Growing up in the 1980s in Pittsburgh, there were a few constants you could always count on: Four seasons, three rivers and Chuck Noll as head coach of the Steelers.
After building a championship dynasty in the 1970s that included a then record four Super Bowl titles and nine future Hall of Famers, Noll, albeit reserved and shy of the spotlight, became an institution in Pittsburgh by the early ’80s.
Much like Tom Landry coaching the Cowboys and Don Shula directing the Dolphins, it was hard to picture anyone other than Noll as The Emperor of the Steelers forevermore.
Unfortunately for Noll, his legendary drafting success that began with the selection of Joe Greene shortly after he was named head coach in 1969, pretty much dried up following the famous 1974 draft class that included four future Hall of Famers–Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
While the four members of the ’74 class joined Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Franco Harris and Greene to form the nucleus of the four championship teams of the mid-to-late ’70s, nobody noticed Noll’s effectiveness in the draft had started to wane.
By the time the ’80s kicked in, the Super Bowl heroes of the previous decade were older and ready to get on with their life’s work. In their place was a cupboard filled with mediocre players and draft busts.
From 1975-1991, just five of the Steelers top draft picks became truly productive players, with only Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson developing into a special and difference-making talent.
In-addition to trying to re-create the magic of the Steelers ’70s Steel Curtain by using five first round picks on defensive linemen from 1981-1991, Noll, like many others in the 1983 NFL Draft, passed on hometown quarterback Dan Marino, who went on to set all kinds of passing records in the ’80s and ’90s.
The result of such poor drafting over a long span eventually had an impact; Pittsburgh only won 10 games or more one time over Noll’s final 12 years as head coach and had four losing seasons from 1985-1991.
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After nearly resigning following the infamous 5-11 1988 season and a demand from boss and team president Dan Rooney to fire some assistant coaches, Noll had perhaps the best coaching job of his career in 1989, when he led the Steelers from an 0-2 record (including losses of 51-0 and 41-10 to start the season) to a 9-7 finish, a trip to the playoffs as the fifth and final seed in the AFC and an upset victory over the division-rival Oilers in a wildcard game on December 31, 1989.
For his efforts, Noll was named the NFL Coach of the Year for the first time, a remarkable realization, considering the many great teams he built in the early portion of his career.
Sadly, ’89 would be The Emperor’s last hurrah, as he inexplicably hired Joe Walton and his complicated system to be his new offensive coordinator for 1990. Players, including quarterback Bubby Brister, bristled at the new terminology, and the team missed the playoffs that season and in 1991.
Following a 7-9 campaign in ’91, many wondered if the seemingly impossible could happen and Noll would resign or get fired. It was believed that Rooney wanted Walton gone as a condition to Noll staying on; much like he had almost done three years before, would the fiercely loyal coach walk away rather than fire a friend?
On December 26, 1991, before a group of Pittsburgh reporters, Rooney, with the legendary coach by his side, announced the retirement of Noll. Just like that, one of the greatest coaches in the history of professional sports decided that, after 23 years on the sidelines as head football coach of the Steelers, it was “time to step back and see what the flowers smell like.”
It certainly was a culture-shock for a 19-year old Steelers fan, such as Yours truly, who only knew Noll and his often enigmatic way of coaching my favorite football team.
Bill Cowher ultimately came into the fold as the new head coach and quickly re-energized the team and the fan base. But the ironic thing is, the core of Cowher’s ’90s playoff teams was comprised of players Noll drafted in the latter portion of his career; names like Neil O’Donnell, Barry Foster, Dermontti Dawson, John Jackson, Greg Lloyd, Merrill Hoge, Carnell Lake and, of course, the legendary Woodson helped Pittsburgh reach the playoffs six-straight years.
Chuck Noll had an immediate impact when he joined the Steelers in the late ’60s and also had a lasting impact long-after he departed in the early ’90s.