In the months after the Steelers completed their 1988 season with a 5-11 record, the team made some sweeping changes to Chuck Noll’s staff of assistant coaches. The guy hired by Noll to coach the team’s defensive backs had built his reputation at the college level, most recently as the defensive coordinator across town at the University of Pittsburgh. Seven months later, the 1989 regular season opened, and the Pittsburgh Steelers opened by losing their first two games by a combined 92-10.
Welcome to the NFL, John Fox.
Some 25 years later, John Fox still is using what he learned that year, still benefiting from watching how Noll handled that situation and eventually molded the 1989 Steelers into a playoff team, and today Fox will coach the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Fox joins Tony Dungy as the members of the Chuck Noll coaching tree to bring a team to the Super Bowl. Dungy won with the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI; Fox lost with the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII and now gets a chance for his first Lombardi Trophy against the Seattle Seahawks.
“In my first year, 1989, I was defensive backfield coach (for Pittsburgh), and I was very blessed to be with Chuck Noll as the head coach,” said Fox earlier this week. “We kind of had a bizarre season. The first two games – I think we got beat, 51-0, at home by Cleveland, which was my first NFL experience, a great experience, and then we went to Cincinnati, which was a very good football team, and we lost, 41-10. It wasn’t a very tremendous start. Everybody was down. And of course, fans as they are, were a little bit honest. He stayed even keel. That is the most valuable lesson: to be the same guy and don’t go through the highs and lows because it is very easy to do, especially with outside influences.”
Because Fox’s Denver team defeated New England in the AFC Championship Game, Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw were assured of remaining the only coach-quarterback combination to win four Super Bowls. The Noll-Bradshaw pairing was 4-0; the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are 3-2 in their Super Bowls together.
“I think he’s the greatest guy I’ve ever been around,” Fox said about Noll. “He was very calm, very technique- and fundamental-oriented. He was not a screamer. He wasn’t up or down. I think his biggest thing is that he was the same guy every day. He was not an ego guy like, ‘Look what I’m doing.’ He was a great mentor, I know that.”
Noll was known as a coach who allocated time during every practice to honing the fundamentals of the sport, even at the professional level. Other coaches could lose themselves in the scheming and play-calling, while Noll was a big believer in what he termed “back to basics.”
“Coach Noll was a tremendous technician in the individual fundamentals of football, which was something very important to him,” said Fox. “I still believe it comes down to blocking and tackling, even at this level. Sometimes, we lose sight of that with the schemes and stuff. I really think it’s about staying even keel, not experiencing the highs and lows that a football season can bring to you. And really, the technique. Not so much the ‘want to’ but the ‘how to’ play football.”
Fox coached the Steelers defensive backs under Noll for three seasons (1989-91), which also were Noll’s final three seasons as an NFL coach, and during that time Fox worked with Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake. The 1989 Steelers won five of their last six to make the playoffs as a Wild Card and then went to Houston and upset the Oilers in overtime. That season ended with a 24-23 loss the following week in Denver to the eventual conference champion Broncos. The 1990 Steelers finished out of the playoffs but ranked No. 1 in the NFL in both passing defense and total defense.
“People say you are what you eat,” Fox said. “I think you are what you are around. I was very fortunate as a young coach in the NFL, first time in the NFL, to be around a guy like Chuck Noll. I think you become what you’ve been around and, in that case, I was very fortunate.”