When the NFL announced former Pittsburgh Steelers executive, Bill Nunn was elected to 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class, all I could say was “It’s about time.”
In this retrospective, we are going to look back at the legendary career of the sportswriter:
- Started as a part-time scout
- Transformed into an executive
- Helped craft football’s greatest dynasty
- Blazed a trial for others to follow
- Ultimately attained immortality as he earned his way into the Hall of Fame
Bill Nunn was a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier that focused on black colleges in the south that were overlooked by the major newspapers, All-America lists and NFL scouts. He formed relationships with individuals at those colleges that helped him discover amazing talent like Deacon Jones, Roosevelt Brown and Dan Towler. Nunn annually picked a Black All-American team from what are now known as the Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and held a banquet for those players in Pittsburgh.
Bill Nunn had an incredibly low opinion of the Steelers until he met with Dan Rooney in 1967. In the meeting, the two came to understand each other. By 1967, Dan Rooney had spent most of the decade convincing his father Art Rooney to follow a different vision in building the team and the Chief, ever stubborn, finally was being persuaded. As Dan was reading the Pittsburgh Courier and became interested in Nunn’s Annual Black College All-America Team, he wondered “Why don’t we know about these guys?”
Dan Rooney managed to arrange a meeting with a hesitant Bill Nunn, who voiced his concerns about how he was treated by the Steelers organization and how despite being in the same city, no one from the team ever tried reaching out to him like other teams had. Dan literally asked Nunn to work for the Steelers and Nunn reluctantly agreed to join on a part-time basis for a year, becoming a BLESTO scout (Bears/Lions/Eagles/Steelers Talent Organization) in 1967.
What Nunn learned is the Steelers had no idea what they were doing previously but were in a major culture shift. The Chief was first and foremost a baseball fan, and he deferred too much to old school football coaches who were inflexible and intransigent. None were worse than Buddy Parker, the arrogant and callous former Detroit Lions Head Coach who led them to two NFL Championships but parted ways with the team in 1957. The Lions were happy to see him go, as they not only won the title that year, but literally robbed Parker and the Steelers of multiple #1 picks in trades. Parker traded away a total of seven 1st round picks if you count 1956 #1 pick Len Dawson and got little value in return. He got away with it because the condescending coach would simply go over the head of Dan Rooney to the Chief, who would acquiesce to Parker due to his past success. The only genuinely great coach in team history to that point, Jock Sutherland, died suddenly of a brain tumor after only coaching the Steelers for two seasons and coming off the only playoff game in team history. The facilities were terrible, the team morale was dismal and opposing organizations literally threatened to trade players to the Steelers to get them in line.
Dan Rooney and Art Rooney, as well as Art Rooney II had a plan though and they were finally following through with it. Previously reluctant to let Dan vet the next Head Coach, the Chief gave full reign to find the right man to lead the team. It worked, as Dan Rooney hired the highly sought-after Chuck Noll in 1969, the same time Bill Nunn decided to join the Steelers full-time. Nunn bought into Noll’s vision and they went about building the defense, constructing the Steel Curtain (Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes) within three years.
When asked in an interview about his initial reluctance to join the Steelers based on the way he perceived how they did business in terms of drafting and playing African Americans, what changed Bill Nunn’s mind, he answered:
“Vast things changed as far as the organization. I’m surmising this, because of the type of people Dan and Chuck were. All of a sudden you started seeing black coaches there. Black people working in the office, sitting at the front desk. The whole structure started to change. To me, both of them 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.”
While the team was being built, Dan and Art Rooney went about finally getting a stadium suitable to play in for the era with Three Rivers Stadium. It was all aligning.
Nunn and Noll worked great together, complimenting each other’s strengths, and focusing on talent. Nunn and Noll initially disagreed on Mel Blount being a cornerback or a safety, as Nunn initially thought Blount was too big to play cornerback. But a few years later he convinced Noll to hold off drafting John Stallworth until the 4th round because he knew no one else was aware of how good he was at wide receiver and take the more well-known Lynn Swann instead.
Nunn found gems that rounded out the roster like Sam Davis, Glen Edwards, Donnie Shell and others because of the relationships he had with the small southern schools that no one else did. The Steelers had quite a quandary at quarterback because the generational talent of Terry Bradshaw was not showing through and Nunn drafted a quarterback who was years ahead of his time in Joe Gilliam. A debate can be made that Gilliam was more talented than Bradshaw as he started the 1974 season and was lighting the NFL on fire passing the ball. However, no debate can be made that Bradshaw was the right quarterback for Noll’s vision and the way the team was constructed.
By the time the Steelers won Super Bowl IX, 11 players who made Nunn’s Annual Black College All-America Team were on the roster. He was an integral part of the Steelers organization throughout the 1970s, becoming the first African American Executive on an NFL team. He remained with the team in a full-time capacity until 1987, when he went to part-time as a Senior Scout and remained in that role until he died doing what he loved. While preparing for the NFL Draft in 2014, Nunn suffered a stroke in a meeting and Kevin Colbert noticed him slumping over. Nunn passed away two weeks later, he was 89 years old.
He lived nearly nine decades and probably had nine books worth of stories. Upon the amended 2014 Hall of Fame rules that allowed for contributors to be inductees, the seven-year wait was seven years too long – he earned the right to receive the long overdue recognition. At least we know his family is thrilled and he can look down from above with Chuck and Dan, knowing they did something special together.
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