Transition from Emperor Chaz to Cowher Power

Sunday, October 21, 2007

By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 

New Steelers coach Bill Cowher during a press conference at Three Rivers Stadium on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1991.

Even if they ceded the spotlight to others and guarded their privacy with a personal Steel Curtain, Chuck and Marianne Noll have a knack for making people stand up and cheer.

In a pre-game ceremony on Oct. 7, with the Steelers reaching back into their rich tradition to help mark their 75th season, the man who coached an empire leaned on a cane as he walked gingerly onto Heinz Field, his smile masking the pain of a balky back that has troubled him for years.

With his wife at his side, and with a wave of his free hand, he acknowledged a standing ovation in a stadium built for his successors. Coach Mike Tomlin, a student of Steelers history, shook hands with the grandfatherly figure and said later: "We are all walking on the ground that he paved."

Turn back the clock from that sunny afternoon to three days before Christmas in 1991 at Three Rivers Stadium. Speculation ran rampant that the end of an era was at hand because it was a losing season and the Steelers had made the playoffs only once in the past seven years.

In the fourth quarter of a game against the Browns, the big screen flashed a picture and a greeting: "Happy holidays from Chuck and Marianne Noll."

The first few fans to see it began to applaud. Hundreds more joined in and got out of their seats. Then all of the 47,070 in attendance, lumps in their throats, joined the spontaneous standing tribute. If this was the last time Mr. Noll stood on the sidelines in his coaching cleats, the fans wanted to show their appreciation.

That gloomy, gray afternoon produced the 209th win for the coach who had taken the franchise from the dark times to football salvation over a 23-year career.

One enterprising reporter sought an insight from Mrs. Noll. "I haven't given an interview in 15 years," she said, "and I'm not going to start now."

The official word came the day after Christmas. The coach had jogged off the field for the last time.

"It's much easier coming in than going out," Mr. Noll said at a farewell news conference in which he thanked the players, the organization and the city for a generation of memories. "The emotions that build up and the attachments that build up over 23 years are tough to, I guess, sever....Thirty-nine years in professional football is a goodly time."

Dan Rooney, who hired the coach on Jan. 27, 1969, when they both were within months of turning 37, intoned the names of coaching immortals Amos Alonzo Stagg, George Halas, Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi in his remarks. But he trumped that with higher homage.

"The greatest compliment that I know," the Steelers president said, "is what my wife said a long time ago. 'If anything happens to us, I would like Chuck Noll to raise my kids.' "

The 1990s were a time of passing the baton to The Jaw and The Bus and the building of a new home. But it started with the exit of one who preferred the title of The Teacher. Outside of anyone named Rooney, Mr. Noll connected generations -- coaching the final football game at Forbes Field, playing out the string in Pitt Stadium, leading the franchise into Three Rivers Stadium and still getting applause at Heinz Field.

Noll leaves his mark

Charles Henry Noll is known only in glimpses because he was so tough to pin down. Once, after a particularly galling loss, he was asked how he felt. "The same way I always do," he said with a poker face, "with my fingers."

To this day, he is the only coach to have won four Super Bowls. Yet he was never honored as coach of the year after any of those super seasons, and TV networks had an unseemly habit of identifying him as Chuck Knox or Chuck Knoll.

He was a Renaissance man in a Renaissance city that took some severe economic shots from 1969 to 1991. He flew his own plane, cooked gourmet meals, savored wine as a connoisseur, cultivated rose bushes, explored underwater reefs and jousted with the media with his dry, rapier wit. But his steely resolve could manifest itself on occasion, such as the time he was overheard warning rival coach Jerry Glanville never to try to injure one of his players again.

Single-minded of purpose to the point of being stubborn, Emperor Chaz of the First Steeler Dynasty -- as broadcaster Myron Cope called him -- never warmed up to the widely used shotgun formation, for example. He could seem icy and aloof, but he always gave credit for success to his players and turned down endorsements -- except for appearing on a Pittsburgh National Bank billboard at the insistence of a friend.

By late 1991, Steelers football had fallen behind the Penguins, who were in their Stanley Cup reign, and even the Pirates, who were in the heyday of the Jim Leyland playoff era.

