Noll’s funeral a final lesson on greatness

Noll’s funeral a final lesson on greatness

Simple ceremony for former coach

Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A large gathering that included former Steelers players and coaches was at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland Tuesday to celebrate Chuck Noll, an iconic figure in Pittsburgh sports lore and one of the most well-known names in NFL history. Mr. Noll’s funeral was a tribute to the man who was known by those close to him as far more than just a great football coach.

The service was appropriate for Mr. Noll: simple, but dignified. That’s the way Mr. Noll, who coached the Steelers from 1969-1991 and is the only coach to win four Super Bowls, would have wanted it.

There were no special speakers, not even members of Mr. Noll’s family, no time for stories and reflections of the glory years with the Steelers and no long talk about all that he did for the Pittsburgh community.

The funeral mass for former Steelers coach Chuck Noll was led by The Most Rev. David A. Zubik, Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He and several former players expressed their thoughts on the legendary coach. (Video by Nate Guidry; 6/17/2014)

It was just a short, quiet service led by Bishop. David A. Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, who said during his homily that Mr. Noll was a source of encouragement to those with whom he came in contact and a role model for everyone.

“Let’s learn this lesson from coach,” Bishop Zubik said. “That we should all recognize what we can be, recognize what we are capable of doing and encourage other people to be their best. That’s greatness. And that’s why today we thank God for the coach.”

A glance at the setting and those in attendance showed just how many people Mr. Noll influenced. News trucks lined up along Fifth Avenue, and a section of pews was reserved for media members and the dignitaries, former NFL players and coaches, a handful of Hall of Famers and current Steelers players who were in attendance.

The pallbearers included Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Greene, former Steelers public relations director Joe Gordon, Steelers president Art Rooney II and former Steelers player Andy Russell.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell attended, as did Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and current Steelers Ben Roethlisberger, Ike Taylor, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward.

There also was a large contingent of former Steelers and former Steelers coaches, many from that Super era of the 1970s, including familiar faces such as Mel Blount, Franco Harris, J.T. Thomas, John Stallworth and Mike Wagner. Also there were former players Bubby Brister and Merrill Hoge as well as former coaches Tom Moore, Dick Hoak and Mike Mularkey.

And there was even an important visitor from Cleveland, where Mr. Noll was born and raised, a city that came to hate Pittsburgh in large part because of the Steelers dominance over the Browns during the Noll era, as the Most Rev. Roger W. Gries, a retired auxiliary Bishop from the Diocese of Cleveland and friend of Mr. Noll, took part in the service as well.

“That proves not everyone in Cleveland hates the Steelers,” Bishop Zubik quipped.

All were there to pay tribute to Mr. Noll, who died Friday at age 82 at his home in Sewickley. Many said after the service that Mr. Noll was not only a coach, but also a mentor, a role model and friend.

“Every day, it was about consistency and truth,” said Mr. Greene, a defensive tackle who was the first player Mr. Noll drafted in his first year with the Steelers in 1969. “He taught us what it took to win on the field and win off the field and he did not waver. I didn’t want to be a pallbearer because I didn’t want to be a part of that occasion that calls for needing a pallbearer – but [being selected as one] means he was thinking of me and that is special.

“If he hadn’t [drafted] me, maybe I wouldn’t have become a Pittsburgh Steeler and I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to be coached by Chuck Noll, and that would probably not have fared very well for me. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t reflect back and remember something that Charles Henry Noll said or told me.”

Mr. Thomas, who played for the Steelers from 1973-81, added, “And I think what came to fruition for a lot of us today, as we sat here, was the idea that ‘Wow, if it hadn’t been for Chuck, where would we all be? What would have happened to us?’ So this was a celebration of him, what he meant to us and the fact that we loved him.”

Mr. Mularkey, who is the tight ends coach for the Tennessee Titans but played and coached under Mr. Noll, said he doesn‘t know where he would be as a coach without the lessons he learned from ‍Mr. Noll, and he passes them on to his players daily.

“He’s the best coach I was fortunate to play for. I’ve been around a lot of great coaches, playing and coaching, but I’ve gotten more from Chuck off the field, as much as I got on the field about how to do things the right way,” Mr. Mularkey said.

Bishop Zubik, the only person who spoke at the service, shared a story about Mr. Noll. It was from summer 1979, when he was a priest at Sacred Heart and was asked to preside over a retreat for high school seniors.

He decided he wanted to do a series on leadership for the students, so lined up speakers on leadership in religion, business and politics but decided he had better get someone to talk about leadership in sports.

That’s when he decided to ask Chuck Noll. He asked a fellow priest who had a relationship with Mr. Noll to see if the coach would talk at the retreat.

“When I got the call the next day, [his friend] told me that he had great news, that Chuck would do it,” Bishop Zubik said. “But with one proviso …. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone that he was coming.”

As the date got closer and the Steelers advanced through the playoffs, Rev. Zubik realized the date Mr. Noll was to speak was the Tuesday after the Super Bowl. Yet Mr. Noll took the time to show up at the retreat, just two days after his team won its fourth Super Bowl.

“The next few days I got phone calls [from others throughout the diocese] saying, ‘Is this true? Chuck Noll was there to talk to your students. Why didn’t you tell us?” Bishop. Zubik said. “But that was the essence of who [Mr. Noll] was — it didn’t matter how important you were or how unimportant you thought you were, to him, everybody was important.”

In a previous version of this story, a quote from Mike Mularkey was incorrectly attributed.

Paul Zeise:, 412-263-1720 and Twitter: @paulzeise First Published June 17, 2014 10:17 AM