The Allegheny County Medical Examiner said Noll died of natural causes.
Noll transformed the Steelers from a long-standing joke into one of the NFL’s preeminent powers, becoming the only coach to win four Super Bowls. He was a demanding figure who did not make close friends with his players, yet was a successful and motivating leader.
The Steelers won the four Super Bowls over six seasons (1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979), an unprecedented run that made Pittsburgh one of the NFL’s marquee franchises, one that breathed life into a struggling, blue-collar city.
“He was one of the great coaches of the game,” Steelers owner Dan Rooney once said. “He ranks up there with (George) Halas, (Tom) Landry and (Curly) Lambeau.”
Noll’s 16-8 record in postseason play remains one of the best in league history. He retired in 1991 with a 209-156-1 record in 23 seasons, after inheriting a team that had never won a postseason game. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Noll worked so well with Steelers President Rooney that the team never felt the need to have a general manager. When he retired, and was replaced by Bill Cowher, only four other coaches or managers in modern U.S. pro sports history had run their teams longer than Noll had.
“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.
A former messenger guard for his hometown Cleveland Browns who earned the nicknamed Knute Knowledge ― as in Knute Rockne ― Noll was an assistant with the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Colts for nine seasons. Then he accepted what seemed a dead-end job in January 1969 as coach of the NFL’s least-successful organization.
Art Rooney Sr. often hired friends and cronies as coaches, and only two of the Steelers’ first 13 coaches had winning records. At the time Noll took over, the franchise was 105 games below .500 in its history.
Noll, hired only after Penn State’s Joe Paterno turned down a $350,000, five-year offer, was different from any Steelers coach before him. He immediately brought intelligence, toughness, stability, confidence, character and a can-do mindset to a franchise accustomed to constant upheaval and ever-changing personnel.
Asked at his first news conference if his goal was to make the Steelers respectable, Noll said, “Respectability? Who wants to be respectable? That’s spoken like a true loser.’’
Perhaps not the most colorful coach behind the microphone, Noll could often be counted on for memorable, motivational one-liners that became rallying cries. Phrases like “A life of frustration is inevitable for any coach whose main enjoyment is winning,’’ and “Before you can win a game, you have to not lose it,’’ and “The thrill isn’t in the winning, it’s in the doing,’’ spoke volumes about what Noll was trying to accomplish. They went over well in a football-crazed region of Pennsylvania.
The day after Noll was hired, the Steelers drafted defensive lineman Joe Greene. He was the first of the nine Hall of Famers selected during the Noll era. Four of the others were drafted within Noll’s first four seasons: Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Jack Ham and Franco Harris.
Four more arrived in the first five rounds of the 1974 draft: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. And the 1971 draft, though it produced only one Hall of Famer (Ham), generated seven starters.
While the Steelers surprisingly won their opener under Noll in 1969, beating Detroit, they lost their final 13 games that season, and their first three in 1970. By then, some were questioning Noll’s hiring.
The Steelers’ turnaround began in earnest in 1970, the year they moved into the AFC after the NFL and AFL merged. They drafted Bradshaw with the No. 1 pick, moved into Three Rivers Stadium after years of being a secondhand tenant of Pitt Stadium and Forbes Field. They won five of eight during one stretch.
By 1972, the year Harris arrived to give them the ground game Noll sought, they were championship contenders with an 11-3 record and a we’ve-turned-the-corner attitude. Noll had long since run off underachievers and pushed the Rooneys to bring in the players he wanted.
“He’ll argue a point with you and keep yelling, ‘No, this is right, you’re wrong,’” Dan Rooney said. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it.’”
The first traditional playoff game in Steelers history on Dec. 23, 1972, also signaled what was to come. The Steelers were in control of the John Madden-coached Raiders most of the game, until quarterback Ken Stabler scored in the final two minutes to put Oakland up 7-6.
With the Steelers down to fourth-and-10 on their side of the field, Bradshaw lofted a pass downfield intended for Frenchy Fuqua. As Fuqua and safety Jack Tatum converged on the ball, it bounded high in the air for what looked to be a certain incompletion. Instead, Harris, trailing on the play, caught the ball nearly at his shoe tops and raced into the end zone for an improbable touchdown.
The play would quickly become known as the “Immaculate Reception.”
Noll’s Steelers did not win the Super Bowl that season ― they lost to unbeaten Miami on a fake punt in the AFC title game.
But, with their roster completed by their remarkable 1974 draft, they finally became NFL champions and did it three more times by January 1980.
Still, Noll’s best team might have been in 1976, when the Steelers rebounded from a 1-4 start to go 10-4 ― even with Bradshaw injured and out most of the season ― by playing the greatest stretch of defense in NFL history.
The Steel Curtain shut out five of their final nine opponents while yielding only 28 points. At one point, they didn’t allow a touchdown for 22 quarters.
However, Harris and Rocky Bleier, 1,000-yard rushers that season, were injured in a playoff game against Baltimore. Without a running game, they lost the AFC title to Oakland.
A year later, Noll wound up in a federal court trial. He accused Raiders defensive back George Atkinson, who had leveled Swann with a brutal hit the season before, of being part of the NFL’s “criminal element.”
Noll prevailed, but there were hard feelings when, under oath, he included Blount as also being part of that criminal element. The Steelers went 9-5 that season, but rebounded to win the championship in the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
When all the talent began to retire, the championships ended. Great drafts gave way to poor ones. The Steelers won only two playoff games and no conference championships in Noll’s final 12 seasons, missing the postseason eight times.
Noll never was much of a yeller or screamer, though he had his moments. He confronted Oilers coach Jerry Glanville at midfield and warned him about the team’s borderline-legal blocking techniques.
“He didn’t feel like it was his job to motivate,” Bleier said. “It was his job to take motivated people and give them a direction and get the job done.”
When he retired, Noll always said he would never coach another team and he didn’t.
In 2007, the football field at St. Vincent College, the Steelers’ longtime training camp home in Latrobe, was named for Noll, even though he played at and graduated from Dayton.
Born in Cleveland, Noll attended Benedictine High School, where he played running back and tackle, winning All-State honors, before gaining a scholarship to play for the Flyers. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh’s biggest, most traditional rival, in 1953.
At 27, he retired as a player from the Browns in 1959.