January 12, 1969 is considered an important date in National Football League history. That's the day Joe Namath and the New York Jets defeated the powerful Baltimore Colts 16-7 to win Super Bowl lIIl and put the National and American Conferences on an equal footing. But NFL historians may soon consider Jan. 13, 1969 an even more significant date.
That's the day Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll first met. Together they have formed the combination that has made the Pittsburgh Steelers the best and most powerful team in the NFL. Together they have pulled the Steelers out of the cellar and put them in the position of becoming the greatest team in the game's history.
Pittsburgh has won four Super Bowl titles in the past six years, and the team shows no signs of slowing down. Many things have contributed to the Steelers' success, but it all started with Dan Rooney hiring Chuck Noll as the Steelers' 14th head coach.
Rooney and Noll are perfect examples of opposites attracting. Noll is quiet, reserved and tightlipped. Rooney is very open and talkative. But the two got along well from the start. "Chuck had applied for our head coaching job, but I had never met him until the day after Super Bowl lll," the Steelers' president said.
"From the very beginning he impressed me. To be honest, we hit it off very well. I remember his knowledge of the game was the thing that impressed me the most, and not just his knowing formations and so forth. He had a very good understanding of our players and situation, which I thought was remarkable for another team's assistant coach."
Rooney didn't hire Noll on the spot, however. The two met a couple more times in Pittsburgh before the final decision was made. "I knew from the beginning, though, that Chuck was a guy we had to give a lot of consideration to," Rooney said. "If you'll remember, we were also talking to (Penn State Coach) Joe Paterno at the time, and Chuck had that same kind of quiet expertise we were looking for."
Noll and Rooney quickly became friends. They have an unusual owner-coach relationship in the high pressured world of professional sports. Rooney helped Noll find and move into a home in Pittsburgh after Noll came over to the Steelers from Don Shula's Baltimore Colts' coaching staff.
Noll's son Chris even stayed with the Rooneys while his parents were getting settled. Noll realises his relationship with the Rooneys is a unique one, and that it just might be the best owner-coach working arrangement in the NFL. "Dan and I have the same goals. We always have, and that helps the situation,"
Noll said. "I've never been a head coach anywhere else, so I have nothing to judge our situation against. But I think it's obvious that we have a good thing. And yes, I think it's one of the things that has helped make us successful."
By the same token, Rooney doesn't tell Noll how to run the team, as some owners do. Dan Rooney has never thought of asking Noll why the Steelers threw a pass on first down instead of running a draw play. self last year in a telephone interview.
After running through Noll's accomplishments, pointing out that his winning percentage of .765 since 1972 is higher than any other coach and that Noll was the only man to win three Super Bowls, the writer asked Noll for his thoughts on what he had accomplished. Noll said, "I have none!'
Rooney laughed when this story was related to him. "That doesn't surprise me because that's Chuck Noll!' he said. "But really, Chuck is very co-operative with the media Much more than a lot of coaches. I've seen guys come up to him long after he has given his post game press conference and ask him a question, and Chuck will stand there and answer it. He doesn't have to do that, but he will."
Even though he is a very private person, more and more of Chuck Noll is revealed to the public each year. The same thing is not true of Dan Rooney, however. Like Noll, Rooney enjoys his privacy. But the Steelers' president remains in the shadow of his father.
As president, Dan Rooney runs the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it's The Chief - Art Rooney, Senior - who is the team's grand old man. Although he's the Chairman of the Board, Rooney, Sr. doesn't have much to do with the day, today operation of the team these days.
That job was turned over to Dan in 1975, when The Chief walked into Steeler PR man Joe Gordon's office before training camp and announced, without fanfare, that he wanted to make his son Dan team president. "Does Danny know anything about this?" Gordon asked the Steelers' owner. " No, but I'm going to tell him."
It was a smart move, by a man known for making wise decisions. Dan Rooney is a shrewd businessman, and that's what the NFL is today - big business. Art Rooney, Sr. could see that. The game hadn't passed him by, he just felt his eldest son should be the guy in charge.
"A lot of other coaches in the league envy my situation and how smoothly things work for us," Noll said. "Is it unique? From what everyone else tells me, I guess it is. I know the Rooneys are great people to work for. " Maybe that's why Noll hasn't given any thought to leaving the Steelers. Some coaches get edgy after a while, but Noll looks to be in for a long stay.
Art Rooney, Jr. summed up how his family feels about Noll when he said, "Chuck Noll is the best thing to happen to the Rooneys since they got on the boat in Ireland."
The mutual admiration isn't just between the Rooneys and Noll. The players on the Steelers, too, realise they are working under very good conditions, especially such players as guard Sam Davis and running back Rocky Bleier, who were on Pittsburgh teams in the pre-Noll era.
"After you talk to players on other teams, you realise how good things are here," Bleier said. "Everything is just so relaxed, and I'm sure that's the way Mr. Rooney and Chuck want it. I'm sure their relationship filters down through the organisation. I mean, if there is tension at the top, the players can usually feel it, but there is no feeling of tension on the Steelers. Not since Chuck has been here, anyway."
Relaxed, that's the way Rooney likes things. Of course it's easy to be relaxed when you are an owner or coach of the best team in the National Football League. But Rooney knows the Steelers can't stay on top forever, and that there are going to be problems down the road. That's why he doesn't think he and Chuck Noll have faced their toughest challenge.