.
1. Winning isn’t everything. Contrary to other great coaches of professional football, winning wasn’t everything to Coach Noll. Noll said, "A life of frustration is inevitable for any coach whose main enjoyment is winning." Do you want to be happy as a coach? If so, make sure your main enjoyment in coaching isn’t winning. Winning is certainly fun and enjoyable, but the real enjoyment is developing players, and helping them reach their full potential as players, fathers, mothers, friends, citizens, neighbors, etc. Take it from a guy who won four Super Bowl championships, if you focus on developing people, the winning will come, and with much joy along the way and thereafter. The scoreboard may not indicate how many players you have developed over the years, but each of your former players know the score, and every time they come back to see you out of respect, and say thanks, you can count it as another win. If your players never come back to see you, well, it’s time to look inward.
2. Take care of your family…your family at home, and your coaching family. John Clayton of ESPN related the following about Chuck Noll focus on family time, “Few Coaches were as organized as Noll. Coaching in the NFL isn’t a 9-to-5 job, but Noll was efficient enough to make his schedule manageable. He’d drive to the Steeler’s office in the morning and would leave in time to have dinner at a normal time with his wife. There was no sleeping in the office. There were no ridiculously long meetings. Noll even told his assistants to get their work done in time to get home and spend time with their families. Yet Noll and his staff had perhaps the best prepared team in football.”1 The divorce rate for coaches is second only to doctors, so I am told. Coaching will take over your entire life if you let it. If you win all of your games, and you lose your family, can you consider yourself to be a winner? I understand that many may already find themselves and their family to be a casualty of coaching—if that is the case, all that can be done at this point is to be determined to do things differently in the future.
3. Money isn’t everything and football isn’t life. Noll once said, "Never make a major decision based solely on money." Noll played professional football for seven years for the Cleveland Browns, but he knew that his life’s work was coaching, so he left his playing career early in order to pursue his passion. Tony Dungy, a former player and assistant coach for Noll, relates a story about his first team meeting with Noll as a player: “The first time I ever saw Chuck Noll, I was a rookie on the first day of minicamp in 1977. The Steelers had just won two Super Bowls. I sat down, opened my notebook and my playbook, preparing to write down everything he said -- what to do, how to make the team and win Super Bowls just like Chuck Noll. And the first thing he says is, "Gentlemen, welcome to the National Football League. You are getting paid to play football now so that makes it your profession, but don’t ever mistake football for your life. Football can’t be your life. I am your coach but my job is to help you find your life’s work. We’re gonna win some games along the way and become a great football team, but I don’t want you to think life is all football." 2
4. Do Your Homework. If you want to be a great coach, you have to be a student of the game. Noll once said, "Pressure is something you feel when you don't know what you're doing." Noll had an attention to detail that few coaches had—he saw the game in simple terms. After nine years as an assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers and the Baltimore Colts, Noll was hired to take over the struggling Steelers. After watching film on his new team, Noll related the following: “Look, I’ve been watching the game films since I took the job. And I can tell you guys that the reason you’ve been losing is not because of your attitude, or your psyche, or any of that stuff. The problem is you’re just not good enough. You know, you can’t run fast enough, you can’t jump high enough, you’re not quick enough. You’re techniques are just abysmal. I’m probably going to have to get rid of most of you...and we’re going to move on."3 Andy Russell, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker before and after Noll became the coach, punctuated his thoughts on Noll by adding, “Well, five of us made it from that room in 1969 to the Super Bowl in 1974.” Noll did his homework, and he also wasn’t afraid to be honest.
5. Yelling at People Doesn’t Get the Job Done. Noll didn’t believe in yelling at people to motivate them. After an 0-3 start in 1986, the media asked him what he was going to do. “Relaxing is one of the things we want to do. Yelling at people doesn`t get the job done. If it did, we might try it.”4 On another occasion, he added, “If I have to yell at you to motivate you to play your best, as a professional, you probably deserve to be fired.” One exception was Terry Bradshaw. Noll did yell at his quarterback on occasion—but can you fault him when a guy throws two interceptions after being told to keep the ball on the ground when the game was all but won—and one of the interceptions went for a pick-six. Bradshaw credits Noll for developing his mental toughness that later helped him handle adversity in life. Noll also felt pregame motivational speeches were unnecessary and redundant. Tony Dungy took much of what he learned under Chuck Noll and crafted his own theory on yelling that he explained in his book Quiet Strength: “I don’t yell a lot. In fact, yelling will be rare. When I get mad, I usually talk at the same volume I’m talking now. And when I get really mad…I whisper. So if my voice at this level won’t get your attention and you believe you need someone to yell at you to correct you or motivate you, then we’ll probably need to find you another team to play for so that you can play your best.”5 Noll added something about watching your temper…and always remaining calm under pressure, "Men are like steel. When they lose their temper, they lose their worth."
