An Interview with The Emperor

At 12:06 a.m. on June 14, our youngest daughter, Meredith, text me the following:

“Dad, I think I should be the first to tell you, Chuck Noll died.”

Meredith was born in 1997 – six years after Noll coached his final game. She never watched him coach. But she sees his face plastered on pictures in my basement and hears me tell many stories of The Emperor Chaz.

I wrote about one of those stories for The Clarion Call back on November 12, 1992, when I was a graduate student at Clarion University.

The following is the actual opinion piece (with just a few edits) I wrote for the student newspaper. It was entitled, “An Interview with The Emperor.”

________________________________________________________

My editor stressed one point over and over when I started as a sports reporter right out of college at The Beaver County Times.

“Always remember one thing, Nick,” he would say in a deep, gravelly voice. “Keep your professionalism regardless of the assignment.”

It wasn’t too difficult keeping my cool when interviewing a high school sophomore after scoring a game-winning touchdown or his coach, who could barely speak in complete sentences.

But as time went by and my writing improved – I think – the assignments got better. Eventually, I worked my way into covering the Pittsburgh Steelers, a rarity for someone 22-years-old.

“Now don’t go wearing your Steeler hat or jacket when you go to Three Rivers (Stadium),” my editor would joke. “And don’t go jumping up and down when they score a touchdown.”

He would laugh and then go back to hacking someone’s story.

I didn’t let him know, but I was worried. I had idolized these guys since childhood. I didn’t want to act like a professional criticizing them when they failed. In particular, I didn’t want to criticize the person I admired most – Charles Henry Noll.

My first two seasons covering the team were enjoyable. And, for the most part, I think I handled myself well. As time went by, I even learned how to criticize my beloved team. But not nearly as severely as the other “hacks” covering the Steelers’ beat.

It was NFL Draft Day in 1991. All of the beat reporters met in the conference room in the Steeler offices at the Stadium and anxiously waited for The Emperor to appear. Sure, he would undoubtedly tell us the team had just taken “the best athlete available,” but to hear those four words meant the regular season was drawing nearer.

When Steelers’ Public Relations Director Dan Edwards entered the room after ESPN’s Chris Berman announced Huey Richardson as their first pick, we knew The Emperor would be arriving soon.

A few minutes later, The Emperor entered. We quizzed him about the pick.

The day lasted 12 hours, and by 10 p.m. we were exhausted. With most reporters gone, I saw Noll lingering around a table with some food. It had been the first time all day I’d seen him alone.

“Good day, coach?” I asked.

“Time will tell,” The Emperor responded. He was never a man of many words.

Then, out of nowhere, I asked Noll if he had a few minutes to spare.

“Sure,” he said picking up two Iron City’s from a cooler.

I had interviewed Noll many times before. But that was always with a crowd of reporters. Now, it was me, one-on-one with the only coach to ever win four Super Bowls.

Unfortunately, one voice kept flashing through my mind. It was my editor, muttering “Keep your professionalism, Nick.”

We sat at the same table which had been filled earlier by Nover, Cope and Savran. Past horror stories of the stone-faced Emperor ripping reporters popped in my head.

Before we even started our conversation, Noll, with that brownish hair parted on the side and birth mark on his face’s right side, asked me, “How do you like your job?”

The question took me by surprise.

“It’s, ah, fine.”

“I’ve seen your work a few times,” he said. “I think you do a fine job.”

He uttered a few more sentences, but I heard little. “Geez,” I thought. “Here’s the guy who never even gave the great Franco Harris a compliment – remember, ‘Franco Who?’ – and he just gave me one.”

The compliments came to an abrupt halt and the interview went on for about 10 minutes. At the conclusion, The Emperor stuck out his hand – and it wasn’t ice cold like reporters claimed – and said, “thank you.”

“Thank you, Chuck,” I responded.

I walked out of the room thinking my editor would have been proud. I kept my professionalism! But as soon as I left the Steeler office, I jumped up and down like a kid on Christmas morning.

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