Labriola On

Labriola on lessons Nunn taught, and learned

Ready or not, here it comes:

• "I learned a lot from Bill, formally and informally. The journey that he walked that was his life was something to be learned. Strictly vocationally from a talent-evaluation standpoint, I was always really impressed how he never let football get in the way. His evaluation style was purely based on pedigree, knee and ankle flexibility, body control, fine motor skills, top-end speed, measurables, things of that nature. He never got distracted by the football, and he kept evaluations pure from a pedigree standpoint. I was always impressed and marked by that."

• That was Coach Mike Tomlin talking about some of what he learned from Bill Nunn, who on Tuesday was named the Contributor Finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021. Nunn's credentials as a scout can be found in the names engraved on those Lombardi Trophies won by the Steelers and on many of the busts enshrined in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Black College Football Hall of Fame.

• But a quick read of Tomlin's words might lead to the wrong impression, especially the part about Nunn "never let football get in the way," because that seems to run counter to so much we have heard about the way the Steelers do business, that during the course of scouting college talent in preparing for a particular draft the video of a player performing in games for his college team is more important than 40-times or vertical jump results or repetitions performed in the bench press.

• That's true, but Nunn also cautioned against treating film or video too literally.

• One time Nunn explained it to me this way: In scouting defensive backs, as an example, it's a mistake to study game footage and then down-grade a prospect for something such as "lining up too far off the line of scrimmage" or for "playing too soft," because that might be what the player is being coached to do. The better way, in Nunn's view, was to evaluate the player for the skill-set that's required to play the position at the NFL level. If the prospect checked those boxes, then it was OK to consider adding him to the team and turning him over to the coaching staff to mold him into the kind of player the Steelers wanted at the position.

• This likely traces back to one of the first conversations Chuck Noll had with Nunn about re-making the Steelers roster. Nunn described that conversation this way: "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.' 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."

• Undoubtedly, there were many, many examples of this plan working wonderfully, but Nunn spoke specifically about how it worked extra wonderfully in one specific area – the defensive line. A defensive line that became one of the most famous in NFL history.

• Joe Greene had been added in 1969 with the first No. 1 pick of the Noll era; L.C. Greenwood, from Arkansas AM&N (now Arkansas-Pine Bluff) was a 10th-round pick of that same 1969 NFL Draft; and Noll used a fourth-round pick in the 1971 NFL Draft, which was obtained from the Colts in the trade that had sent All-Pro receiver Roy Jefferson to Baltimore, to add Dwight White from East Texas State (now Texas A&M-Commerce).

• In 1967, Nunn had accepted Dan Rooney's offer to be a part-time scout for the Steelers while still working his job as the Sports Editor for the Pittsburgh Courier. But by the time Noll arrived in 1969, Nunn had agreed to join the Steelers and work as a scout full-time. It was in this role that Nunn had put Greenwood and White – both from HBCUs – on Noll's radar. Greene, from North Texas State, had been sufficiently well-known throughout the NFL community that Noll had scouted him personally in 1968 while serving as Don Shula's defensive coordinator in Baltimore.

• Neither Greenwood nor White even came close to weighing 250 pounds when the Steelers drafted them and therefore were considered too light to hold up on an NFL defensive line, but they were the kind of athletes Noll had instructed Nunn to find, and as promised Noll took over from there.

• In 1972, Noll hired George Perles to coach the Steelers defensive line, and Perles at the time was known to prefer bigger, more stout defensive linemen who could be two-gap run stuffers, but Noll also liked what he saw in those young, undersized defensive ends. In the eighth round of the same 1971 draft that had brought White to Pittsburgh, Ernie Holmes from Texas Southern, another Nunn discovery from another HBCU, was added to the roster, and even though it wasn't known at the time the pieces for The Steel Curtain had been assembled.

• In 1970, Nunn was in only his second year as a full-time scout, but he was someone who was earning more of Noll's respect with each passing day. And so when the Steelers were preparing for the 1970 NFL Draft, he was heavily involved in the process and had become something of a sounding board for Noll. It is said that disagreements between colleagues often can lead to good things, and that describes what happened with Mel Blount.

• "As sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier," Nunn told me in 2007, "I did an All-America Team every year, and Mel was one of my All-Americans at Southern University. On him, Chuck and I disagreed. We both felt like he could play, but I thought Mel would have trouble as a cornerback, because he was almost 6-4, so I thought he should have been a safety. Chuck felt like he could play cornerback. So, we went back and looked at the film. Chuck was right because of one doggone things that I didn't take into consideration – with the bump-and-run, Mel could jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage so he couldn't get off and get into running his route. You couldn't do that today. Mel was a great athlete."

• For a short time, Bill Nunn worked for the Steelers full-time but still picked his All-America Team for the Courier, but even after Nunn left journalism he still never forgot the lessons he had learned working for what he described as "a crusading newspaper." And with the Steelers, he quickly discovered he had strong allies in Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll.

• "To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person," Nunn once said. "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 (next to a particular player's name). That's the way teams did it. Also at one time the NFL 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."

• Clearly, it wasn't only Mike Tomlin who learned valuable lessons from Bill Nunn.

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