First in a series looking back at Chuck Noll’s first season with the Steelers
Believe it or not, it’s already been 50 years since legendary Steelers coach Chuck Noll’s first training camp in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers were coming off a 1968-69 season where they finished a dismal 2-11-1 and fired coach Bill Austin. Noll had just finished a short stint as the Baltimore Colts’ defensive coordinator and probably knew he was getting himself into a bleak situation.
At this point, Noll was an unproven head coach who started training camp on Wednesday, July 16, 1969, with designs on evaluating the squad he inherited to see who was worth keeping around.
Local media coverage from that summer shows that Noll had two goals in mind going into his first Steelers training camp: Whip this sorry bunch into shape, and make sure no one died of heat stroke.
That first day was a 90-degree scorcher, according to Pittsburgh Press sportswriter Pat Livingston.
Despite the heat, Noll had the rookies and few veterans on hand running some intense drills.
“I was pleased with the workout,” Noll told Livingston. “It was about what I had expected.”
Those expectations were part of the “new think” Noll was attempting to instill in all his players from day one, according to Post-Gazette sportswriter Jack Sell.
“I don’t think camp is a place to condition athletes,” Noll told Sell. “They should be in shape when they get here. I stressed that in letters to the players and I believe the message got through. Everyone seems ready.”
It’s worth noting that one of the most important story lines coming out of Noll’s first day of training camp was that 1969 first-round draft pick Joe Greene was still holding out, according to Sell. The Noll-Greene partnership would obviously turn out to be a fruitful one in the years to come.
By day two, Livingston already had to rethink his initial perception of Noll.
“Holy Jock Sutherland,” he wrote on Friday, July 18. “Chuck Noll, the smiling, easy-going soft touch who coaches the Steelers, isn’t that at all.”
Sell also compared Noll to Sutherland — an ex-Steelers and Pitt football coach — on day two after he opted to have his players practice in full pads already.
Starting quarterback Dick Shiner was ecstatic for a change of coaching philosophy, after being sick of lackluster defense putting too much pressure on his offensive performance year after year.
“Shiner admires the defense of the Baltimore Colts, hopes that coach Chuck Noll will be able to build a similar one with the Steelers,” Sell wrote on July 18.
Noll would indeed build a beast of a defense, but unfortunately Shiner wasn’t around long enough to enjoy it. He left the Steelers after the 1969 season, just in time for the team to take Terry Bradshaw No. 1 overall in the 1970 NFL draft.
Noll began to make his mark on his new team early. By July 21, he had already played a part in cutting four rookies and trading tight end Tony Jeter to the Minnesota Vikings.
Fun fact: According to Sell in the Post-Gazette’s July 21 edition, then-Steelers owner Art Rooney and his son Dan apparently attended the bachelor party of ex-Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell the previous Friday. What a party that must’ve been!
By July 22, the Press’ Livingston reported that the players seemed to be receptive to Noll’s hard-nosed workout style.
“Frankly, I’ve never seen a football team in such good shape so early in the season,” trainer Ralph Berlin told Livingston. “As a team, I think they’re in remarkable physical shape.”
It’s clear that the team was already internalizing Noll’s emphasis on fitness.
“Good physical condition is part of the job,” Noll told Livingston in the same story. “We warned everyone to report ready to play. Getting in shape is something we expect them to do on their own time.”
It took a while for the Steelers’ record to reflect Noll’s ambitious workout regimen. The team went 1-13 during the 1969-70 season — the NFL didn’t adopt at 16-game season until 1978 — which must not have been particularly encouraging.
That record slowly started to creep up, with the Steelers going 5-9 the next year, 6-8 the following season and finally making the jump to elite status by going 11-3 in the 1972-73 season. Noll would win the first of his four Super Bowls two years later in the 1974-75 season.
To think, it all started on that scalding-hot day in the summer of ’69.