Chuck Noll is considered one of the best coaches ever to walk a sideline in the NFL.
He has long been revered for leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowls after four decades of losing seasons.
But there's something about Noll, who passed away in 2014, that no one, save his wife Marianne, likely knew: Until he became head coach of the Steelers in 1969, Noll cut his wife's hair.
According to Michael MacCambridge, the author of “Chuck Noll: His Life's Work” (University of Pittsburgh Press, $27.95), Noll's skills as a stylist were not only an example of his many talents, but a byproduct of his devotion to family.
“You have to remember all through the '60s (the Nolls) are paying for their own place, raising a son, taking care of some of the children of Chuck's sister, and also helping with the housing for Chuck's sister and his parents,” says MacCambridge, who makes multiple appearances in the area Oct. 28 to 30. “They were going with what they were making, and assistant coaches' salaries in the '60s (were) not particularly lucrative.”
Born in Cleveland in 1932, Noll was unlike any football coach who came before him. At a time when teams were trying to find the next Vince Lombardi (the fiery coach of the Green Bay Packers), Noll took an intellectual approach to the game and expected his players to be self-motivated.
Although Noll didn't want to be seen as anyone's protege, Paul Brown, the legendary coach of the Cleveland Browns, did influence Noll's thinking. Noll played for and coached with Brown.
“Where Chuck got the most from Paul Brown was in that very cerebral approach that he had to the game,” MacCambridge says. “The notion that football is not about who can yell the loudest or get the most fired up. It's about teaching and technique and execution. I think that was particularly important in the era Chuck was coaching.”
MacCambridge, who is also the author of “America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” thinks Noll was the antithesis of Lombardi and the cult of personality that dominated coaching in late '60s (Noll started with the Steelers in 1969) through the 1970s.
Unlike his peers, including the imperious Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, the bombastic John Madden of the Oakland Raiders, or Jerry Glanville, the arrogant coach of the Houston Oilers, Noll preferred an even-tempered approach. When he did show emotion and exhort his players — especially prior to the 1974 AFC championship game with the Oakland Raiders when Madden intimated the Dolphins and the Raiders were the two best teams — “that came from an authentic place,” MacCambridge says.
“That was not calculated,” he says. “That was not meant to be a pre-game speech. That was just Chuck being Chuck. My instinct is that Chuck was not a particularly good actor about those things. Because it was authentic and because players could tell, sometimes, in almost a subterranean fashion, when the game was particularly important to Chuck: Glanville and the Oilers, the Raiders, the Cowboys.”
There were many contributing factors to Noll's success. Dan Rooney, the team president, stuck with Noll despite a losing record (12-30) over his first three seasons. He benefited immensely from scouts — including Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn — who found star players, such as L.C. Greenwood, John Stallworth and Donnie Shell, at small black colleges.
But most of all, Noll was fortunate to have found his wife, Marianne. She was not only his soulmate, but also his intellectual peer who took care of the family's finances, among other things, and allowed him to concentrate on his life's work.
“It's hard to overstate her significance,” MacCambridge says. “In many ways, she was his liaison to the larger world. She was his shield, because in many ways he was innately shy and reticent, and obviously in that job he had to spend a lot of time talking to a lot of people.
“But I think even more important than her being self-assured and able to be an extrovert, he felt as though he had found his partner, and there was a deep sense of love, a deep sense of calmness, in that relationship. For me in trying to understand how this man could be so successful and what he was like, the relationship with Marianne was the window through which I was able to get a sense of who he was.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.