Had the game evolved beyond Mr. Noll? Or maybe his teaching methods didn't connect anymore with the new generation of players. Prior to his last season,offensive lineman Terry Long tested positive for steroids and tried to kill himself by eating rat poison, and running back Tim Worley tested positive for cocaine under the league's new, year-round testing rules.

His first team lost 13 straight games, and three losses to open his second season established a new mark for futility. But overall, he won four times as many games as any Steelers coach before him and finished 209-156-1 in all games, including the perfect 4-0 in the Super Bowl.

His teams were in the playoffs in 12 of his 23 seasons. Former mentor Don Shula said he was "as good as anyone who walked the sideline."

The cornerstone was laid with the drafting of Joe Greene. But there was something more than talent that made those championship teams greater than the sum of their parts.

"That something was Chuck," Mr. Greene said. "I've always said he's a rock. Whatever situation you put him in, he had an answer for. Over time, we all believed. It was so repetitive, everything became second nature. After a while, we knew what he was going to say before he said it."

Nollspeak took over the city's vocabulary: Whatever it takes. Good things happen to those who hustle. Opinions are like noses; everybody has one. Who wants to be respectable? That's spoken like a true loser...

Tunch Ilkin was there in 1989. Coming off an 11-loss season, the Steelers were crushed 51-0 at home by the Browns and 41-10 at Cincinnati.

"His response was, 'We either just played the two best teams in the AFC, or it's going to be a long season.' He never stopped teaching, never changed his approach. We made the playoffs that season," Mr. Ilkin said. "He expected you to have a commitment to excellence. He expected you to be prepared and to work hard, to know your job and everybody else's. He wouldn't throw a lot of flowers at you. You had to earn it. He was a master of nonverbal communication. He could look at you and put the fear of God in you. He was the only man who ever intimidated me, and that includes my father."

The Maxwell Football Club gave its coach of the year award to Mr. Noll for that 1989 season.

For one measure of the length of the Noll era, he entered the arena when President Richard Nixon began withdrawing troops from Vietnam and left it after President George H.W. Bush had waged the first war against Iraq and pronounced that the Vietnam syndrome had been kicked once and for all.

The five-year waiting period does not apply to coaches, and Mr. Noll was inducted into the pro Football Hall of Fame on July 31, 1993. His presenter was Dan Rooney, who pointed out that the new inductee didn't just coach a football team, he coached an entire fan base who saw him as a surrogate father.

"All of us became committed to being the best, including the fans," Mr. Rooney told a cheering throng.

The appearance of some former players in Canton spoke volumes about the man. One was Franco Harris, once referred to as Franco who? Another was Mel Blount, who filed and dropped a $6 million defamation of character suit against his coach during the "criminal element" fallout.

Once, when asked his advice on walking away from his life's work, Mr. Noll said: "Don't leave anything on the beach but your footprints."

He left behind four Super Bowl trophies and some big shoes to fill, not to mention his knack for making fans stand up and cheer.

A whole new look

In the first coaching search in a generation, the Rooneys were looking for someone who had a feel for what Pittsburgh was all about and who wouldn't be intimidated by following a legend. As it turned out, the new coach was as openly emotional as his successor was reserved.

William Laird Cowher was introduced within a month of the job opening up. At 34, the Crafton native was younger than his predecessor was when he got the job. After considering Joe Greene and Dave Wannstedt, now the University of Pittsburgh coach, the Steelers decided on a 1975 graduate of Carlynton High School who had played linebacker at North Carolina State.

An NFL player for five years, Mr. Cowher became the special teams coach at Cleveland when he was 28. Before returning to Pittsburgh, he was the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. And he was unfazed about following Chuck Noll.

"He was one of a kind," Mr. Cowher said. "You have to do it your way. You have to be yourself. I am an emotional guy."

The fans were introduced to what would become known as Cowher Power in his first regular season game.

On the road in hostile Houston, down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Steelers boldly pulled off a fake punt that turned the game around and resulted in a 29-24 win.

"That's the first time we've ever had the turning point of the season in the first quarter of the first game," said Rod Woodson.

Actually, it was the defining moment of the new regime. With basically the same cast, the Steelers went 11-5 and made the first of six straight playoff appearances under a rookie coach. The only previous new coach to begin his career with six playoff appearances was Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns.

