By Alan Robinson
NEW YORK—Broncos coach John Fox learned a lot in his first two regular-season weeks as an NFL assistant coach. And he learned most of it from coach Chuck Noll.
Fox’s first week on the job was a 51-0 Steelers loss to the Cleveland Browns.
His second week? A 41-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
One can only imagine what Fox was thinking right about then about those 1989 Steelers, who were coming off a 5-11 season in 1988 that remains the franchise’s worst since a 1-13 season in 1969.
“We kind of had a bizarre season,” said Fox, who was hired as the Steelers’ secondary coach by Noll after coaching at Pitt. “It wasn’t a very tremendous start. Everybody was down. And of course, fans as they are, were a little bit honest. He (Noll) 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.”
Noll kept coaching as before, despite the run of 13 losses in 18 games and the 92-10 scoring margin in the opening two games.
To Fox, still a reasonably impressionable young guy at age 34, it was a valuable learning experience. Fox spent six seasons coaching in Pittsburgh, three as Pitt’s defensive backfield coach and defensive coordinator and three with the Steelers from 1989-91, leaving to coach the Chargers’ secondary after Noll retired following the 1991 season.
“He (Noll) was a tremendous technician in the individual fundamentals of football, which was something very important to him,” Fox said. “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 is staying even keel, not experiencing the highs and lows that a football season can bring to you. And really, the technique, and not more of the ‘want to’ but the ‘how to’ play football.”
The 1989 Steelers learned how to win by taking nine of their final 14 games — and five of their final six — to sneak into the playoffs the final weekend of the season. They went on to upset the Oilers in Houston in an overtime wild-card game before losing to the heavily favored Broncos 24-23 in an AFC divisional game.
ESPN analyst Merrill Hoge, who ran for 621 yards and eight touchdowns, credits Noll turning around a season that ended up with him taking the Steelers to the playoffs for the 12th and last time. They didn’t rebound to beat Cincinnati in a rematch later in the season, but they did beat the Browns 17-7 — allowing 44 fewer points than they did in the season opener.
“We were young, we had deficiencies in some areas and we did a lot of dumb things,” Hoge said. “It was really Chuck Noll’s guidance and belief in us that pulled us together. Once we started to believe in ourselves, then we started to go.”