The Times West Virginian


June 14, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: In Pittsburgh, a legend lost, another born

MORGANTOWN — There was a certain kind of unjust irony Friday, sometime around 11 p.m., that as Pittsburgh’s athletic future was being born with Pirates’ outfielder Gregory Polanco using the fifth hit of his fourth major league game as a game-winning home run to beat Miami in the 13th inning, word was beginning to break of the death of the man who built the greatest era in Pittsburgh’s sports history.

As the first chapter of the legend of Gregory Polanco was being written, the final chapter of the legend of “The Emperor,” as Myron Cope dubbed Steelers coach Chuck Noll, was completed as he died in his sleep at 82.

As it is with the most common of man, life could be taken from Chuck Noll, but what could not be taken from him was the four Super Bowl trophies he had brought to Pittsburgh in constructing the Steelers’ dynasty, turning what was perhaps the worst franchise in any professional sport into perhaps the best.

Certainly, Chuck Noll turned it into the most fanatic, a group of tailgating, Terrible Towel-waving Steeler worshippers who virtually single-handedly took a city living in the gloom of failure, giving it pride in itself as it rebuilt its economy, its social standing and its image.

Possessed by a single-minded pursuit of football greatness, Noll nonetheless was a well-rounded person who had many interests beyond the game of football, talented enough at the height of greatness as a coach to even conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in “The Stars and Stripes Forever” during a charity visit to St. Vincennes College during Steelers training camp.

And if you are stunned to think of Noll directing a symphony orchestra, accept that you are no less stunned than were a group of his players one Christmas. During a tree decorating party, these players decided to go caroling, perhaps helped along by an extra cup of eggnog or two, stopping first at owner Dan Rooney’s house and then moving on to Noll’s abode.

Greeted by Chuck and his wife, Marianne, warmly and invited in, they were stunned when Noll pulled out his ukulele and began strumming it as if he had been born and raised in Honolulu rather than in Cleveland.

They all had a wonderful time and the players who were present thought there might be a breakthrough with their all-business coach, but the next day at practice it was as if they had never gathered, for Noll the football coach and Noll the homebody were two completely different characters.

Noll had been pointed toward greatness as a coach from the beginning. He played at Dayton and was drafted by Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns, perhaps the greatest football mind ever. Brown saw the innate football smarts that Noll had, converted him from linebacker to messenger guard where he would bring plays into the games and certainly did nothing to discourage Noll from retiring at 27 to begin a coaching career.

Talk about learning at your master’s knee, he went from Brown to Sid Gillman in San Diego a number of championship years, then assisted Don Shula before becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history at the time at age 34.

Not that this was anything to brag about, the Steelers being the NFL’s worst team, something even he could not straighten out immediately, winning his coaching debut then losing the final 13 games of the season to go 1-13.

But with spectacular drafting and a building plan that pieced together a team with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell, Lynn Swann, Rocky Bleier, etc., he became the only coach with four Super Bowl trophies — a feat still not matched.

Pittsburgh, at the time, was transforming itself from a smog-laden, dirty steel town into the beautiful, clean technology-savvy city that is rich in the arts and architecture.

If its Pirates had been losers, baseball’s worst team in the 1950s to the point they were nicknamed the Rickey Dinks for their penny-pinching general manager Branch Rickey, they, too, blossomed by the 1970s and won the world title in 1979, part of the city’s renaissance that was built around Noll’s Steelers.

Interestingly, at least in this little corner of the world, is that I got to Pittsburgh covering the Pirates in the 1980s at a time the Steelers began to go into decline and, as happens, Noll was getting no small amount of bad reviews from Pittsburgh’s most outspoken columnists and talk show hosts.

It was as it always is in sports: What have you done for me lately, a blinkered approach to seeing the world as it really is.

It moved me after one particularly harsh account that heaped blame upon Noll to write a column in his defense. The words of that column have left me as the years advanced, but what did not leave me was one of the few souvenirs that I clung to.

I never was one to go seeking autographs or relics for myself, but this one came quite unexpected through the mail, a letter from Steelers founder and owner Art Rooney, thanking me for what I had to say about Noll and offering his view of what Noll really meant to the Steelers.

If a coach going through a bad time meant that much to his boss to have him react to a newspaper article by someone he knew only in passing, really, then that was tribute enough to make that letter a special delivery.

Now, though, we live in a world without Chuck Noll, although the aura he cast over the city shines brightly.

It will not grow dull, in part because it is an eternal light but also because time moves forward and it appears that Polanco and Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates are ready to take the torch and carry it through a new era of sports.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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