Bill Nunn Jr., Football pioneer who scouted Steelers legends, dies at 89
May 7, 2014 10:45 PM
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Bill Nunn, former managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and first African-American appointed to a front-office position with the Steelers.
By Ed Bouchette and Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bill Nunn Jr., a pro football pioneer who helped open doors into the National Football League for black players and personnel, worked on the National Football League draft right until the end.
A part-time scout for the Steelers long after his retirement, Mr. Nunn suffered a stroke two weeks ago while analyzing college prospects at the team's South Side training facility. He died late Tuesday at UPMC Presbyterian from complications of that stroke. He was 89 and resided in Pittsburgh.
The NFL draft runs today through Saturday, and the Steelers will have Mr. Nunn's opinions handy when they make their picks.
"I think he will be giving them a hand if he can," said his son, Bill Nunn III. "I have a feeling it's going to be a good draft for them."
William G. Nunn Jr., who succeeded his father as managing editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, became the first African-American appointed to a front-office position with the Steelers and held the title of senior assistant in their player personnel office when he died.
Mr. Nunn worked for the Steelers for 46 years and is best known for discovering overlooked players from historically black colleges who became Super Bowl champions with the Steelers. As one of the longest tenured employees of the Steelers, Mr. Nunn also held the distinction of being one of a select few in the organization with six Super Bowl rings.
"As in the world he worked in, he expected the best from us and we just never wanted to disappoint him. He would do anything for us and always did," said his daughter, Lynell Nunn. "He was at work when he got sick. This was the prime time [for the draft]. He was in there every day, getting ready for the draft. We got the call they were taking him over to the hospital."
Bill Nunn III, an actor who currently appears on USA network's "Sirens" series, said growing up with his dad could be intimidating.
"I thought my dad was this really famous guy, and he was. He and my grandfather were known throughout the community. They were big shots. He seemed really huge to me, too, as a person," he said.
"He seemed so strong all the time. He was still just full of life. His mind was not 89 at all. I guess the body caught up with him. His mind was very vibrant; he was still a funny guy."
Mr. Nunn went to work for the Steelers in 1967 as a part-time scout. He was hired to a full-time position a year later and by 1970 had been promoted to assistant director of player personnel.
"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."
The idea of hiring a newspaper man to scout college players for the team came from team founder Art Rooney and his son Dan, then team president. Art Rooney was friends with Mr. Nunn's father, William G. Nunn Sr.
The thought of hiring an outsider to the scout position initially was not met with approval by another of Art Rooney's sons, Art Rooney Jr., who was leading the player personnel department at the time.
"I didn't want to hire him because I didn't want the Chief telling me what to do," Art Rooney Jr. said. "I wanted to be the boss. But the Chief insisted that I hire him. So I brought him in to talk to him, and we hit it off right away after about only 10 minutes.
"We started talking about what the Steelers were doing wrong, and we agreed on almost everything. He was a terrific guy to work with. We got along terrific. I kept telling Dan after the first year that this guy is special and that we had to hire him full time."
It would turn out to be a wise decision. Mr. Nunn, through connections he developed at the Courier, had a lead on the top players at small black colleges. Mr. Nunn's background fit perfectly with the philosophy of head coach Chuck Noll, who wanted his scouts to find athletic players with a strong work ethic and football sense. Mr. Noll then attempted to mold them into the players he wanted them to be.
Among the players the Steelers drafted or signed as free agents from those schools in Mr. Nunn's early years were the late L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas AM&N), Mel Blount (Southern), the late Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern), John Stallworth (Alabama A&M) and Donnie Shell (South Carolina State).
"You cannot write the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers without Bill Nunn," said Mr. Blount, a cornerback who played 14 seasons for the Steelers and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "When you look at the Steelers of the 1970s, none of that would have happened without Bill Nunn."
Mr. Nunn came to the Steelers when he was 42 after serving as a sportswriter, sports editor and managing editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, which at the time was one of the most prominent black newspapers in the country. Mr. Nunn picked a Pittsburgh Courier All-America team and played host to an All-America banquet that brought the top black college players to the city every year.
His connections to small black college coaches provided the inside track on so many black athletes who developed into great players for the Steelers.
"Bill did a good job of building a rapport with head coaches," Mr. Shell said. "Everyone with the small black schools knew Bill Nunn. Everyone knew he'd give you a fair shot."
Mr. Blount, Mr. Stallworth, Greenwood, who died last year, and Mr. Shell were part of the Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls in a six-year span from 1975-80.
Along with Mr. Blount, Mr. Stallworth also is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Art Rooney Jr. said Mr. Nunn's connections at Alabama A&M were instrumental in discovering the lanky wide receiver, who was not taken until the fourth round of the 1974 draft.
"One of our BLESTO scouts had written up a really good report on Stallworth, and we sent Bill down there to go check him out," Art Rooney Jr. said. "Bill pulled a coup. He came back with this film of Stallworth. Nowadays, everyone has film on everyone. But back then, getting a film on someone was a big deal. Well, we all sat down and watched the film and Stallworth was the greatest thing in the world. Noll wanted to draft him in the first round.
"We ended up getting really lucky. At the Senior Bowl, they moved him to defensive back and he didn't play real well. It was almost like we paid the Senior Bowl to do that. We drafted Lynn Swann [from Southern California] because he went to a bigger school in the first round and Jack Lambert in the second round. We didn't have a third-round pick that year and then we got Stallworth in the fourth round. It was all because of Bill and that film he got."
Mr. Nunn also took special pride in many of the Steelers' later-round picks and free agents who were even more obscure. Holmes was an eighth-round pick and Greenwood a 10th-round pick. Mr. Shell and Glen Edwards, who earned two Super Bowl rings with the Steelers, were undrafted free agents.
Mr. Shell was a linebacker at South Carolina State and Mr. Edwards was a running back at Florida A&M. They were converted to play safety for the Steelers because Mr. Nunn had the foresight to project what they could be in the Steelers' system.
"Dan would send Bill out the day after the draft to sign free agents that we all thought should have been drafted," Art Rooney Jr. said. "Donnie Shell was one of his great ones. He was a linebacker at South Carolina State and no one knew about him."
Mr. Nunn, a Homewood native and a graduate of Westinghouse High School, was a basketball player in high school and college. He attended West Virginia State University, where his team went 26-0 his senior season in 1948. He is a member of the West Virginia State University sports hall of fame.
Mr. Nunn turned down an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters to work instead for the Courier.
"He had a pulse on the beat of black college football," Mr. Blount said. "Bill knew where all the great players were because of the time he spent at the Courier. He had great contacts with the coaches and the athletic directors at the small black colleges. He had a tremendous influence."
Even in his later years, Mr. Nunn remained a regular fixture at Steelers training camps at Saint Vincent College, often sitting on the high hillside near Rooney Hall and holding court with Dan and Art Rooney II, Joe Greene or other visiting football luminaries while he took in practice.
Even though Mr. Nunn never played or coached football, he was an inaugural member of the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, joining the likes of Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Deacon Jones and Eddie Robinson.
Mr. Nunn also was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, when in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he said, "The one doggone thing I'm proud of is the way I might have been a part of opening some doors to pro football for black men, not just as players, but as coaches and front-office personnel. I've been able to see progress."
In addition his daughter and son, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, Frances, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
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