Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review - "Chuck Noll, His Life's Work"

As the book, "Chuck Noll, His Life's Work" by Michael MacCambridge was about to be released, I heard Dan Rooney being interviewed, and he said something to the effect that he was tired of going to NFL meetings year after year and hearing about how great guys like Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells were, while no one ever said anything about Chuck Noll.  So, in 2012 Rooney, at that point a United States Ambassador, approached author Michael MacCambridge and asked if he would be willing to write a definitive biography of the former Steelers coach.   MacCambridge agreed to take on the task, and now, after four years of dedicated research (the bibliography covers five printed pages), hundreds of interviews, and actually sitting down and writing, football history, not to mention football fans in general and Steelers fans in particular, are the better for it.   I just finished reading this book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Part of the reason that so little is known of Noll other than the runs-hits-and-errors (if I may use a baseball metaphor) of his coaching record can be traced to Noll himself.  A naturally reticent man, Noll was a notoriously private and closed individual. Part of this is his family heritage and background, which is told in great detail here, and he made his choice to be that way.   Yet, he was one of the more interesting and well rounded men - away from the football field - that you will ever read about.  He was, MacCambridge says, "one of the last hugely successful NFL coaches to have an identifiable life outside of football, to be such a well rounded person."  However, few people knew this, and players who played their entire careers for him will tell you that they never had a personal conversation with him.  Those same players will also tell you, decades removed from their playing days, just what an effect Noll had on them and continues to have on them in their life's work as, say, football coaches (Tony Dungy), businessmen (John Stallworth), and parents (Cliff Stoudt).  

Above all, the book is about the love story that was the life and fifty-seven year marriage of Chuck and Marianne Noll.  Marianne Noll and the Nolls' son, Chris, cooperated with and were interviewed by MacCambridge for this book.  During all the years of Noll's coaching tenure, the Noll Family was very private by their own choice, you knew they existed, but you knew nothing about them, so their stories and input to the book are invaluable and extremely insightful.

Two things I learned in this book that I never knew.  One was that Noll suffered from epilepsy, which he lived with and controlled all of his adult life.  Secondly, when his older sister became widowed at the age of 38 with seven children under the age of ten, Chuck and Marianne contributed greatly to the upbringing and raising of those nieces and nephews.  Chuck walked his one niece down the aisle at her 1989 wedding.

Just about every important and significant name in football and the Steelers of that era agreed to talk with MacCambridge as he researched and wrote this book with one notable exception - Terry Bradshaw.  Probably just as well given Bradshaw's penchant for giving, shall we say, contradictory viewpoints of his relationship with Noll (and others) over the years.  There is a great anecdote in the book of Stoudt running into Bradshaw at some NASCAR event in 2002 where he pretty much tells Bradshaw to give it up and realize just what Noll did for him.

Like many biographies, the best part of the book comes in the telling of the subject's life after he leaves the main stage, and this one is no exception.  I defy anyone to read the last two chapters and the epilogue of this one without a few tears welling up in your eyes.  

But, okay, if all you really care about is the football stuff, there is plenty of that in there for you, too.   Reading it brought back memories of many football games at Three Rivers Stadium where I was present, including the Immaculate Reception Game, but two other stories recounted in the book also stand out to me.  One was the reaction of Glen Edwards in the tunnel waiting to be introduced before Super Bowl IX when one of his old college teammates, now a member of the Vikings, refused to acknowledge him.  If you know your Steelers lore, you know this story, but it's one I never get tired of reading.  The second story was about the Wild Card Playoff game win over the Houston Oilers in overtime in 1989.  It was a loss that cost Oilers Coach Jerry Glanville his job, and the players' euphoria over that win rivaled that of previous Super Bowl wins.

Like I said, I cannot recommend this one highly enough.  Four Stars from The Grandstander for this one.

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