Marvin Lewis grew up watching Chuck Noll's teams in Pittsburgh.
Chuck Noll is such a huge branch on the Paul Brown coaching tree that Marvin Lewis has some of the roots as he coaches Brown’s team in Cincinnati.
No wonder Bengals-Steelers has sustained a such a heated rivalry since it was born with the merger in 1970. Paul Brown never had the chance, but Noll was on his radar to lure to his coaching staff.
“There was a lot of Paul Brown in Chuck Noll,’ says Vic Ketchman of Packers.com, who covered the Steel Curtain Steelers of the ‘70s. “The same kind of understated intensity.”
Lewis grew up in Greater Pittsburgh watching Noll turn the Steelers into the Team of the ‘70s and after Monday’s practice he reflected on the Hall-of-Famer who passed away last Friday night at age 82.
He never got a chance to coach with Noll, but his retirement after the 1991 ushered in the Bill Cowher Era and it was Cowher that brought Lewis into the NFL as the Steelers linebackers coach in 1992.
“He had a great temperament about him. He was a very physical person and he had physical football teams,” Lewis recalled. “He was demanding as a football coach. You learn from that. When I went there to coach in ‘92, they were a hard-working football team.
“They had big, tough linemen there, and that’s what we have. They had a defense that would be smothering, so you want to have that. You want to have big production from your wideouts and the quarterback’s got to be able to throw the ball effectively. Hopefully we have all those things in place….I think you’ve got to change with the times. It’s a little different time now. But I think the fundamentals of their football team were very important.”
Lewis got to know Noll when he got paired up with the former coach in some celebrity golf tournaments. There was never a doubt who had the biggest name in Pittsburgh.
“The other people in the group, they had the chance to play with Chuck Noll but unfortunately they got Marvin Lewis in the group, too,” Lewis said. “The greatest part of it was that these guys would want Coach Noll to share stories about football, and Coach Noll would be talking about the leaves on the trees or the beer that he made last month or whatever wine.
“Those kind of things that were beyond football. The only thing he ever said relating to sports and competitiveness was when the guys would leave the last putt for him and he would say ‘Oh, there’s no pressure.’ His temperament about competition was great.”
It was the competition that spiced the relationship with his mentor, Brown, the man that he played for in his hometown of Cleveland from 1953-59 as a guard and linebacker. Noll had a 8-4 record against him before Brown retired after the 1975 season in a series that featured some tense moments long before T.J. Houshmandzadeh stomped on the Terrible Towel at Heinz Field and Cowher mocked the Bengals cheer with “We-Dey,” in the Paul Brown Stadium visitors’ locker room.
Noll always wondered for a stretch why the Steelers were never introduced at Riverfront Stadium and he always told his captain to go in the direction away from the Riverfront scoreboard in the fourth quarter because of the tendency it had to go on the blink when playing Pittsburgh.
“It was a very respectful relationship, but there was some gamesmanship,” Ketchman says. “They were the same guy.”
Bengals president Mike Brown laughs now about the starting lineups.
“We thought (Noll) was simply trying to gin up an excuse to inflame his troops,” Mike Brown recalled Monday. “My dad told (P.A. announcer) Tom Kinder to tell (Noll) when to be there and if they aren’t there, just go ahead and announce them as if they were. There was this game going on. Chuck was never there quite on time for a while, so that gave him a reason to be even more outraged. Not anything important, just amusing at the time.”
Mike Brown says Paul Brown had enough respect for Noll to hopefully one day hire him as an assistant before the Steelers hired him in 1969.
“My dad was proud of him and when he got the job in Pittsburgh, that pleased him,’ Mike Brown said. “He would have looked to have hired him as a coach if the opportunity presented itself, which it never did. You have to have an opening and he’d have to be where he wasn’t tied up. Those two things never came together.”
Paul and Mike Brown knew all about Noll early on as a player and saw the coaching traits.
“A very bright guy. That was recognized by all the players and coaches. They treated him with an odd kind of deference. He was well thought of,” Mike Brown said. “There was a lot of respect (from Paul Brown). There wasn’t an emotional friendship. It was just a respect. He respected (Noll) as a player and as a coach and considered he had a bond with him because he played for him.”
Noll rung up a career winning percentage of .572, but he was barely .500 against the Bengals at 22-21. The Bengals were born in ’68 and Noll was hired in ’69 and as Ketchman notes, “One franchise was beginning and one was being re-invented.” In many ways the rivalry is still defined by the men that began it.
“As a coach (Noll) was organized, clear, demanding, very able and he got his guys formed up…They were dominant and it was there for everyone to see,” Mike Brown said. “He was what you would want in an NFL coach. He was good at his work, he was a good person. He is what we should have. He was all of that.”