RUSH: I want to start with the death of the Steelers coach Chuck Noll. He died in his sleep, natural causes, Friday night. He was 82 years old. And Chuck Noll was a throwback. Even during his life he was a throwback. He was from a different era even when he was alive. The man coached entirely with the Pittsburgh Steelers. His entire head coach career was with one team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s fascinating, too, by the way, to listen to his players talk about him. It’s amazing.
One of the things that I realized early on in life is that all of us think back to a period of time in our lives, there was always somebody — if we were lucky, more than one — but there was always somebody who pushed us beyond that which we thought we were capable of. We might have hated that person or we might have revered that person. But there was always somebody, a teacher, a parent, a coach. There was always somebody who showed you that you were capable of more than you thought you were, pushed you beyond where you would ordinarily stop in expending effort in trying to do something. And for me it was a coach, actually, who made me realize that about myself.
But everybody has somebody, and I was fascinated to listen to all of Chuck Noll’s players talk about him. And it was nothing new. I mean, they said these things about him even before he passed away on Friday. They all referred to him as not just a coach. He was a teacher. He was a manager. He was an inspiration to them. He was much more than just X’s and O’s football guy. He was fluent in a couple of languages. He was omnivorous in what he read and his interests. He didn’t sleep on the couch. He went home at five o’clock every night instead of staying ’til midnight and let the coaches have their own lives, that football was not all consuming, and yet he’s the only coach to win four Super Bowls.
He also entirely shunned the limelight. He did not want any part of it. He turned down every endorsement deal that was offered him and instead steered all of that to the players. They didn’t make as much money then as they do now, and he wanted the players to get the money. But it wasn’t just that. He did not want fame of any kind. He did not want to be noticed. He did not ever put himself out there in front or try to be the face of anything. He hated having to do the weekly press conference. He hated having to divulge to people what he thought. He didn’t like suffering fools. He thought reporters were something you had to suffer.
He’s somebody that is just anathema to the kind of public personality we have today, who can’t get enough fame, who can’t get enough attention. Chuck Noll wanted none of it. And after he left the Steelers, retired from the Steelers (I think ’91 or ’92) he never entertained any other offers. I don’t think he got any. He was so tied to the Steelers, he was so well known. That was his period of time in football, and it was time to do other things. And I don’t even think he was offered. He didn’t get Coach of the Year ’til 1989. He won those four Super Bowls. The only coach to ever win four. He won those in the seventies. Well, the last one was in 1980, but it was the ’79 season.
He got coach of the year in 1989, kind of like the way they gave John Wayne the Academy Award for Rooster Cogburn in True Grit because they had overlooked him all those years where he should have gotten an Oscar. They finally gave him one. It’s the same thing with Chuck Noll. It’s a fascinating case study when you compare the way people jockey today to get noticed, and it all comes down to this. I know it may sound like I’m obsessed with this, and maybe I am, I don’t know. But this whole notion of reality versus buzz and PR and image. He had no time for it. He wasn’t interested in it. He was not caught up in any aspect of attention-getting, holding, fame, any of that. He actually went out of his way to avoid it, and as such, there aren’t too many people who know who the guy is outside of the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans.
I used to… I don’t any longer. I used to use his name when I checked into hotels. I admired Chuck Noll. I only met him one time after he had retired in Pittsburgh. He’s a very nice guy. I used his name, and whenever I used it nobody knew who I was. Chuck Noll, oftentimes they’d spell it with a K, and it wasn’t spelled with a K. He was totally comfortable with that. He was somebody who was comfortable in his own skin, knew where he was, knew where he was going, knew what he wanted to do when he got there and was totally satisfied.
(interruption) What was the meeting like? Well, he knew that I used his name, and he sent me an autographed picture. Actually, the way that happened was Howard Slusher. I met Howard Slusher on a fishing trip — no, before the fishing trip. I met Howard Slusher through my friendship with Paul Westphal. Howard Slusher was an agent for athletes. At the time his big client was Dan Fouts, and after that he started working at Nike. He was in the upper-executive tier at Nike. And, I don’t know. I mean, he knew Noll from his days as an agent in the NFL. I told him that I checked in as Chuck Noll at the hotel. So he told Noll about it and I got an autographed picture one day. It’s still on my desk at home. And it says, “Rush, ditto, ditto, ditto. Do you mind if I use your name when I check into hotels from now on?”
