How did they do it? How were the Steelers able to pluck four Hall-of-Famers from the 1974 NFL Draft?
On one hand, the answer is as complex as the particular players who made the class a historic one were diverse as people and as football players. Wide receiver Lynn Swann was raised in California and attended USC; linebacker Jack Lambert grew up in Mantua, Ohio, and played at Kent State; wide receiver John Stallworth was an Alabaman who attended Alabama A&M; and center Mike Webster grew up on a farm in the Midwest and played at Wisconsin.
On the other hand, 1974 can be explained as merely another example of the Steelers following protocol and adhering to their philosophy, just as they had been since 1969.
“In the 1960s there were guys looking for players who were afraid to go and find them in black areas. It took a guy like Chuck Noll, and a guy like Dan Rooney, who was willing to go along with it. And then all of a sudden you can start counting.”
Victories, division championships, Lombardi trophies, Hall-of-Fame players; eventually there was a great deal to count at Three Rivers Stadium.
The 1974 draft, via the selection of Stallworth from Alabama A&M, was an extension of a process that had started with defensive tackle Joe Greene out of North Texas State in 1969.
And Stallworth, perhaps, was the critical figure in the 1974 draft, at least in terms of the way it played out numerically in relation to Hall-of-Famers.
Nunn had come to the Steelers as a part-time employee in the personnel department in 1968 and had accepted a full-time position – he initially took a year to think it over – in 1970.
During his tenure as sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier prior to joining the Steelers, Nunn had chosen an annual Black All-America Football Team, in part to help publicize players from predominantly black colleges. Nunn knew where to find what Noll was looking for in his quest to build a winner in Pittsburgh.
“When I sat down with Chuck, one of the very first things he told me was, ‘Bill, find me athletes, and then it’s our job to coach them, to bring them along,’” Nunn said.
And so began the parade of players such as Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, and Joe Gilliam to Pittsburgh from places such as North Texas State, Alabama AM & N, Southern, Texas A&M Commerce, Texas Southern and Tennessee State.
Come 1974, Stallworth was merely the latest in the line. Eventually, he became one of the Steelers’ greatest.
The selection of defensive end Ed Jones out of Tennessee State first overall by Dallas in 1974 and the pick of linebacker Waymond Bryant from Tennessee State fourth overall in that draft suggests that by then the Steelers’ secret was out.
But the Steelers were still ahead of the curve.
“We had a really good in with Bill Nunn,” remembered Dick Hoak, a Steelers running back from 1961-70 and a Steelers assistant coach from 1972-06. “Bill knew a lot of coaches and people in the business.
“I don’t know if we scouted (black colleges) more (than other NFL teams), but Bill had more contacts.”
That went a long way toward securing Stallworth, and consequently, toward immortalizing the 1974 draft.
Coming next Monday: The execution of the 1974 draft.