Isn't it interesting that Chuck Noll was from Cleveland? How much different would NFL history have been if he had stayed home and coached the Browns? Would Cleveland be -- heaven forbid -- the City of Champions? We'll never know. All we know for sure is what Noll did for and meant to Pittsburgh. It has been well-documented since he died Friday night at 82. Clearly, it goes well beyond the four Super Bowls that his Steelers won in the 1970s. He played a major, starring role in transforming Pittsburgh from "Hell With The Lid Off" to "America's Most Livable City." It's his greatest legacy.
The steel industry was starting to die around the time the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl after the 1979 season. Unemployment in Allegheny County hit 13.9 percent in January 1983 and was even worse in the outlying areas, a staggering 27.1 percent in the once-thriving river towns of Beaver County. An estimated 212,000 people were unemployed. The region lost more than 30 percent of its population from 1970 to 1990 as people moved away to find jobs and a means to provide for their families.
Pittsburgh didn't have much to cling to back then, but it did have the Steelers. Noll's teams brought the city together unlike anything had or likely will again. It didn't matter if you were young or old, white or black. On football Sundays, everyone came together as one, total strangers in many cases, united behind a common cause. We hugged each other when the Steelers won and consoled each other when they lost. Their amazing success was much more than just a much-needed diversion from the hard economic times. It gave the city's people a chance to pull themselves up out of their despair and shout to the world, "I'm from Pittsburgh and I'm proud of it!"
"Let's be honest, Chuck was most responsible for all of it," Jack Ham said over the weekend.
Ham, one of nine Hall of Fame players on those Super '70s Steelers, was right. None of it probably would have happened without Noll.
"I cried like a baby when I heard he had passed," my good friend Mark Davis of Bethel Park was saying Saturday afternoon. "Those teams were so tough. Noll was so tough. He made me feel tough. He made me feel like I was somebody."
Pittsburgh almost certainly would have rebounded, no matter what. The people here are strong, proud, hard-working. It's been fascinating to watch us re-invent ourselves from a dirty steel town to a city thriving in education, medicine, technology and the arts. It's no accident Pittsburgh has been voted the best place in the country to live.
But there's no doubt Noll and his Steelers empowered the city's populace and made people feel as if they could accomplish anything. That's how much football means here. The Pirates won championships in 1971 and 1979 and gave us enduring icons such as Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. But baseball isn't football. The Penguins became good after they drafted Mario Lemieux No. 1 overall in 1984 and gave us stars Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But hockey isn't quite football, either. Even today, in old steel towns such as Clairton, Aliquippa and McKeesport, which still are struggling economically, you can see, even feel the impact of football. Their high school team brings life to their community, joy, pride, brotherhood, the incredible feeling that goes with success. Noll and his Steelers provided so much of that.
"I feel so lucky to have grown up here," Davis said. "Can you imagine what it's like growing up in Cleveland? I feel sorry for those people. I really hope LeBron [James] ends up back there. The fans there need that. They deserve that. They haven't won a championship since 1964."
That's 50 years. Think about that for a second. Pittsburgh has won 12 titles in that time, hence The City of Champions tag. The two championships by the Pirates. Six by the Steelers. Three by the Penguins. One by Pitt football. The number easily could be 15. The Penguins lost in the Stanley Cup final in 2008, the Steelers in the Super Bowl after the 1995 and 2010 seasons. Cleveland hasn't even been to a Super Bowl.
The Steelers and Browns will play Sept. 7 in the opening game of the 2014 NFL season at Heinz Field, a day when Noll's life and work figures to be recognized and celebrated by another sellout crowd. The Steelers have won 19 of the past 21 games against the Browns and 26 of 31 since the Browns came back into the league in 1999. There is no like, let alone love, between the cities. Nor is there agreement on many issues. This might be one of the exceptions: Cleveland's biggest loss to Pittsburgh was Noll.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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