I don’t even know if he knew who I was. I want to make very clear when he did that I don’t know if he knew who I was. He could have just been doing a favor for Slusher. I’m not trying to insert myself in anything here. I don’t use the name anymore. I haven’t in a long time, and I’m not trying to insert myself into this story in any way, shape, manner, or form. But I do have that and it’s a treasured item of mine that I have. I’m not expressing this properly, folks, but here was a guy who was the best at what he did, and that was enough. He had an interesting philosophy. I understand why all of his old players are talking about him with such reverence.
You’ve seen these old New Age things from the seventies, these posters that young people would put on the wall, “Life is a journey, not a destination” and so forth. He heard about that and he said, “Well, yeah, life is a journey. The thing is, if you do it right, you never arrive.” And what he meant was you’re always learning, you’re always growing, and you never reach your potential. Never. He also had a phrase for his players. “Okay, you are not gonna last long here even if you last a long time. The longest you’re gonna make it here by virtue of statistics is age 35 to 40. And at that point it’s time for you to get serious about your life’s work.”
That’s something that he drilled into them, that football was not their life’s work. It was just a phase, and after that is when they got serious about life. Not that it wasn’t important. He was just a throwback. Even when he was alive he was a throwback to an earlier time where he was just so absent self. And it’s so uncommon today to encounter people like this. He didn’t care that he never got Coach of the Year. He didn’t care that he didn’t get offers for jobs after he retired from the Steelers. He didn’t care that he was not on television or talked about every day. He didn’t care about any of that. He didn’t have any PR people per se manufacturing an image. He was just a solid guy, very happy with who he was, and it’s quite obvious that he had a profound impact on the vast majority of players who came in contact with him.
You can see it in videos of the public viewing they had in Pittsburgh over the weekend or even some of the stories where players have been quoted, things that they have said. But they all talk about life lessons they learned — and that’s something you find in football a lot, by the way. But with Coach Noll, apparently, it was even more so than your standard, ordinary, everyday coach. So it’s the passing of an era.
He was the Steelers.
He was Pittsburgh.
He was a unifying force in the early seventies at a time when Pittsburgh was falling apart economically. Steel mills were closing. I lived there then, and it could be a dark and dank place. But, man, the Steelers? That was my first cognizant awareness of what a winning sports team can actually mean to the self-esteem of an entire city. It was cool. That’s why I became a Steelers fan.
You couldn’t escape it. I went to Pittsburgh. I got there 1971, and it was my first job away from home. I couldn’t have cared less about anything other than me and my career, getting ahead. You got caught up in it; everybody did. I wasn’t even particularly a football fan. I had quit the high school football team in order to get a radio show after school every day.
So, I mean, I was not nearly the rabid fan then that I am now. That happened to me in Pittsburgh, during the seventies with the Steelers dynasty forming. You know, look at it this way. The percentage of human beings… Let’s say percentage of Americans, but it’s even even bigger if you say the percentage of human beings. The percentage of Americans who will ever know what it’s like to be a Super Bowl-winning football team is infinitesimal.
There are 53 players on a roster. There are 300 million people in the country. The number of people who will ever know what that feels like is infinitesimal. The percentage of people who will ever be able to have that kind of championship, we-are-the-best experience in their lives is… I think this is one of the draws of sports. It’s the lure. It’s the ability to imagine and dream what it’s like to be one of those players, to be on that good a team.
The Steelers are arguably the best ever, certainly the best of their era, hands down. Sorry if you’re Cowboys, but if you look at wins and losses and any other factors, there’s no comparison. And if you put that winning team in Pittsburgh at the time it all came together, Pittsburgh was in trouble economically. I remember the steel mills were closing. It was not the best of times.
The Steelers brought the town together, united them, made people forget about that other stuff. It was all good. The players on those championship teams, that’s their job. They’re doing it. Sometimes they don’t have time to stop and reflect about what’s really happening to them, because it’s their job. They’re fighting for survival and success in their job. They’re not observing it like we are.
I only hope that they all are able to take time and reflect on just how special all that was. Not just the Steelers, but any Super Bowl-winning team or World Series team. It really, really, really is something special. It’s something that a vast amount of people will never, ever be able to do anything other than dream of. Chuck Noll was able to bring that dream or take that dream to millions and millions of people and make them feel a part of it.
That was the beauty of the Steelers back then, and it endures to a certain extent today.