A few years ago, I had the chance to go to a Notre Dame football game in South Bend, where a good Fighting Irish team faced Army. The event was rich in football tradition.
As a fan, I loved everything about the day with perhaps one exception. Any time Notre Dame’s offense left the field and the defense took over, the crowd became noticeably more muted. Even when the team made huge defensive stops, the applause was so polite it sounded like the halftime baton twirler just finished a performance.
I couldn’t believe that in the house Knute Rockne built, Notre Dame, a football mecca, defense would be given such short shrift.
Then I considered that maybe it’s not the other fans, but rather my own predisposition towards defense because I’m from Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh defense matters.
Even the most casual fan in Pittsburgh, the one who only watches the games because that’s where the party is, knows not to look away from the action when the defense is on the field. This is not the norm in other places.
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to see numerous football games at all levels. I’ve seen games far away from Pittsburgh, and more than my share in this region.
I’ve found that the closer you get to Pittsburgh, the more intense the fans are when it comes to defense. Pittsburghers know good defense when that defense is near the ball, away from the ball, from the home team or the away team. They appreciate third-and-long defense in ways the people of Vienna know a good Baroque number when they hear one.
Why? I’m about to get to that, because the answer is in a name. But before I do, I think there needs to be some background.
In the game of football, defense starts with a desire and a will to be aggressive, to stop the other team by taking the ball back. Sometimes that means an interception, a fumble recovery, or just ripping it out of the other guy’s arms. To make these things happen, the typical strategy is to overpower and body slam just about every player in an opposing uniform until you render the ball available. If that doesn’t work, you prevent a first down and get the ball back from a punt. That’s defense.
This all requires a certain level of self-sacrifice. Because football is a rough, physical game, effective defense demands tough, physical players. It demands that these players have the strength, speed and knowledge of the game to anticipate offensive strategies, and pre-emptively or reactively meet force with overwhelming force.
The major advantage the offense has over the defense is presumably, the offensive players know where the ball is going in advance. The defense doesn’t. This means that the defense must commit completely with 100 percent adrenaline-powered exertion on every play.
A simple thing like a tackle at the line of scrimmage is a major victory for a defense. Pittsburghers know this. They can relate.
So, why are Pittsburghers so sophisticated in their appreciation of good defense, something people across the country, including Notre Dame fans seem to lack? The answer is simply Chuck Noll.
The game has a long and storied history in Pittsburgh. It didn’t take a Chuck Noll to teach the region about the game and why people should embrace it. The region had already contributed favorite sons Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas and Mike Ditka to the national football stage even before Noll arrived here.
But when Noll took the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, he set about building the organization around good defense, and in the process, he created an entirely new relationship between the region and the game, and the glue to that relationship was defense. Or more particularly, a defensive mentality.
He showed Pittsburghers what defense could accomplish on the field. He showed Pittsburghers defense in its highest form. In the process, his defenses held a mirror up to the region. Through those defenses, Pittsburghers saw themselves.
Tough. Ruthless. No excuses. Play through pain and injury. Get knocked down and get back up, and knock the other guy down harder. Win through dominance and force. Not finesse. Inertia.
Pittsburghers saw players play defense the way they would if they could. Chuck Noll found prototypes of the Pittsburgh mentality, and their names were Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Homes, Dwight White, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell, Jack Hamm, Mel Blount, Mike Wagner, Donnie Shell. This group comprised the "Steel Curtain" defense.
These men took the field and took no prisoners, and in doing so, they met the expectations of their coach, Chuck Noll, who had a plan. They fit into it. They executed it, and no other team has matched their level of success before or since.
The region’s football brand merged with its character and created, or perhaps amplified, its tough steel town image. Even when the steel mills closed and the region’s service economy took over, there was always a blue-collar work ethic just beneath the surface. An honest, unapologetic, can-do spirit that may have always been there, but people were never more conscious of it until after the Chuck Noll defenses came to epitomize the Steelers and the region.
Ever since the 1970s, there has been little confusion about the region’s brand. We are a lot like a good defense. Anticipatory, opportunistic, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to win. And the roots of this attitude go all the way back to the hiring of a relatively unknown football coach by one of the most under-performing NFL franchises up until that time.
The rest, as they say, is history. It’s not an overstatement to say the region owes at least a little bit of its brand evolution to Chuck Noll and his Steelers' defenses. In a much more obvious way, however, the region owes him its gratitude for helping instill a tradition of passion for the game of football that transcends what happens on the field a few Sundays in the Fall. Thanks, Coach.