Nunn Better: Conversations with Steelers Scout Bill Nunn, Part 2
by Ivan Cole
You can read Part 1 here. This post continues with the interview.
Ivan Cole: Nearly everything I’ve read about you as a scout describes you as an innovator.
Bill Nunn: Because a lot of times they don’t relate to what was really going on. How I started was we [with Dan Rooney] had a conversation when he was just getting started. He wanted to know why I hadn’t gotten involved with the Steelers. I was covering black schools and doing a black All-American team. I was covering a black team every week. He asked if while I was out there I could pass some information on to him. I was a part time employee for the Steelers.
That started in ’66 with the part time. I didn’t go full time until ’70. So, it was almost that Bill Nunn was the black college scout. But from the time Chuck Noll came in, Noll said, “No, we don’t want you just covering black colleges.”
Now again, there were so many black schools that had ballplayers at that time, because you’ve got to remember what was happening down in the South. So I was covering that, but I was also going to white schools like Alabama and places like that. And me being one of the few blacks in the position, they felt like I was able to make some inroads, though I had already established that. But, of course, it helped when I went to big schools such as Alabama because they were beginning to use the black players.
IC: I believe Bear Bryant once said that he wouldn’t be the first SEC coach to integrate, but he wouldn’t be the third either.
BN: I got there at the right time. I worked under Noll. I’m not sure if the organization hired me or if Noll hired me. I’m not sure Noll could have fired me. But one thing when you work under someone like Chuck Noll, things like [skin color] are not a problem. I don’t say that about a lot of people.
You have to pass a whole lot of tests. Guys who give you a lot of lip service, but when you get down deep, a lot
of people aren’t really that way. There’s Dan Rooney and there’s Chuck Noll. And I think it was just a carryover of fact. The Chief was still there. Dan was just taking over. I won’t even talk about the Chief’s background. I know the Chief’s background. You know the black Steeler from years ago? From ’36?
IC: [Another quiz] Yeah.
BN: Who was he?
IC: [Ray] Kemp.
Ray Kemp played for the Steelers in 1933. The following year, though, the NFL followed Major League Baseball and banned all black participation in the sport; a practice that would continue until after World War II. Nunn went on and listed several other firsts that Art Rooney facilitated: the first black trainer and assistant coach.
The conversation shifts a bit. I’m interested in his thoughts of how African Americans have been progressing in the coaching ranks. But the responses go in some interesting directions.
IC: I’m looking at what the Steelers have been able to do over the past 42 years. After all Tony Dungy was originally part of the Chuck Noll coaching tree. Tomlin was part of the Dungy tree, meaning we’ve come full circle.
BN: And who hired Tomlin? Dungy. The tree is really interesting. Nepotism is becoming a great part of this now. With the salaries, they’re trying to get their kids into it.
IC: I’ve wondered why it took so long for Dungy to get a head coaching position.
BN: Many things: Did not cuss, soft spoken. You might not have hired him. In other words, are you going to have enough fire to get in people’s butt. Are you gonna say, “Look, goddammit!”
He made it despite that. Now you have to remember, it was here, Noll made him defensive coordinator. Youngest ever. Now with the worst staff of guys under him, including Joe Greene [smiles at his little dig at Greene]… Joe’s a friend of mine. And you have one coach who is… [Makes a stabbing gesture].
IC: He’s stabbing him in the back?
BN: Yeah. So they didn’t fire him. But they took his job away. They had him coaching defensive backs, so he had to leave. Where did he go?
IC: Kansas City?
BN: Kansas City. Under who? Marty Schottenheimer. Okay. What happens in Kansas City? Who ends up with the defensive coordinator job here?
IC: Bill Cowher.
BN: Dungy is under Cowher. Marty didn’t give him the coordinator job, so Dungy left for Minnesota to work under [Dennis] Green. You know. These things happen. And it’s not always about race. I’ve known two guys who had the kind of temperament that Tony has. Both were in basketball. One was John McClendon at North Carolina Central. The other was in the NBA. Always calm.
IC: Lenny Wilkens?
