The Steelers' turnaround began in earnest in 1970, the year they moved into the AFC after the NFL and AFL merged. They drafted Bradshaw with the No. 1 pick, moved into Three Rivers Stadium after years of being a secondhand tenant of Pitt Stadium and Forbes Field. They won five of eight during one stretch.
By 1972, the year Harris arrived to give them the ground game Noll sought, they were championship contenders with an 11-3 record and a we've-turned-the-corner attitude. Noll had long since run off underachievers and pushed the Rooneys to bring in the players he wanted.
"He'll argue a point with you and keep yelling, 'No, this is right, you're wrong,'" Dan Rooney said. "Sometimes you have to say, 'This is the way we're going to do it.'"
The first traditional playoff game in Steelers history on Dec. 23, 1972, also signaled what was to come. The Steelers were in control of the John Madden-coached Raiders most of the game, until quarterback Ken Stabler scored in the final two minutes to put Oakland up 7-6.
With the Steelers down to fourth-and-10 on their side of the field, Bradshaw lofted a pass downfield intended for Frenchy Fuqua. As Fuqua and safety Jack Tatum converged on the ball, it bounded high in the air for what looked to be a certain incompletion. Instead, Harris, trailing on the play, caught the ball nearly at his shoe tops and raced into the end zone for an improbable touchdown.
The play would quickly become known as the "Immaculate Reception."
Noll's Steelers did not win the Super Bowl that season — they lost to unbeaten Miami on a fake punt in the AFC title game.
But, with their roster completed by their remarkable 1974 draft, they finally became NFL champions and did it three more times by January 1980.
Still, Noll's best team might have been in 1976, when the Steelers rebounded from a 1-4 start to go 10-4 — even with Bradshaw injured and out most of the season — by playing the greatest stretch of defense in NFL history.
The Steel Curtain shut out five of their final nine opponents while yielding only 28 points. At one point, they didn't allow a touchdown for 22 quarters.
However, Harris and Rocky Bleier, 1,000-yard rushers that season, were injured in a playoff game against Baltimore. Without a running game, they lost the AFC title to Oakland.
A year later, Noll wound up in a federal court trial. He accused Raiders defensive back George Atkinson, who had leveled Swann with a brutal hit the season before, of being part of the NFL's "criminal element."
Noll prevailed, but there were hard feelings when, under oath, he included Blount as also being part of that criminal element. The Steelers went 9-5 that season, but rebounded to win the championship in the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
When all the talent began to retire, the championships ended. Great drafts gave way to poor ones. The Steelers won only two playoff games and no conference championships in Noll's final 12 seasons, missing the postseason eight times.
Noll never was much of a yeller or screamer, though he had his moments. He confronted Oilers coach Jerry Glanville at midfield and warned him about the team's borderline-legal blocking techniques.
"He didn't feel like it was his job to motivate," Bleier said. "It was his job to take motivated people and give them a direction and get the job done."
When he retired, Noll always said he would never coach another team and he didn't.
In 2007, the football field at St. Vincent College, the Steelers' longtime training camp home in Latrobe, was named for Noll, even though he played at and graduated from Dayton.
Born in Cleveland, Noll attended Benedictine High School, where he played running back and tackle, winning All-State honors, before gaining a scholarship to play for the Flyers. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh's biggest, most traditional rival, in 1953.
At 27, he retired as a player from the Browns in 1959.
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