(CNN) — He picked up the Pittsburgh Steelers from the bottom of the pile, and when he finished with them, they had become a fearsome powerhouse. Chuck Noll, the man who led his team to four Super Bowl victories — the most by any head coach — died late Friday. He was 82.
Family was by his side when Noll passed away of natural causes at his home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office said. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
His Super Bowl triumphs are the tip of the iceberg of the winning legacy Noll left behind.
When he took over the helm of the Steelers in 1969, the team had not won a single title in nearly 40 years, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which inducted Noll into its Canton, Ohio, shrine in 1993.
During his first year as head coach, the team floundered to a season close of just one win and 13 losses. But Noll homed in on the yearly draft of college players and used his savvy to assemble the gritty, talented nucleus of what would become a dynasty.
By 1972, the Steelers’ fortunes turned, when they won their first-ever division title, the AFC Central. They went on to win eight more during Noll’s stint of 23 seasons, which ended in 1991 with an overall record of 209 wins, 156 losses and one tie.
The Noll era spawned one Steeler Hall of Fame player after another, such as quarterback Terry Bradshaw; “Mean” Joe Greene, who anchored the “Steel Curtain” defensive line; center Mike Webster, linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert; receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth; and running back Franco Harris, whose career rushing yards rank 13th in NFL history.
Steeler greats mourn their former coach
“I had a great amount of fear for him,” Bradshaw said Saturday. “He’s kind of like a father from whom you want approval and you don’t quite get it.” For Bradshaw, who had a stormy relationship with Noll, that fear amounted to respect. “I’m proud to have played for him. It was a great honor.”
“Chuck was just the ultimate leader,” said Greene, who played his entire career for Noll. “He had truth and belief in what he was saying, and over time all of those things he said were validated, the things about winning football games and being a solid citizen.”
“I am a little shocked by this, and sad,” added Harris. “These are times when we reflect on all the great memories and the great times that we had. And there’s no doubt that these memories that we had, probably people consider them the best of times in pro football.”
Four Super Bowls in six years
Noll began his pro football career in the 1950s, playing as a guard and linebacker for the Cleveland Browns. After his playing career he became an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Chargers (later the San Diego Chargers).
He was the defensive coordinator in 1968 for the seemingly invincible Baltimore Colts. Despite a season that ended in a Super Bowl loss to the New York Jets, the Colts’ defense gave up only 144 points. It was Baltimore head coach Don Shula who recommended him for the Pittsburgh job.
Shula, who himself would go on to win two Super Bowls at the helm of the Miami Dolphins, told CNN that letting Noll go “was the right thing to do.”
“He wanted to be there, and he needed to be there, so I let him go.”
Noll, Shula said, was “a wonderful human being.”
“He never got the credit he deserved for his accomplishments.”
Noll and the Steelers took their first Vince Lombardi Trophy in January 1975, beating the Minnesota Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX, then went on to win three of the next five, capped by a 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV.
Since Noll’s retirement the Steelers have gone on to win two more Super Bowls for a total of six, more than any other NFL franchise.