“Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work:” Michael MacCambridge unlocks the riddle of Chuck Noll
by Homer J.
If someone asks what you want for Christmas, might I suggest you tell them, Michael MacCambridge’s “Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work.” It is, hands down, the most literate and most enlightening sports biography I’ve ever read.
The finest man we never knew
Chuck Noll was the best coach, and perhaps the finest man that we never knew. Had Churchill ever met Noll, he might have described him as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But, as Churchill would then speculate, perhaps that was a key.
Noll was an intensely private man, never given to self-promotion. He was a gentleman, and would give a young reporter the needed soundbite or quote, but there was never any swagger, never any bulletin board stuff.
Year after year, I would be assigned to interview him before the playoffs, and I was told by my bosses to ask him his thoughts about the upcoming opponent. His answer, each year, was the same. He would offer it up with a kind smile and a chuckle.
“It really doesn’t matter what I think. And if it did, I wouldn’t tell you, because I usually don’t make it public, anyway.”
But then, he might offer up his thoughts about how great it was that you could always get fresh high quality ocean fish in Pittsburgh, even though it was an inland city. Or how California wines were so underrated (and this was even before the legendary Judgement of Paris of 1976 when a blind taste test proved he was right.). Or the results some obscure scientific or medical study. Or the Battle of Thermopylae.
Noll believed reporters should be treated kindly, but still treated like mushrooms. Keep us in the dark, and feed us bullshit. And that’s what he told his players. Keep everything close to the vest. No bragging. Nothing for the other team’s bulletin board. His idea of a perfect touchdown celebration was John Stallworth handing the ball to the ref. Say as little as possible and let your actions speak for you.
The paradox of Chuck Noll was that he was both a teacher and a moral exemplar, but he was so intensely private that he remained a mystery. Four decades after he came to Pittsburgh, we knew that he turned the team around, we knew that he built a dynasty, we knew that he helped reshape the city’s self-image, and we held him in awe. But we still didn’t know Chuck Noll. Hell, even many of his former players still say they didn’t really know him.
Unlocking the riddle
Dan Rooney had the key to unlock the riddle. And, in this great gift to Steeler Nation, he used that key, so that now, at last, we are able to gain the full measure of Charles Henry Noll.
Dan Rooney hired Noll in 1969. But he was much more than Noll’s boss. Dan and Pat Rooney became close, lifelong friends of the Noll family. In recent years, Dan felt that the NFL was short-changing his friend’s legacy. Noll, he believed, was one of the four or five greatest coaches in NFL history, but was often treated as an afterthought in NFL films and publications. He took his concerns to the league office, and sought out highly respected author and biographer Michael MacCambridge. Dan Rooney even helped commission the book, although MacCambridge had complete editorial control.
MacCambridge spent three years researching and writing this book. He conducted more than 300 interviews and countless follow-ups. He began his work while Chuck was still alive, interviewing the Nolls at their homes in Florida and Sewickley. He had the full cooperation of the Noll family. They are private people, but they were kind enough to let MacCambridge into the private sanctuary of their lives. The Steeler organization worked closely with the author. MacCambridge writes that Joe Gordon, the Steelers longtime PR director, “must be de facto Mayor of Pittsburgh because he seems to know everyone.” Gordon was there for all of the Noll years, knew all the players, knew all the assistant coaches, had contact information for many of them. He gave MacCambridge the road map, the contact information, and helped in many other ways.
It is clear that this book happened because the Rooney family believed that it was time for the world to get to know the remarkable man that they knew, respected, and loved, and Dan Rooney deemed that Michael MacCambridge was the writer best able to tell his story.
The book’s brief forward is a snippet written in 1965 by Joan Didion, about a man who could make his own code and live by it, and do what he had to do, take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself home free. Didion was writing about John Wayne, and yet this is – in a few sentences – the key to unlock the riddle of Chuck Noll.
