Reflections On Chuck Noll: Virtue Breeds Excellence

To be quite honest, I’m not overly concerned with the legacy that Chuck Noll left behind as a man participating in an athletic competition. The only great fortune of the fact that he was a football coach is that it introduced his philosophies to a broader audience, all the while lacking the ego to capitalize on the celebrity that it brought.

That he achieved unparalleled success in his chosen profession is but a happenstance of the legacy that he leaves behind—merely the vessel through which we are to understand the lessons that he imparted indirectly, simply through the way that he lived his life.

It’s quite simple to boil it down to the now rote quotation of doing one’s “life’s work”, which he was known to say. It’s become such an ingrained element of his narrative that it’s been immortalized as a book title, and I’m sure in other venues as well.

But it’s not merely about doing one’s life’s work. It’s about living that life, excelling at it, and doing so with virtue and integrity.

As a coach, Noll completely turned around the fortunes of a now-storied franchise that he nearly built by himself. He was the first man to win a third Super Bowl title. The year after that, he became the first to win four.

He helped reshape how the franchise did business. He no longer traded away his draft picks for former star players. He scoured college tapes and found the diamonds in the rough, assembling a group of men that he could nurture both on and off the field.

So you see, it was who he was as an individual, and the way that he carried out his personal life, that produced simply as a byproduct great success in his professional life.

One of my favorite anecdotes floating around over the past 24 hours is how Noll’s teams were uniformly the best-prepared in the league, despite the fact that he put in just nine-hour work days. He was not a slave to his profession; rather, it was the opposite.

But by far the greatest thing that I’ve learned over the course of the past day about Noll was the sheer enthusiasm and joy with which he conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, an opportunity afforded to him once in which he relished, as a lover of classical music.

As Bob Labriola reflects in his article today, Noll was told that it’s not a big deal to conduct an orchestra, because once you get the musicians started, there’s little you can do to affect them anyway. In a moment of insight and wit, he quipped that it was much like the role of a head coach.

And it’s much like an instructor or teacher of any kind, which Noll indeed was. There’s a reason that so many former players and coaches feel the need to share their thoughts on the influence that Noll had on their lives as a guiding force. While it sounds as though he enjoyed the opportunity to instruct, it also seems that it was simply a part of his nature to do so.

Through Noll, the Rooneys had finally found the proper conduit for their franchise, the man who would instill their values, and funnel those values into peerless excellence, almost as an affirmation of that chosen path.

That legacy has lived on, first through Bill Cowher, and today through Mike Tomlin, as men of principle who channel their own natures into constructing an excellent football team that, at its best, takes the field as the personification of its coach.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone to four more Super Bowls since Noll retired, and in the process became the first and only franchise with six championships in the modern era of the game.

But it’s hard to say that any of that would have come about without “The Pope” building the proper foundation, both on and off the field, for sustained excellence. There is so much more left to say by others more capable than myself to say it, but this is the enduring legacy of Charles Henry Noll the way I see it.

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