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Bill Nunn, 89, Steelers scout extraordinaire

Posted May 7, 2014

During his 46 seasons in the NFL, Bill Nunn was a pioneer in creating opportunities for athletes from traditionally Black Colleges

If Dan Rooney can be called the visionary and Chuck Noll the architect in the building of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty of the 1970s that produced four Super Bowl championships over a span of six seasons, well, then Bill Nunn was a guy who made sure the warehouse was stocked with construction materials.

Bill Nunn is widely known as one of the National Football League’s preeminent scouts of the last 50 years, the man largely responsible for opening the pipeline from the predominantly black colleges in the south to the NFL, but he was so much more than that.

Born William Nunn Jr., he was a college basketball player so talented that he was asked to help integrate the NBA after World War II. He was a journalist – first a sports writer, then sports editor, then managing editor of The Pittsburgh Courier during an era when it was one of the most influential black publications in America. He dabbled in sports promotions, some boxing matches and some Negro League baseball games involving the Indianapolis Clowns playing at Forbes Field. He was the son of William G. Nunn Sr., an editor at The Pittsburgh Courier starting in the 1940s, and the father of Bill Nunn III, an actor whose film credits include “Do the Right Thing,” “Regarding Henry,” “Sister Act,” and “Spider-Man.” And even though Bill Nunn Jr. always contended that he was the third most famous Bill Nunn in his family, he was a pioneer whose work directly created opportunities for hundreds of athletes while helping to throw the doors wide open for thousands more.

Mr. Nunn, 89, died on Tuesday night in the hospital as the result of complications of a stroke he had suffered recently. His death was some 48 hours before what would have been his 46th NFL Draft as a full-time scout for the Steelers.

“We have lost a great friend and a great person who did so much for the Steelers organization with the passing of Bill Nunn,” said Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney. “Bill was a special person who did everything in his career, from playing sports to being an excellent journalist, all of which led to his outstanding career in scouting for the Steelers.”

A bunch of the names are etched on the Lombardi trophies lined up in a row in an exhibit at the Steelers practice facility on Pittsburgh’s South Side, and the best of the players Mr. Nunn scouted also are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mel Blount and John Stallworth and L.C. Greenwood. Donnie Shell. Ernie Holmes and Joe Gilliam. Glen Edwards and Frank Lewis. All of them from predominantly black colleges, all of them identified by Bill Nunn as players worthy of a shot at success in the NFL at a time when what would be obvious now wasn’t necessarily so obvious.

BILL NUNN, SPORTS WRITER
In February 2010, in conjunction with Black History Month that year, Bill Nunn became part of the inaugural class inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame. The other members of that inaugural class included genuine legends of the sport, from Deacon Jones and Willie Lanier and Walter Payton and Tank Younger, to Coach Eddie Robinson. In Mr. Nunn’s mind, the primary reason he was included was because of his work with The Pittsburgh Courier.

“My feeling is that so much of what I did to be a part of this was done when I was with the newspaper (The Pittsburgh Courier),” said Mr. Nunn at the time of his induction. “Getting to the Steelers, of course, also was due to the newspaper. Having dealt with black colleges for most of my newspaper life, I feel good about that. I picked the Black College All-America football team starting in 1950, and the last one I took part in was in 1974 when I was a scout here and we drafted John Stallworth. So as a result, I felt very good about being a part of that.”

During its heyday, The Pittsburgh Courier’s circulation reached 400,000, with readers all over the country, and it had branch offices in New York City, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, in addition to its home in Pittsburgh. William G. Nunn Sr. was the editor-in-chief of The Pittsburgh Courier, and he worked there for almost 30-plus years before retiring in the mid-1960s. Bill Nunn worked at the newspaper as the sports editor, and later the managing editor.

“The Courier was a crusading paper,” recalled Mr. Nunn in 2010. “We fought against what we called ‘injustices,’ and not only in sports, but also in the workplace, in the educational system and so on. As a result, I was just proud I was a part of that newspaper. What happened with the Courier, though, was that because we were a crusading newspaper, it affected us with advertising. We could get the beer advertisements and things like that, but the big department stores and some of the big companies wouldn’t advertise because we were fighting against job discrimination, and many of those things were happening at some of those places.”

During the era when The Pittsburgh Courier flourished, Nunn traveled to cover the best football game played between black colleges each weekend, and then at the end of the season he selected what was the definitive Black College Football All-America team. It was a selection committee of one. Having been schooled in the business by his father; by Wendell Smith, who was with Jackie Robinson daily as he integrated Major League Baseball; and by Chester L. Washington, who started at the Courier as a stenographer before working his way up to sports editor and then leaving to become a publisher who created a 13-newspaper alliance, Mr. Nunn’s influence in sports grew to be significant.