A Code to Live By
Noll’s personal code began with family, and at a very young age. His father battled serious health problems for many years and – when he was unable to safely drive a car – his mother had to drive his Dad to his job as a parking lot attendant. But Robert Noll worked to provide for his family. The Nolls did not take pity on themselves, but did what they had to to scrape by and move forward. And so, years later, when Chuck’s brother-in-law died of a stroke at an early age, leaving his sister Rita with seven young children, Coach Chuck Noll quietly provided for them. They were family, and so Rita’s eldest daughter lived with the Nolls for more than a decade. Chris Noll spent summers with some of Rita’s sons who were close to his age. Chuck made sure that Rita’s kids were able to go to college.
Chuck Noll grew up in a changing neighborhood on the East Side of Cleveland. Once an ethnic mix of Germans and Eastern Europeans, the neighborhood was becoming increasingly African-American. At one point, the Nolls lived upstairs from their landlords, an African-American family. And young Chuck’s first sandlot football team was organized and coached by an African-American man. The team had 12 black kids and 12 white kids. Chuck treasured his one photograph of the team, keeping that picture in the top drawer of his desk at work. Chuck learned to be color-blind growing up. That was part of his code.
Chuck wanted to go to Benedictine High School, but his family could not afford the tuition. So he took on a paper route and other jobs to find the money. He did not tolerate freeloaders. But many people reached out and helped this hard-working, ambitious young man, and he never forgot that it was also the kindness of others enabled him to reach his dreams.
Chuck had epilepsy. He had a seizure in class at Benedictine. It was controllable with medication, but the medication left him groggy and affected him at football practice. He soldiered through, trying to limit the medication, but taking enough to keep the seizures away. He was an excellent student and a fine high school football player.
Chuck dreamed of going to Notre Dame and playing for legendary coach Frank Leahy. He was accepted and was at practice his freshman year when he suffered a seizure. This was before the school year started, and Leahy said he did not want to take the risk of having an epileptic on his team. So Noll went home before attending even a single class at Notre Dame. His high school coach, hearing what had happened, phoned the head coach at Dayton, told him about Chuck, and arranged for Chuck to attend Dayton and play on their team. Again, Chuck excelled at academics and played well enough to be drafted in the 20th round by his hometown Cleveland Browns.
All of these health and family-related factors may help explain why Chuck Noll was so intent on keeping his private life just that—private. It was part of Chuck’s code. It is clear that he believed strongly that one of our most precious rights is the right to privacy, the right to be left alone.
It’s a love story
If Chuck Noll’s life story is part John Wayne, I would suggest it is also part “Pride of the Yankees.”
There was a miracle in Chuck Noll’s life, and her name was Marianne Hanes. They met on a blind date in Cleveland. It didn’t work out too well, but they got together a second time. And, from that day on, Chuck never had another seizure.
Like Lou and Eleanor Gehrig, Chuck and Marianne Noll were best friends and partners in all things. Their devotion to one another was whole and complete. Marianne was an independent woman before her time, and Chuck was perfectly fine with that. She might handle their business affairs, and he might cook their gourmet meals. They shared their successes, raised their son and helped raise their nieces and nephews, and savored the joys, surprises, and adventures of more than half a century of married life. They even had their own secret language (“Here. Hold my watch and ring.”). Like the Gehrigs, their love triumphed over illness and even over death.
It’s been said by others, and it’s true. This book is a love story.
You already knew that Chuck Noll was a great football coach. MacCambridge chronicles the story of his career and success in great detail, but you have read much about his career elsewhere. What this book does is solve the riddle of Chuck Noll for you, and prove that this Hall of Fame coach was an even greater human being. That he lived by his own code: family, faith, football, hard work, no short cuts, modesty, charity, decency, and teaching those virtues to others. Sorry for the spoilers, but that’s the riddle wrapped in the mystery inside the enigma that was Coach Noll.
Dan Rooney and Michael MacCambridge have given Steeler Nation a very special Christmas present this year. Buy it. Read it. Give it to others as a gift. Pass it on. Whatever it takes.
You will love this book.