How Chuck Noll saved the Steelers
In 1969, the rookie head coach began to turn the woeful Steelers into a dynasty
When Chuck Noll was a rookie with the Browns in 1953, a reporter looking to make conversation asked him if he had a girlfriend. Noll's response: "First I've got to make good. Then maybe I can get serious about girls."
It was typical Noll. He always had a plan, an if-then strategy tucked in his back pocket. His ideas were never fanciful, never full of dreamy prose; no one would ever make one glorious leap to the moon listening to him talk. But they'd know the first step they needed to take, and the next, and the next, until, suddenly, they were floating among the stars.
When Noll joined the Steelers as their head coach in 1969, adopting an 11-loss team, he brought with him as impressive a football résumé as there was: seven seasons playing in Cleveland for Paul Brown, the man who invented the NFL playbook; six seasons as a Chargers assistant under Sid Gillman, the first coach to extensively study game film; and three more seasons running the Colts defense for Don Shula. When Steelers boss Dan Rooney interviewed Noll, one day after the Colts' loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, he was amazed that, "it's one day after the Super Bowl, with all the attendant hype, hoopla and pressure, and he's telling me details about our offense and defense I thought only our coaches would know."
While he was with the Colts, fellow assistants teased Noll for being a know-it-all, calling him Knowledge Noll. But the Steelers had been around for 36 years and had just seven winning seasons. Smarts wouldn't be enough. The new coach had to be a bit bold. And Noll could be that, too. At an introductory press conference, a reporter told the new coach that Pittsburgh was a "city of losers."
"We'll change history," Noll said. "Losing has nothing to do with geography."
Noll was hired just 10 days before the NFL draft, and the Steelers had the fourth overall pick. For years Steelers coaches had traded away top picks in favor of wily veterans they thought could help them win right away. In 1961 alone, coach Buddy Parker gave away five of the team's first six draft choices. That had left the cupboard bare. But Noll had sold the Rooneys on a theory that the only way to build a team was through young talent. "Above all, he counseled patience," Dan Rooney wrote in his autobiography. "He knew it would take time to rebuild and instill in the players a winning attitude."
It was a plan that seemed so logical, so simple, that if they allowed him to follow it, they'd all one day see the football equivalent of a man strolling on the moon: The Steelers would be respectable. Maybe they'd even win.
NOLL BUILT his reputation as a defensive coach. When the Chargers won the AFL title in 1963, his unit allowed the fewest points in the league. In 1968, his last year with the Colts, Baltimore allowed just 144 points in the 14-game season, which tied the NFL record. For Noll, offense could be messy and tricky. But defense was practical, and there is beauty and logic in pragmatism. "I knew what you had to do to win," he said. "Number one, you had to not lose."
It made sense, then, that Noll decided his first move would be to draft a defensive player who could dominate the line of scrimmage. And he had a guy in mind, a defensive tackle from North Texas, in Denton, an hour northwest of Dallas. His name was Joe Greene.
Each assistant on Don Shula's staff was responsible for making trips to see prospects during the off-season. For three springs, Noll made sure to stop in Denton, where he watched the 6'4", 275-pound Greene destroy teammates in practices. Greene crackled with intensity, barely able to hide his ornery competitiveness. Pride seemed to be his sole motivation. In three college seasons, Greene's teams went 23-5-1 and held opponents to less than two yards per rush. After his senior year, in 1968, he was named a consensus All-America. Greene, known as Mean Joe, was so popular for his ruthlessness on the field--punching, kicking, throwing opponents--the school reportedly named its team after him, the Mean Green. When Noll was coaching for the Colts, he knew there was no way a talent like Greene would last. But now that he was the Steelers boss, drafting Greene was a possibility.
And when he did, there were rumblings of discontent. The Steelers needed a quarterback, too. And the most popular one in college football was Notre Dame's Terry Hanratty, who had led the Irish to a national title as a sophomore. He also happened to be from Butler, just outside Pittsburgh. Reporters wanted a name brand to sell some papers. And even though the Steelers picked up Hanratty in the second round, that wasn't good enough. A headline the next day read, "JOE WHO?"
The Whole Story
Chad Millman's book, "The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the 70s and the Fight for America's Soul," is out now and is available here.
Greene felt just as bad about going to Pittsburgh. He was a small-town Texas kid and a Cowboys fan. After he got the call from Noll, he looked through the sports books lining his shelves and the magazines in his room trying to find one positive thing written about Pittsburgh or the Steelers. He found nothing. "I was sad," he says. "I wished I hadn't been drafted at all. I only knew they were in the Steel City and it was old and smoky from the mills."
Greene had grown up in Temple, 100 miles south of Dallas. Because he was so big and rarely smiled, kids his age were scared of him. He was a man among 10-year-olds, brooding, hulking and moody. He was a bully by decree, not actions--someone who looked tough, and therefore was tough. When he was older, to help out his single mom raising four kids, he occasionally spent weekends working menial labor jobs, usually picking cotton next to grown men trying to support their families on a dollar or two an hour. These experiences aged him. "When I was 12, I told myself I would never go back to the fields," he once said. "I had a burning desire to be a success at something."
