Chuck Noll dead at 82

Published Jun 16, 2014 at 2:32 pm (Updated Jun 16, 2014 at 2:32 pm)

After watching his son pitch in a playoff baseball game Monday evening, Ted Petersen drove through the night, from Illinois to Pittsburgh, to attend the 10 a.m. funeral on June 17 for Chuck Noll, 82, who died June 13, 2014. The former offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers had plenty of time to reflect upon the legendary Hall of Fame field general that guided him to success beyond the Super Bowl.

“I have many fond memories,” Petersen began of his coach for 11 NFL seasons, from 1977-1984 and in 1987. “Chuck meant a lot to me. He was a class act.”

The Rooney family knew it, too. That is why Art Sr. hired him in 1969 to turn around the franchise after 13 other coaches failed to come close to gaining a playoff spot.

“Chuck Noll is the best thing that happened to the Rooneys since they got on the boat (to America) in Ireland,” Art Rooney II, the former Steelers personnel chief and the son of the team founder, once said.

“He was one of the great coaches of the game,” added Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

Indeed, Noll, inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton in 1993, guided the Steelers to four Super Bowls over six seasons; 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979. In 23 seasons, he racked up a 209-156-1 record that also included a 16-8 post-season mark, which still remains one of the best in NFL history.

Petersen would use the world ‘great’ in his reflections. He said Noll was a coach that was very intellectual and knowledgeable. While he knew plenty about a lot of things, in football, he had a ‘tremendous’ working knowledge.

“Chuck knew the fundamentals and what separated him most from all the others was his ability to communicate it in a concise way. He didn’t use a lot of words,” said Petersen, who owns two Super Bowl rings. “His words spoke volumes.”

As a coach, himself, at Trinity High School, Petersen realized Noll’s words rang true. In his attempt to explain a particular fundamental, Peterson parroted to his players Noll’s exact instruction. Petersen smiled to himself. He realized that Noll knew what he was talking about and ‘he could teach it to you’. Not only did he teach us the fundamentals,” Petersen continued, “Chuck taught us mental toughness and those two things made the Steelers what they were in the 1970s.”

Tough could have passed for Noll’s middle name. “He was a no-nonsense guy who put the fear of the Lord into you,” said Petersen. “You were the next out the door if you did not perform well.”

During his third or fourth season in the NFL, Petersen remembered being unable to perform, let alone well. Slated to have hip surgery, Petersen was going to be placed on the injured-reserve list.

Well aware of Noll’s philosophy that players, who nursed their injuries in the whirlpool did ‘not make the club in the tub,’ the hard-working Petersen was worried, particularly when Noll called him into his office. To his relief, Petersen said Noll assured him that there would be a spot for him when he returned.

“You never heard that from anybody else,” said Petersen, who served as the Upper St. Clair High School athletic director before taking a similar position at Kankakee Community College in his native Momence. “For him to say that meant a lot. He’ll never know what that meant to me.”

Besides football, family, friends and faith meant a great deal to Noll. Born in Cleveland, he attended Benedictine High School. An all-state running back and tackle, he earned a scholarship to Dayton. Drafted by the dreaded Cleveland Browns, Noll retired as a player in 1959 at age 27. He served as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Colts for nine seasons before accepting the position with the Steelers and Rooney found him a home in Upper St. Clair.

In addition to becoming friends with Duquesne basketball coach Red Manning and his wife, Pat, who lived in Bethel Park, Noll befriended media members such as broadcaster Myron Cope and sportswriter Jim O’Brien. Both lived in the neighborhood, within a mile from Noll’s Warwick Drive residence. In fact, Noll often visited Cope’s home to fix appliances for him, says O’Brien. The noted Pittsburgh sports historian also recalled attending Noll’s retirement press conference. As he walked by O’Brien, he placed his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘hi neighbor.’ Putting his hand on your right shoulder, as he did at Ray Mansfield’s memorial service at Westminster Presbyterian Church, was Noll’s way of saying hello and letting you know he was there, adds O’Brien.

Noll was there for others. He looked after his widowed sister and her children. “Quietly and without fanfare,” O’Brien said. “That’s the way he approached so many things.” His favorite charity was the former Guild For The Blind in Bridgeville and he preferred St. Vincent College for training camp because it was run by the same order he had experienced in high school, added O’Brien.

“Chuck had high standards for himself. He behaved himself and had a strong spiritual side,” O’Brien continued. “He believed family was important and time with family was vital. He kept sane hours. He never slept in the stadium as some of his contemporaries did. He wanted his coaches to be home in the evenings.”

Noll opened his home to O’Brien more than once. And to his shock, even when told it was for interviewing purposes. O’Brien published the only book every written on the Hall of Fame coach. It is titled “Chuck Noll – A Winning Way.”

“When I asked him to do an interview, to my surprise, Chuck said ‘why don’t you come over to the house’ and he and Marianne were the perfect hosts. After he retired, Chuck was more willing to reflect on his career and his experiences with the Steelers.”

The hours O’Brien spent with Noll at his home in Sewickley, where he died of natural causes although he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, were wonderful. “I treasure those experiences most,” said O’Brien.

Petersen, too, relishes his later encounters with his coach. While Petersen was dining with John Kolb in the Allegheny Club, the teammates ran into Noll. “Chuck had just retired and for us, he was still our coach. It was uncomfortable initially, but Chuck had changed a good bit. He wasn’t the guy cutting people any more. He seemed relaxed and we talked about all kinds of things. Just like one of the guys,” Petersen said.

While Petersen has lost many teammates, who were friends, such as Mansfield, Mike Webster, Steve Furness and Steve Courson, the loss of Noll hurt no less.

“As players we were close and it came as a punch to the stomach to learn of some of their deaths. Courson’s was the hardest for me,” admitted Petersen. “But, while I knew Chuck wasn’t in the best of health, the news always takes you aback. You never know. Death can come at any age. It is still surprising and startling news.

“We lost our coach. He was a class act.”

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