Chuck Noll spent 23 years as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, presiding over one of the great dynasties in the history of the NFL. But after decade of dominance his great players aged and retired, giving way to a somewhat dismal twilight that saw the team miss the playoffs in six of Noll’s seven final seasons, with ultimately retiring at the end of the 1991 season.
The organization brought in local boy Bill Cowher, who had his own run of success, albeit with delayed gratification as far as championships are concerned. But he admits that he did not have any kind of relationship with his predecessor, recalling to Ben Roethlisberger on his Footbahlin podcast the one conversation they had.
“I was on a plane with him one time”, he said. “I’m like, ‘Hey Chuck.’ ‘Coach’. I’m like, ‘Hey, two quarterbacks, Bubby Brister and Neil O’Donnell. What’d you see in them?’. ‘They’re good’. I go, ‘Yeah, one better than the other?’. ‘They’re good guys’. ‘Okay, like, did you like one better?’. He goes, ‘I liked them both’. I go, ‘Okay, good enough’”.
It went on and on like that, responding similarly to questions about the building and the Rooney family and this and that. Cowher admits he wasn’t sure exactly what was behind the nature of Noll’s answers, either.
“I don’t know if he left on great terms or not great terms. So I said, okay, I left. Someone said, so what’d you say to Mike [Tomlin]?’. I said, ‘I told Mike the same thing Chuck Noll told me: nothing! I said you’ll figure it out’”, he added with a laugh.
To be clear, there certainly was no resentment or anything of that kind in Cowher’s story. Roethlisberger simply asked him if he had any kind of relationship with Noll, and he explained that he didn’t. And he even added that there was something to take away from all that.
“There’s a lot to be said for that, because you know what? Don’t have any preconceived thoughts”, he said in reflecting on the answers Rooney gave him about Pittsburgh. “No preconceived thoughts about what’s expected or how to go about things. Figure it out yourself”.
There’s no getting around the fact that the Steelers weren’t a very good team when Noll left and Cowher stepped in. They went 7-9 in 1991, and it was clear that there was a need for a change, and so a change was made. But there’s a way to go about it when you step into that role.
“Be yourself. Understand what the protocols are. Be respectful of what took place before you. Don’t come in there thinking you have all the answers and you’re gonna start changing this, this, and that”, Cowher explained, “because there’s a lineage of things that have happened and why they are there. Be respectful of that. Yeah, some things maybe need to change, but be subtle about it. Have some compassion and understanding about the history of what you’re walking into”.
If Cowher wasn’t sure exactly what he was walking into, then he certainly learned. And he didn’t walk out of that building easily. It goes without saying that he left enough of a legacy that he got his chin immortalized in Canton, so whatever Chuck Noll may have said or not said when he first got the job, it didn’t hurt.