“When I worked in sports for the Courier, some of my stories were in The Sporting News and the NCAA (publications),” said Mr. Nunn. “I covered so many of the major things, particularly with boxing. I covered Archie Moore, Floyd Patterson, Ezzard Charles. I also was putting together the Black College All-America football team, and so I had a lot of contacts at the black schools.”

One such example of Mr. Nunn’s influence came in 1952, when Wellington Mara, at the time the owner of the New York Football Giants, instructed his team to use its pick in the 27th round of that NFL Draft on Roosevelt Brown, a tackle from Morgan State College. The story goes that Mara held in his hand a copy of The Pittsburgh Courier’s All-America team that Mr. Nunn had picked when he pointed to Brown’s name and told his people, “Take this guy.”

Roosevelt Brown went to the Giants as a 20-year-old, where he quickly won a starting job. He held it for 13 seasons, was named an All-Pro for eight straight seasons (1956-63) and in 1975 became just the second offensive lineman to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 1961, Mr. Nunn alerted the Los Angeles Rams about a defensive end who had played during the 1960 season for Mississippi Vocational College. His name was David Jones, who would come to be known by the nickname, Deacon. It seemed that in 1958 Jones had his football scholarship to South Carolina State revoked because he had taken part in a civil rights protest. After a year of inactivity, Mississippi Vocational offered a scholarship that Jones accepted, but conditions at the school were such that Jones and his African-American teammates slept on cots in the opposing team’s gym on road trips because motels and hotels refused them admittance.

It was typical of Mr. Nunn, that the sports editor of The Pittsburgh Courier would know about the rare athletic ability and the true nature of a man who had been struggling against racism in the pursuit of a career as a professional athlete. The Rams investigated Mr. Nunn’s tip and invested a 14th-round pick in that draft.

David “Deacon” Jones played 14 NFL seasons, and he missed just five of a possible 196 regular season games. Jones was a unanimous All-Pro defensive end for the six seasons from 1965-70; he played in seven straight Pro Bowls, from 1965-1971, and was selected to an eighth in 1973. As a member of the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line, Jones is the man who first used the term “sack” to describe tackling a quarterback as he is attempting to pass. Jones was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1980.

FROM SPORTS WRITER TO SCOUT
In the 1960s, the Steelers were run out of an office at the Roosevelt Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh, and it was common for sports writers to drop by and hang out, sometimes maybe only to bum a cigar from Art Rooney Sr. In the latter half of the decade, Art’s oldest son, Dan Rooney, was becoming more and more involved in the daily operations of the team, and he understood the importance of publicity for the family’s business.

The way Mr. Nunn always told the story, one day Dan Rooney saw one of the Courier’s reporters and asked why Bill Nunn, the sports editor at the newspaper, never came around and hung out. The message was brought back to the Courier offices.

“I said that I want you to make certain to tell (Dan Rooney) that you don’t have to worry about Bill Nunn coming down to the Steelers office, because I don’t like the way they do business,” remembered Mr. Nunn of that time. “I really didn’t like the way the National Football League was doing business. (The reporter) went back and told Dan. Dan called me up. Wanted to talk. I wasn’t too anxious. I go down and we have this conversation. I told him what I thought was wrong with the Steelers organization. There was a time when I felt like getting into the press box and different things, that I was the black newspaper, I wasn’t particularly welcome. Plus, I turn out an All-America football team every year, some of the top guys, and at that time they weren’t coming into the league at the same pace that they came in afterwards. I said nobody from the Steelers has ever contacted me.

“So Dan listened. I said, I don’t think you’ll ever be a winner.’ He said, ‘If you think you can help us be a winner, why don’t you come and join us.’ I said I have a job. He said, ‘Well you look at these (black college football) games – because I was covering a game every week at that time – why don’t you start doing some part-time work and tell us what you think about certain players. I said, OK.”

Mr. Nunn started in 1967 as a part-time scout for the Steelers. He would accept a full-time job with the Steelers in 1969, not coincidently when the team hired Chuck Noll.

“The whole structure started to change,” said Mr. Nunn. “To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots. There was a time when dots (to designate a player’s race) would be put up on the draft board. That’s the way teams did it. At one time the NFL Scouting Combine identified people by race, and they did it there by using numbers, something like 110 was white and 111 was black. I said that’s illegal. Eventually it was stopped.”

