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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
Martin Fennelly Columns

Chuck Noll’s lessons resonated with Tony Dungy

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— Chuck Noll, who coached the Pittsburgh Steelers to the top of the football world in the 1970s, will be eulogized in a cathedral today. Noll died late last week. His former players and coaches are thinking about him. Tony Dungy is one of them. Chuck Noll meant as much to him as any man in his life.

“Other than my father,” Dungy said.

It goes back to 1977. Dungy, an undrafted college quarterback, had signed as a free agent with the two-time Super Bowl champion Steelers. At minicamp, he met the coach.

“I’m sitting with my notepad, figuring I’m going to be writing down how I’m going to make this team, how we’re going to win the Super Bowl,” Dungy said. “Coach Noll said, ‘Welcome to the National Football League, men. You’re now getting paid to play football, so that makes it your profession. But let me tell you: It’s not your life. Don’t make the mistake of thinking football is your life. My job is to help you find your life’s work, and along the way we’re going to win games and win championships.’”

That was Chuck Noll.

He doesn’t have the aura of some other coaching icons. No matter. Noll remains the only NFL head coach to win four Super Bowls, and that‘s no accident.

Dungy played two years for Noll, including the 1978 Super Bowl season, and later coached under Noll for eight seasons. Noll’s lessons guided Dungy through his own head coaching career, from his days in Tampa to a world championship in Indianapolis.

“I think back to the things I told my teams — it all came from him,” Dungy said. “So much of what I believe in, perseverance, not wavering, not giving into other voices, and what I believe about football, speed and quickness ... so much came from him.”

Football wasn’t life.

But as long as you were going to do it, do it right.

“That was Coach Noll in a nutshell,” Dungy said. “You learned how to win by out-preparing people and outworking people, out-hitting people. There weren’t any secrets or shortcuts. And when the game was over, he let it go. Playing and working for him, I saw you could do that. You could be successful and still be well-rounded. You could have another life, be a family man, like he was.”

In 1969, Noll went 1-13 in his first season as Steelers coach. Dungy never forgot that as his first Bucs team began 0-5 in 1996, or 10 years later, when his Colts hit a rough patch late in their Super season. Chuck Noll’s words were front and center in his mind.

Panic is not part of our game plan ... patience is a virtue as long as you’re right ...

Chuck Noll built the Steelers up from rag dolls. He stuck to the plan, building through the draft with a legendary string of successes that made a powerhouse. Nine Noll draft picks played on those Super Bowl teams and found their way to the Hall of Fame. So did their coach. Noll put the Steelers to work without speeches or stage presence, by choice.

“He never had a TV show, never had a radio show,” Dungy said. “When I got to Tampa, I had a radio show and a TV show, because it was in the Bucs contract, but as soon as I could stop that I did. He just felt like the coach’s job was to coach the players. He could have been one of those iconic coaches. That wasn’t his goal. His goal was to turn out good football teams.

There are Steelers who thought Noll a distant figure. He was no shoulder to cry on. He was a problem solver.

“He’d say, ‘Here’s how you win games: know what to do, know how to do it, and do it.’” Dungy said. “He was perfect for me because he was just like my dad. He was so practical. I remember when I came back and he hired me as a coach. Marianne, his wife, told me I was one of Chuck’s favorite players because of the way I worked. I told her, ‘Well, he never said five words to me, other than assignments and that sort of thing.’ I would have never guessed that that’s what he thought of me.”

Dungy saw a different side while working on Noll’s staff, including five seasons as Steelers defense coordinator. Dungy was only 28 when Noll gave him that job. Dungy recalls the Chuck Noll who was a pilot, who enjoyed boating, cooking and collecting wine. There was a whole other Chuck Noll hidden from view.

“He taught me how to cook a couple of things for (my wife) Lauren when we were dating,” Dungy said with a laugh. “A fish with a wine sauce. He coached me through it and she loved it.”

Here’s to a master chef and dynasty maker.

Here’s to Chuck Noll.

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