None of the fans in Pittsburgh knew this about him. They didn't know that he understood what every blue-collar mill worker felt when he walked into the foundry, because Greene had been that, too, just a guy punching a clock, looking for a paycheck. And losing meant doing it again. He had no intention of doing that.
That's who Joe was.
NOLL STARTED training camp in 1969 with the Oklahoma drill. From a three-point stance a defensive player goes face-to-face with an offensive lineman. At the snap, the defender must engage the lineman, shed the block and then tackle a running back, who gets a seven-yard head start. Right away, from the first minute of camp, coaches learned who was full of tenacity at the point of attack, and who would rather be fishing. The players loved it too, because it told them who was a target and who was legit. They were about to find out with Greene. "Ray Mansfield was first up," Steelers linebacker Andy Russell remembers. Mansfield was the Steelers starting center. He was thick and stout, the son of a man who laid concrete for a living. If there was someone who needed to say something when teammates were slacking, he did it. If there was someone who needed to play dirty with opponents, he did it. "And Joe just threw him like a rag doll--pushed him away with his left arm," Russell says. "Then he used his right arm to crush the back."
Years later, Russell would tell Dan Rooney that was the day everything changed for the Steelers. That one drill. It established Greene as the meanest, maddest, baddest player on the team. "He was the single most important player in the history of our success," Russell says.
That training camp was about setting a foundation. Players got the message when they received their practice jerseys: None had numbers. They were black and they were gold. Talent, not seniority, would rule the day. But Noll still treated his team like a Pee Wee squad. He taught blocking and tackling and three-point stances. He stood next to players like Russell, a Pro Bowler, and said, "I want your right foot two inches outside of your opponent's foot. I want you to reach with your right hand."
But Noll knew how far to push. He was there to make the Steelers better football players, not to be their father. Gone were the petty rules players hated. No more dress codes. Noll looked the other way when Mansfield snuck players out for a late-night beer. He even let reporters stay in the dorms, partially so they'd talk to players instead of bothering him. Noll's philosophy was simple: Dress codes didn't improve performance. And then, by some miracle, in front of more than 50,000 fans at Pitt Stadium on the first weekend of the 1969 season, the Steelers beat the Lions, 16-13. It was the kind of game Noll predicted--ugly, defensive, close. The first five scores through three quarters were field goals.
And that was as good as it would look all season long. The Steelers showed the growing pains of a young team learning a new system. The players could see in the box scores that they were at their best, they were winning, when they played the way Noll taught them to play. But that was always early, before more talented opponents began to dominate. It was frustrating, the way a toddler feels when he's just learning how to walk. And there were times when it boiled over.
In November, playing in Chicago against the league's only winless team, the 1-6 Steelers were blown out 38-7. At one point on a kickoff late in the game, Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus, largely considered the nastiest player in the NFL, clocked rookie L.C. Greenwood near the Steelers' side of the field. That was too much for Greene. He ran after Butkus, pulling him off the ground by his shoulder pads until the two were face-to-face. He was screaming at Butkus, who screamed back as loud as he could. Greene was in a rage--his team was being humiliated, his teammate had just been leveled--so he pulled his helmet off and cocked his arm, as if he was going to hammer it over Butkus' head. "Then I heard Andy Russell yell, 'Whoa, daddy!'" Greene says. "So I hesitated." When he did, Butkus turned around and ran back to his sideline.
Two weeks later in Minnesota, Greene was still simmering. In a 38-point loss, he was called for a late hit in front of the Vikings' bench, which was on the same side of the field as the Steelers'. As he got up, the Vikings' star defensive linemen, Carl Eller and Alan Page, taunted him. Greene didn't bother turning around. Instead he went to the Steelers' training table, grabbed a pair of scissors and ran after Eller and Page. His teammates stopped him. But his coach never said a word. Noll kept quiet in a game against the Eagles the next year, too, when Greene, frustrated because refs weren't calling holding, threw the game ball into the stands. "I don't know if anyone else would have tolerated my behavior," Greene once told NFL Films. "What Chuck saw was a raw kid who was immature. But he let me get it out and then molded it in a positive way."
Only once during that 1969 season did Noll berate the team for mistakes, after the season-opening win over the Lions. Every loss was followed by instruction more than criticism. "What did you see on that play?" Noll asked during film sessions. "Tell me why you made that decision."
"He never lost us," Russell says. "He said, 'You are going to get worse before you get better.' And we did. He said, 'I am going to teach you how to play this game.' And he did."
"He was so consistent," Greene says. "He didn't jump around from one idea to the next. He didn't jump all over us one day and then, the next day, say everything was great."
Because it wasn't. But Noll could tell it was getting better.
Chad Millman is a deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine.
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