When Chuck Noll first had settled down in Pittsburgh, he had become friends with Red Manning, who was Duquesne University’s basketball coach at the time. Manning knew about Mr. Nunn’s abilities as a basketball player – remember, it was Mr. Nunn along with Chuck Cooper from Duquesne who were among those players contacted about integrating the NBA after World War II – and Noll soon had an understanding of the athletic background of one of the Steelers’ scouts.

“Chuck said, ‘Hey, I know you were a good basketball player. What I’m looking for as far as football players, I’m looking for athletes. You find me athletes, and then it’s our job as coaches to make them players,’” said Mr. Nunn. “Right away, I was feeling good, because I felt that I could find athletes. I’ve always had that concept. If the kid has some heart, if he’s an athlete and you’re a coach, you’re supposed to be able to do something with that kid. Once Chuck told me that he made me feel good.”

THE GREATEST DRAFT CLASS EVER
By 1974, Mr. Nunn and the Steelers had a pretty good thing going. Already on the roster as post-1969 draft picks were Joe Greene, Jon Kolb, L.C. Greenwood, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Frank Lewis, Jack Ham, Gerry Mullins, Dwight White, Larry Brown, Ernie Holmes, Mike Wagner, Franco Harris, Gordon Gravelle, Steve Furness, J.T. Thomas, and Loren Toews.

On Jan. 29, 1974, the Steelers personnel department applied the coup de grace.

Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster were drafted within the first five rounds, and they proved to be the finishing touches on a roster that would be coached by Noll into four Super Bowl championships over the next six seasons.

Legend has it that Mr. Nunn’s particular role in the drafting of Stallworth from Alabama A&M included – appropriately given that Stallworth became a Hall of Fame receiver – a double move.

In that era, scouts traveled in groups, and it had been a wet and miserable day in Huntsville, Alabama, when the group that included Mr. Nunn worked out a gangly receiver then known as Johnny Stallworth. Johnny’s 40-time was awful for the position he wanted to play in the NFL, and the group of scouts left the workout largely unimpressed.

The following day, when the group was packing to go to its next stop along the trail, Mr. Nunn informed the traveling party that he was feeling ill. He said he believed it would be best to stay and recuperate for a day before re-joining them later on down the road. Mr. Nunn then rustled up a pair of football cleats and scoured Huntsville in search of a dry field, and he took Johnny over to it for another chance at that 40-yard dash. This time Stallworth ran like an NFL wide receiver, but because of the bad 40-time that was out there the Steelers had themselves an edge.

During that draft’s preparation process, Noll came to view Stallworth as being worthy of a first-round pick. But it was Mr. Nunn who convinced Noll that since Swann played at USC and Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, the prudent move was to pick Swann on the first round because he was more well-known. And so the Steelers did pick Swann, but Noll wasn’t about to let anyone in the draft room forget about Stallworth.

In the second round, Stallworth still was on the board, and Noll was interested. But Art Rooney Jr. made a case for linebacker Jack Lambert, which made a lot of sense, but Noll was worried about losing Stallworth because the Steelers had traded away their third-round pick in the 1974 draft to acquire veteran defensive tackle Tom Keating in 1973. As the discussion continued and the clock ticked, Noll is said to have turned to Mr. Nunn and asked for assurances that Stallworth would be available to the Steelers in the fourth round.

Completely unable to make such a guarantee, Mr. Nunn played the situation perfectly. “I told him I thought Stallworth would be there in the fourth,” said Mr. Nunn. “I said, ‘The average (team) isn't looking at him like we are.’ We had to sweat, but he was still there in the fourth round.”

HIS LEGACY
“I retired in 1987,” said Mr. Nunn, laughing, listed in the team’s most recent Media Guide as a Senior Assistant, Player Personnel. “I think the only reason Dan (Rooney) keeps me around – I do some things – is because I’m the only one here older than him. Every year I tell him, ‘I’m going to quit coming in.’ And he says, ‘Nah, you’re not.’”

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin continued to value Mr. Nunn’s opinion on players, and Colbert in fact always had his young scouts watch video of both games and players with him at their side. Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Bill Nunn,” said Steelers President Art Rooney II. “This is a very sad day, not only for the Steelers organization, but for the game of football. It is hard to put into a few words what Bill’s many contributions to our organization have meant over his 46 years with us. On a personal level, Bill was a friend, mentor and trusted confidant. The entire Steelers organization mourns the loss of Bill, and our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Nunn family.”


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