He may not have had a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but former running back Merril Hoge, who played for the team from 1987 to 1993, finds himself as one of the most highly-regarded alumni from the Steelers these days. It doesn’t hurt that he has prominent media roles in which he espouses Steelers virtues.
But they were virtues that were first extolled into him by Chuck Noll, the Steelers’ Hall of Fame head coach who was massively responsible for turning the fortunes of the franchise around when he came aboard in 1969. Hoge’s time with Noll was in the twilight years, but he was still the same coach.
The former running back described his head coach as “the greatest man I’ve ever met” when he was asked about who had the biggest influence on his career during a sit-down interview with the team’s website for their Legends Series of interviews with former players.
“To this day, when I speak, when I go places, the lessons I’ve learned from him are there”, Hoge said of Noll’s influence on him in football and in life. He related different stories about how Noll shaped his thinking and helped him along the way.
“I was on the committee to help clean up youth football”, he said, “and after they gave us that challenge I thought, how am I going to do that? I happened to look at my Steeler playbook I still had and I took Chuck Noll’s principles of how you play the game”.
Why was that the resource that he turned to? “Because you’re a better player if you play it right and you’re a safer player if you play it right”, he said, “and that’s what we needed in youth football. His legacy is going to live on because of that”.
That is certainly not a bad legacy to leave behind, although, of course, neither are four Lombardi trophies, something that only a few coaches in history could claim to have delivered. “If you really want to think about it, Heads up Football, they were all principles Chuck Noll taught”, he said.
Of course, the NFL itself has gotten away from that in recent years, with fundamental tackling going by the wayside, and we have seen who that has contributed to shaping the game today. While the missed tackles are obvious, we also see more dangerous plays as a result.
But one thing that we do see on today’s roster that Noll would be proud of is the hustle, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Hoge relayed a story about a game during his rookie season on which he didn’t do anything on a play that went to the other side of the field. His head coach warned him that he could take somebody out of the stands and do the same thing he did.
“I didn’t keep you on this team to be a common player, I need you to be uncommon. I need you to give me maximum efforts. Your buddy over there is running for his life, go help him, don’t just stand there, do something”.
That is what he recalls Noll telling him. You can see why it stuck all these years.