Chuck Noll by Michael MacCambridge

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work
by Michael MacCambridge
University of Pittsburgh Press, 504 pp., cloth $27.95

There is a saying in the world of professional sports that a coach will not know for five to ten years whether a decision to accept a job was the right choice. That maxim, in essence, says everything about the risks of making a career out of professional coaching, and it is the theme of this new biography.

Author MacCambridge has written several acclaimed books on American athletics, including The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine (1997) and America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation (2004). This biography, the latest in a surge of books about the Pittsburgh Steelers, highlights the tribulations Chuck Noll faced growing up in Cleveland, where he provided for his sick father, gave up law school to become a father figure to his nieces and nephews, and concealed his epilepsy so he could play college and professional football. In 1969 Noll sacrificed a safe position as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Colts to become the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise that had just endured five consecutive losing seasons.

The move was a risk to his career. After a 12-30 record through his first three seasons, Noll manufactured the “Steel Curtain” defense and drafted seven future Hall of Famers by the names of Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster, Jack Lambert and John Stallworth. Twenty autumns and four Super Bowl victories later, Noll retired despite job offers from rival franchises. It takes a heavy heart to read the book’s final chapter as MacCambridge poignantly describes the moment that Noll was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In that harrowing time, he makes one final decision: a pledge to his wife, Marianne. He testifies, “[I] will . . . never . . . forget who you are.” And he never did before his death in 2014.

Todd M. Mealy
Penn Manor High School