In 1994, the Steelers pulled off a hat trick, beating Cleveland twice in the regular season and once in the playoffs. Everything broke their way to set up an AFC championship game at home against the San Diego Chargers, who were 81/2 point underdogs but not amused by Eric Green's premature plans for a Super Bowl video.

The Steelers had a 13-3 lead late, but cornerback Tim McKyer was burned on a game-changing touchdown pass. A drive to pull out the win ended three yards short as the air rushed out of the Super Bowl balloon.

Three more yards became the rallying cry for the next season. Despite losing cornerback Rod Woodson to a knee injury in the opening game and starting out at 3-4, the Steelers rallied to finish 11-5 and beat Indianapolis in a nail-biter. The Blitzburgh defense and Cowher Power were in the Super Bowl.

By now, everyone was aware of the frothy tongue-lashing their coach could deliver.

"You get that spray going. He's drooling. He's slobbering . . . Head-butting . . . Screaming," said linebacker Kevin Greene. "You've got to love a coach like that."

Nothing for the thumb

With four minutes left in Super Bowl XXX, Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona actually shook, just like the cold concrete of Three Rivers did when fans were in a frenzy.

Down 17-13, having shut down Emmitt Smith and having taken the Cowboy's best shot, the Steelers had the ball, and Barry Switzer's team was out of gas and answers. One final drive and the two-touchdown underdogs would write a new chapter in Steelers history.

It all evaporated into the desert air. Neil O'Donnell threw his second interception of the day to Larry Brown, and the Steelers fell, 27-17, the first Super Bowl loss in franchise history.

A little more than a month later, the quarterback bolted for the New York Jets, who anted up a $7 million signing bonus under a five-year, $25 million contract. But Mr. O'Donnell also gave a parting shot to his old team, saying: "They don't know which direction they're heading to."

The Jets and Mr. O'Donnell went 1-15 that season. The Steelers acquired a running back nicknamed The Bus in a draft day trade, and Jerome Bettis directed them to another playoff season and the beginning of an extraordinary ride.

Kordell Stewart, once known as Slash, quarterbacked the 1997 Steelers to an 11-5 record, a playoff win over the New England Patriots and another home date for the AFC championship against Denver. Super Bowl fever reached epidemic proportions.

The Bus rumbled for 105 yards, but the Steelers blew a 14-7 lead. Mr. Stewart threw two interceptions in the end zone and lost a fumble; and kicker Norm Johnson missed a 38-yard field goal. The Broncos won, 24-21, and John Elway had his date with destiny.

"We had every opportunity. Every opportunity," Mr. Stewart said in the hush of the losing locker room. "I didn't play my best game."

Trying times lay ahead as the Steelers had losing seasons the next two years and another quarterback learned how brutal the fans can be if you don't win.

Off the field, the baton was being passed to a new generation of Rooneys in the effort to secure funding for a new stadium.

The sports landscape was changing radically. Art Modell ripped the Browns from Cleveland for a new start as the Baltimore Ravens. The Oilers bolted Houston for Tennessee. And a new ballpark was a condition of the sale of the Pirates to a group headed by Kevin McClatchy.

Dan Rooney pointed out the Steelers needed to remain competitive, too.

"One thing I just cannot do, this team cannot do, is be in a position where we're staying in a stadium that's deteriorating and that nothing is going to happen," he said.

A study concluded that it would cost $121 million to refurbish Three Rivers, and for $80 million more, the Steelers could get a brand new facility. On Sept. 19, 1997, the Steelers officially launched their bid for a new home. After a tax initiative went down in flames, a backup plan was advanced. But it ran into trouble at the state level.

Just when it appeared Plan B was dead, Art Rooney II, son of the president and grandson of the founder, stepped to the fore. The desk at his law office was adorned with this sign: "Hard work. Persistence. Blood, sweat and tears. 110 percent all the time. Attorneys sure know how to have fun." With the political skills of his grandfather, he mended fences in Harrisburg, and state money was approved to go with the local share.

The Steelers broke ground for their new home on June 18, 1999. The same shovel The Chief had used to break ground for Three Rivers Stadium in 1968 was brought out of storage.

A new era was starting. Still alive was The Drive For Five.