Throughout the first forty years of their existence, the Pittsburgh Steelers have experienced just about everything. They merged with the Eagles and the Chicago Cardinals, just so they could field teams during World War II, and for a brief moment they were even owned by Bert Bell instead of the Rooneys, but what they never seemed to experience was winning. They had plenty of stars throughout the early years, like Bobby Layne, Jack Butler, Ernie Stautner and John Henry Johnson. They played a physical brand of defense, but they were always an old team full of veterans.
For years, the Steelers’ way was to trade off draft picks for proven veterans whose best days were behind them. Coaches like Walt Kiesling didn’t believe in wasting time coaching young players because “you can’t win with them”, and consequently, players like Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson were cut. The constant hiring, firing and recycling of head coaches, combined with the annual tradeoff of draft picks kept the Steelers old and regularly among the worst teams in the NFL. In their first thirty-six seasons, the Steelers had thirteen head coaches, leaving Art Rooney frustrated and desperate to win. After the 1968 season the Chief made a decision on a head coach that would alter the course of his franchise.
Art Rooney’s first choice to coach the Steelers in 1969 was his personal friend and Penn State coach, Joe Paterno. Paterno, however, was more interested in remaining a college coach, so the search continued. Rooney then chose Baltimore Colts defensive coordinator Charles Henry Noll to be his next head coach, and on January 27, 1969, Chuck Noll became the fourteenth head coach in team history.
Noll is considered to be part of the Sid Gillman coaching tree and during his time as a defensive assistant for the Chargers, they were a participant in five AFL Championship games. As the Defensive Coordinator with the Colts in 1968, Baltimore finished with a 13-1 record and ultimately lost to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Noll developed a reputation for his attention to detail and meticulous note taking to help develop his players. The way he interacted with players and got the most out of them is what got him recommended to Art Rooney. His plan for building a winner in Pittsburgh is what got him the head coaching job for the Steelers and that included building the team through the draft and starting with the defense. His very first pick in 1969 was DT Mean Joe Greene out of North Texas State, leaving everyone asking Joe who? Chuck Noll knew what he was doing, as he later drafted should-be Hall of Famer, L.C. Greenwood.
While a 1-13 record in his first season as a head coach would have gotten him fired in today’s NFL, and left most coaches discouraged, Noll preached patience and got Art Rooney to buy into the concept as well. With the first pick in 1970, his second draft, Chuck Noll selected his franchise quarterback out of Louisiana Tech, Terry Bradshaw. Noll got his second Hall of Famer of that draft when he snagged cornerback Mel Blount. In his first two drafts, the Emperor Chaz ended up with three Hall of Fame players, as the the team improved from 1-13 to 5-9. In 1971, the Steelers’ record further improved to 6-8. In that year’s draft, Noll selected eight players who would go on to be starters on their Super Bowl teams, which included another Hall of Fame player in linebacker Jack Ham. The 1972 season would end up being one for the record books as Chuck Noll’s patient approach finally began paying off. The Steelers won their first division title with an 11-3 record and their first playoff game, led by another Hall of Fame draft pick, rookie running back Franco Harris. Harris’s game winning touchdown on his Immaculate Reception not only ended the Raiders season, but also the Steelers’ long losing curse, and the best was yet to come.
While the Steelers made a second straight playoff appearance in 1973 and drafted two more players who would contribute on Super Bowl championship teams, J.T. Thomas and Loren Toews, Chuck Noll’s 1974 draft would launch a dynasty and go down as the greatest draft in NFL history. Four out of Noll’s first five selections were Hall of Famers in Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. It is no coincidence either, that 1974 was the season that they won the first of their four Super Bowls under Chuck Noll. All told, the Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls twice and won four in six years, because Chuck Noll had a plan and he stuck to it despite the difficulties early on.
He taught the Rooneys patience, as prior to his arrival they were anything but — thirteen coaches in thirty-six years, remember? Noll taught the Rooneys the value of sticking to a plan and building through the draft, when they had a history of trading those draft picks away. The Steeler Way (capitalized thanks to Noll) of doing things was really the Chuck Noll way of doing things, and the Rooneys wisely adopted and continued with it after those four Super Bowls in a six year period. That is why they have only had three head coaches in the last forty-five years. That is why they won their fifth Lombardi Trophy in 2005 and didn’t fire Bill Cowher after three subpar seasons from 1998-2000.
The instant gratification that drives today’s NFL doesn’t stand the test of time like Chuck Noll’s formula for winning does. Super Bowl teams are built, not bought. It’s why, with two trips each to the big game, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin each added another Lombardi Trophy to the Steelers’ collection. They too believe in the Chuck Noll (Steeler) Way of putting a team together through the draft. They know how to get the most out of a player and which buttons to push. They preach the team-first mentality above all else and they look for high character guys. They wouldn’t have had their success without Charles Henry Noll. Art Rooney may have hired him, but it was Chuck Noll who built the Steelers’ franchise into what it is today.