6. Focus on the Fundamentals. “Champions are champions not because they do anything extraordinary, but because they do the ordinary things better than anyone else.” The key to doing the ordinary things better than others is how you practiced every day. Noll also quipped, “ You can’t make a great play unless you first do it in practice.” Another common line that Noll used was, “Good things happen to those who hustle.” With regards to keeping the game simple, Noll always said, “The game is blocking and tackling.” Craig Wolfley, Steeler offensive tackle and guard during the 1980’s, related this story about Noll’s technique for teaching the fundamentals of the game, “When I was a senior at Syracuse, Chuck flew up and he worked me out. We’re doing pass rushes and he’s teaching me the punch, and I’ve never seen a punch like that in my life, the extension of the hands and everything else. So he’s telling me, “When I rush and I throw a swim, arm over or arm under, punch me in the chest.” So we do this a few times, and I can see that he’s getting a little chagrined. He knows I’m not getting it, I’m not really punching him. He said, “I really want you to punch me.” The next pass rush he comes and throws this arm over and I just drill him and [his fist] ricochets off his arms and I punch him right in the mouth. He’s bleeding from the mouth, and I’m standing there going, “OK, this is probably over. He’ll never draft me. I just bloodied his lip.” And I could see that little flash of anger in his eyes and that bulldog look that I’d come to know in the future years. Then he just kind of slowed up and started to laugh and said, “Now that’s a punch.”6
7. Give credit where credit is due. Noll knew that it takes players to win. He once said, "Some coaches pray for wisdom. I pray for 260-pound tackles. They'll give me plenty of wisdom." This shows you how much the game has changed—tackles are well over 300 lbs. these days. Noll had an eye for talent, and he knew how to develop it to it’s full potential. Noll picked up four future Hall of Famers in the 1974 draft. Tony Dungy had this to say about Noll ability to pick players who fit into his system, and then to develop them to their full potential, “His genius was in finding players who fit what he wanted to do. People look at the 1974 draft and say it was one of the greatest drafts of all time. But you had Lynn Swann who was kind of an undersized receiver. And Jack Lambert, he was a 205-pound middle linebacker from a small school. John Stallworth was a kind of running back, slash, slot receiver from a tiny school. Mike Webster was a short, undersized center who was not fast at all. Those guys would not have been drafted by a lot of teams. The Dallas Cowboys would not have even had them on their draft board based on their size and speed. But with Coach Noll, they were just what he was looking for.”7
8. Take care of your players. Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount had this to say about Noll, “He was a father figure, with me being a young African-American growing up in the South and losing my father early in my college career. My father died during my freshman year of college. Just being young and immature, Chuck was a stabilizer; he was a stabilizing figure in my life. He was a great mentor and a great leader. He was special."
9. Love the game. Noll believed in loving the game. Noll would say, “The thrill isn’t in the winning, it’s in the doing.” Never lose your love for playing the game. A love for the game will propel you to become your best, regardless of whether or not you may be enjoying the momentary success of winning. Noll also understood loving the game from a player’s perspective. He was a guard, but was asked to play linebacker—he was willing to play any position he could to help the team. He loved the game.
10. Don’t get carried away by the Limelight. Noll didn’t really care about the limelight, which is probably why there was never a movie made about his success as a coach. He was pursued by companies to shoot commercials for their products, but after doing one for a friend, decided it wasn’t his thing, and told them to find an assistant coach to fill in for him. When it came time to accept the championship trophies, he always stood in the background and allowed the owner to take the limelight. The limelight simply was not his goal, which is quite admirable in today’s generation of me-worship and selfies.
11. There’s more to life than sports. Noll enjoyed life. Noll loved sailing and flying, roses and operas, fine wines and family time. Keep life in perspective. Noll was one of the most balanced individuals to ever take the sidelines as a coach.
There you have it… Chuck Noll—winner of four Super Bowl Championships, coach of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. Now you know why I believe he was one of the best coaches to ever lead a team onto the gridiron. RIP “Uncle” Chuck.
Lessons Learned From My Uncle Chuck
RIP Chuck Noll
January 5, 1932 - June 13, 2014
by Matthew J. Fitzpatrick, Former OCPS District Athletic Director (2013-2015)
1. Chuck Noll’s Sphere of Influence, John Clayton, ESPN.Go.Com
Chuck Noll's Sphere of Influence
2. Remembering Chuck Noll: Their Words, Scott Brown, ESPN.Go.Com