Q&A: Bill Nunn Jr.

The Steelers scout has 5 Super Bowl rings and a well-known actor son

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He happily is stuck between a father and a son more nationally recognized than he. William G. Nunn, the journalist, oversaw the news operation of The Pittsburgh Courier at a time when it was arguably the most influential black publication in America, a man so well known that he held office with the Negro Leagues and entertained such luminaries as Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and legendary jazz musicians in his Homewood home. Bill Nunn, the actor, has performed in 45-plus movies such as "Spider-Man," "Regarding Henry" and "Do the Right Thing," making him so readily identifiable that his dad refers to himself as Bill Nunn Jr.

You know him as the longtime Steelers scout with the five Super Bowl rings.

The former Courier sports writer, local promoter, collegiate basketball star, too. For certain, he was celebrated locally for many things, a jack of many trades. But when he constructed a bridge between the Steelers and the black colleges that produced such players as John Stallworth, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell, this Bill Nunn became notable simply in one respect: Super scout.

Funny thing is, he tried to hang up his binoculars almost 20 years ago.

"I retired in 1987," said Nunn, who the team lists in its scouting department as college personnel. "I think Dan [Rooney], the only reason he 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.'"

Nunn, 81, then laughed at the irony. For he was telling this story from the Steelers' South Side complex office he sort of shares with Doug Whaley, the team's pro personnel coordinator, old enough to be his, uh, very young son.

He was born and raised in Homewood, the son of the first black football player at Westinghouse High and later the longtime managing editor of the Courier, hence the reason why Louis, Owens, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine and a parade of politicians came by the house. He followed his father to Westinghouse, but the son's sport was basketball. After playing at West Virginia State with Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to play in the NBA, he was offered tryouts with the New York Knicks and the Harlem Globetrotters, who were a bigger deal back then and didn't pigeonhole blacks into a stereotyped role such as designated rebounder. But he wound up at the Courier, in the newspaper business, from where he rose to sports editor (promoting Indianapolis Clowns baseball visits to Forbes Field) and managing editor, before he was asked to join the Steelers' staff part time in 1967 and then full time under new coach Chuck Noll in 1969.

Nunn, the father of actor Bill of Atlanta and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynell Wilson of Philadelphia, spoke with sports writer Chuck Finder:

Q: Did your father get you -- or force you -- into the newspaper business?

Nunn: He left it up to me. The big confrontation I had with him was, when I came out of high school, Duquesne didn't have a basketball team at that time [due to World War II]. Duquesne coach Chick Davies arranged for Chuck Cooper and I to have a workout. Clair Bee, the coach for Long Island University, was there. Chuck Cooper was a year below me; he was going to go to Long Island the next year [but eventually wound up at Duquesne]. But my father thought I should go to a black college for at least two years so I could learn about black culture. I didn't want to. So he told me I had to get a job and pay my way. I worked that year and then went to West Virginia State -- the same school where [famed Courier sports writer and Jackie Robinson biographer] Wendell Smith went.

Q: How did working for your father turn out? And how did that lead to the Steelers?

Nunn: Eventually, I became managing editor of The Courier, too [after his father's retirement in the mid-1960s]. But when I worked in sports for the Courier, some of my stories were in The Sporting News and the NCAA [publications]. I covered so many of the major things, particularly with boxing. I covered Archie Moore, Floyd Patterson, Ezzard Charles. ... I was putting together the black All-American football team, had a lot of contacts at the black schools. Because of that, I did some part-time work for Dan for two years, then I joined the Steelers full time.

Q: Any particular memories from scouting in those days?

Nunn: There were so many different things you went through in those days. Part of it was, when I was traveling in the South, they were ... segregating in hotels and things. They had rooms downstairs for blacks. So it got to the point where I could say that I wanted a room downstairs facing the pool (Laughs). A lot of hotels were discriminating still [into the 1970s]. It was a difficult time. A lot of that even went on here in the city. When Stargell, Clemente and all those guys lived here, they lived in the black neighborhoods. Nat King Cole came to town, and the Webster [Hotel] turned him down. ... Things have changed dramatically. But in some ways, they're still the same.

Q: Who was your greatest find?

Nunn: Naturally, they always talk about Stallworth, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell ... those are the ones who ended up with the Steelers. All those guys, other people scouted them, too. I scouted so many others who wound up playing with other teams. The best guys you might be able to take a little credit for were guys who were free agents [like Shell]. And everybody always associates it with the black colleges, but I scouted white ball games, too.

Q: Who is your favorite actor?

Nunn: Riiiiiight. I have to say, yes, I see all of [my son's] movies. Which is not the case (Laughs).

Q: Your son joined you at Ford Field for the Super Bowl, right?

Nunn: You have to remember, he and Art [Rooney III] were ballboys together. In fact, he was in Art's wedding. So when he came to Detroit, that was more for Art than me. I said, 'You act like you're affiliated more with the club than me. You were a ballboy. And you weren't a very good one.


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