John Fox: Key Branch on the Unsung Chuck Noll Coaching Tree

Denver Broncos head coach John Fox stands poised to take his second team to a Super Bowl should he defeat Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

And Should he prevail at Mile High, much will be said and written about Fox and Peyton Manning. Little will likely be said about John Fox roots to the Chuck Noll Coaching Tree, a mistake rectified here.

The Rise NFL Coaching Tree 

NFL Coaching Trees are a curious concept. Taken at face value, they’re a simple road map detailing who hired who and, as the NFL is the ultimate ‘old boys network,’ a coaching tree gives outsiders a peak into who is chummy with whom in the league.

  • But since the 1990’s coaching trees have taken on a life of their own. 

Coaching trees are used to extend a coach’s influence beyond his won-lost record and/or Lombardi playoff count. Bill Walsh only won three Super Bowls, yet many unquestionably hail him as the “best NFL coach ever.”

Never mind that this ranks Walsh above coaches who won an equal number of Super Bowls with lesser talent (Joe Gibbs) or others who both brought home more Lombardi’s and owned a head-to-head advantage over Walsh (Chuck Noll.) But try to make that argument, and even citizens of Steelers Nation will respond… “But Walsh has the Bill Walsh coaching tree…..”

Three Super Bowls is a tremendous accomplishment as is the rest of Bill Walsh’s body of work on the field in in the draft room. But “the Bill Walsh coaching tree” gives his greatness an extra air of infallibility that others lack. (if you doubt that try to amend the Wikipedia entry for the tree to suggest that some members perhaps don’t belong and see how long the changes last.)

Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells were not the only NFL coaches to spawn coaching trees, there are others who are less distinguished if not less accomplished, which brings Steelers Nation to a coaching tree with a chance to distinguish itself this winter:  The Chuck Noll coaching tree.

The Under Appreciated, but Not Under Achieving Chuck Noll Coaching Tree

One of the ultimate ironies of Chuck Noll’s distinguished coaching career is that he took pride in role as a teacher of his players. That was one reason for numberless practices – if a player made an error, he wanted assistant coaches to correct them, whether the author of the error was Terry Bradshaw or Joe Greene or a mere mortal such as Walter Abercrombie or Lupe Sanchez.

  • Yet for all his accomplishments as a teacher Noll did not seed a legion of accomplished assistants.

Tony Dungy was the only Noll pupil to achieve greatness as head coach, and the other coaches that ESPN lists on the Noll branch of the Sid Gillman tree were mentored by Dungy (Jim Cadwell, Lovie Smith, Mike McCoy.)

And then there is one other.

And that is of course John Fox.

Fox’s Time in Pittsburgh/with the Steelers

Tony Dungy was a seen has a head coaching commodity before he was even 30. Chuck Noll tapped him to be his defensive cooridantor in the 80’s, and Dungy regularly had the unit ranked near the top. And he did it with units lead by the likes of Keith Willis, Bryan Hinkle, and Dwayne Woodruff – good players but not quite the caliber of L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert or Mel Blount.

  • Then came the 1988 season, where the Steelers defense fell to 28th in the league. 

Management wanted changes, and one of those involved a demotion of Dungy. Dungy balked. (For a more complete account, see Maple Tree Press’s “Nunn Better” by Ivan Cole.)

That left Noll a slot to fill on his staff. And to fill that slot he looked across the river to Pitt, hiring their defensive coordinator John Fox to coach his secondary.

John Fox inherited a unit that included an aging but still productive Woodruff, and budding talent in the form of Rod Woodson, Thomas Everett, and a young rookie named Carnell Lake who made the transition from linebacker.

Fox therefore had a role in molding the 1989 Steelers storybook season. The Steelers defense only improved from 28th to 19th that year, but the Steelers allowed 1/3 fewer touchdown passes in 1989 than it had year before.

Fox’s secondary continued to improve in 1990. Overall the defense finished number 1 in the NFL (by yards allowed) and it was an almost impossible defense to pass against. At mid season, Steelers Digest shot Woodson, Lake, Everett, and Woodruff in the end zone with road block and stop signs. The Steelers secondary was that good:

  • During the entire season, the defense only allowed 9 touchdown passes.

That impressive number becomes more impressive when one considers that 3 of those passes were giving up in a single game (albeit in the final, make or break contest vs. Houston.)

The Steelers defense, struggled during 1991, as the offense and in fact the entire organization was hamstrung by Chuck Noll’s decision to climb Walton’s Mountain. Noll called it a day at the season’s end.

Tom Donahoe lead a comprehensive search for a replacement and word is that Fox was one of those he considered during the selection process. Fox of course, didn’t get the job which went to Bill Cowher, but Chuck Noll’s influence on him was lasting.

When asked the experience of coaching with Noll in by the Post-Gazette’s by Gerry Dulac in 2010, Fox offered this:

“I was very fortunate as a young coach in the NFL, first time in the NFL, to be around a guy like him. I think you become what you’ve been around and, in that case, I was very fortunate.”

Any doubt as to whose coaching tree Fox belongs on?

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