Cook: Steelers' Nunn Hall-worthy
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Art Rooney Jr. returned the telephone call in two, maybe three minutes, tops.
The topic of conversation was Steelers longtime scout Bill Nunn, named last week as one of 111 preliminary nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2007.
Rooney Jr. apologized for taking so long to get back.
"I'd hate to use a sissy word to describe my relationship with Bill because we scouts are real guys," he said. "But it was a joy to work with him."
No, this isn't an obituary, thank goodness. At 81, Nunn is very much alive, still working part time for the Steelers. He looks years younger than his age and has the same energy he always did. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with his wise, old eyes. Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert -- like Tom Donahoe, Dick Haley and Rooney Jr. before him -- still leans on Nunn when it comes to evaluating players.
"The Legend," Colbert called him.
A legend, indeed; Nunn helped the Steelers win five Super Bowls.
But that's just one reason the Hall of Fame honored him with this long-overdue recognition.
"The one doggone thing I'm proud of," Nunn said at Steelers headquarters this week, "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."
Who knows how different the NFL would be if Nunn's father, William, hadn't insisted he attend a black college to "learn about my history"? After growing up in Homewood and playing basketball at Westinghouse High School with Chuck Cooper -- the first black player to be drafted by the NBA -- Nunn turned down a scholarship from legendary Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee at Long Island University, then a college power. He played at West Virginia State instead, leading his team to a 26-0 record as a senior in 1948.
Who knows how different the Nunn story would be if he hadn't said no to a chance to play for another basketball legend, the Harlem Globetrotters' Abe Saperstein?
The newspaper business was in Nunn's blood. It just seemed right that he went to work for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation's prominent black papers, where his father was managing editor. He spent two decades at the paper as sports editor and then managing editor. Anybody who was anybody at the time, as far as black athletes went, from Jackie Robinson in baseball to Jim Brown in football to Sugar Ray Robinson in boxing, knew Nunn, recognized his national clout and treasured his friendship.
Who knows how different Steelers history would be if Dan Rooney, then the team's young president and taking more control from his father, Art Sr., hadn't realized Nunn's expertise in selecting the Courier's Black All-American college football team.
Initially, when Rooney came calling in '67, Nunn was reluctant to work for the Steelers. "We picked our team and they never showed much interest in it, so I wasn't interested in them," he said. Then, after working as a part-time scout for two years, Nunn hesitated when Rooney offered him a full-time position in '69. "I told Dan I needed a year," he said, giggling. "He looked at me like I was crazy. 'A year?' he asked. 'A year,' I said."
Nunn got his year.
The Steelers got a Super Bowl dynasty.
Rooney Jr. likes to joke he was "a rich kid who became scouting director only because of my old man."
The truth is, he was a superb football man, one of the best in the NFL. After some initial uneasiness with Nunn -- Rooney Jr. basically had been a one-man scouting department -- he warmed up quickly.
"That first day he told me, 'I've never been a loser at anything in my life. I'm not going to be a loser in this,' " Rooney Jr. said.
Nunn is a people person. You can't spend 5 minutes with him and not be enthralled. That personality enabled him to hit it off with new coach Chuck Noll.
Scouts and coaches often have adversarial relationships. Scouts don't think coaches do enough with the players they are given. Coaches don't think scouts find good enough players. Nunn bridged that gap between Rooney Jr. and Noll.
"He wasn't intimidated by Chuck like so many of us were," Rooney Jr. said.
Said Nunn: "I was a little apprehensive at first about my football knowledge because I only played a year in college. But something Chuck said to me stuck with me.
" 'The problem with a lot of scouts is they go out and try to be coaches. Just find me athletes. It's our job to make them football players.'
"I felt better after that. I knew I could find athletes."
Boy, could he.
Nunn scouted all of the schools, big and small, black and white, but he's most famous for the players he helped get from the small black colleges.
Sam Davis of tiny Allen University in Columbia, S.C., was the first in '67. Later, there was Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Dwight White, Glen Edwards, Ernie Holmes, John Stallworth and Donnie Shell, to name just a few.
And you're surprised the Hall of Fame recognized Nunn with this nomination?
The only surprise is that it took this long.
First Published November 4, 2006 12:00 am