BN: Yeah. Same kind of temperament. And people were saying, doggone he doesn’t get into anyone’s face.
IC: Last year I interviewed Randy Grossman. I always thought he was the best college receiver I’d ever seen. And then I thought that it was too bad that he physically came nowhere near the criteria the NFL establishes for tight ends…
BN: He was too slow.
IC: Short, slow, that’s a bad combination.
BN: He was quick though. Short quickness.
IC: He said he was fortunate to land with the Steelers, and credited Noll. I’m sure you also had a hand in giving him the opportunity to show what he could do at this level. The Steelers seem to be willing to look beyond certain so-called negatives when evaluating players. For example, it has been said that James Harrison was too short, or that Hines Ward is less than an ideal prototype for a wide out.
BN: Let me break down Randy since we’ve already done that a little bit. First of all, Chuck Noll as a player, where would you draft him?
IC: Way down. He was a messenger guard for Paul Brown. He was undersized.
BN: Somewhere around the 15th round right?
IC: Well, we don’t have 15 rounds anymore, but if we did… Basically a free agent.
BN: Right. Smart. Okay, one doggone thing about Chuck Noll. He will root for the underdog because he was an underdog. So, he’s going to look at the good things that someone brings to the table. Someone else might just see the bad things. What does Grossman do good? What did you say? Some of the best hands you ever saw. Now. Who was Randy Grossman coached by?
IC: [Drawing a blank] His position coach?
BN: The only black position coach on the staff.
IC: Oh. Lionel Taylor.
BN: Who was he? A slow wide receiver who had great hands. He played for Denver. He played for West Virginia State. He’s from West Virginia. I always tell him that they ran him off from that campus. And then he went to New Mexico. Tough, smart, great hands. Bigger than Randy as a wide receiver.
Hey, we got rid of the tight end we drafted in the second round the same year we signed Randy. No other place would Randy have made it, no shape, no form. And Randy’s a helluva guy. He’s smart. He was quick. He could separate. He’s not going to make any mental mistakes. And there are people who make it that way, including Noll.
The conversation morphs into something else. I had hoped to get a more detailed comparison of the three Steelers head coaches: Noll, Cowher, and Tomlin. But as Nunn points out, though he is still around and doing work for the organization, he officially retired in 1987. [Bill Nunn passed away in 2014.] So while he has great things to say about Cowher and Tomlin, it becomes clear that his relationship and sense of connection with Chuck Noll is of an entirely different order.
And it is hard to avoid feeling that we are witnesses and perhaps unwitting accomplices to a cosmic injustice: Chuck Noll, the greatest head coach in the modern era of the game—based on the bottom line, winning championships, nobody has more than Noll since the merger—living in Florida with a bad back and consigned to being an afterthought to the Walshs, Belichicks, and Parcells of the world. Increasingly, I feel that the memory and significance of Noll is fading from within the collective consciousness of Steeler Nation itself. He succeeded, perhaps too well, at deflecting the accolades. [Noll died in 2014 as well, just over a month after Nunn.]
BN: As a coach, Chuck was never a guy that demanded much, like commercials. He’d say, “Give it to the players.” He had so many things that he liked to do beyond coaching: roses, weight program, films. He [implemented] a whole lot of things he was actually interested in. He had a whole lot of interests and was really a well rounded guy.
Nunn has more to say about coaching, not all of it kind. He speaks to the promotion of coaches and coaching to the detriment of natural athleticism.
BN: If you’re always thinking, and you’re a natural athlete, then something isn’t right. Now if you’re smart and you know what’s going on, you can make it look like you’re reacting on instinct. Is that instinct? Now another guy, if he has to think he cannot react with his natural skills. So now you have two different types of people.
Now who’s coaching them? See, coaches are making so much money. So, now they’re like, “Hey, I’m making all this money I’ve got to be doing something.” They’ve got these huge playbooks. What do you need all that stuff for? They’ve got something for every kind of scheme…. If I were playing I would have been lost.
IC: That’s why lawyers have their particular jargon…
BN: And doctors are sending you to other doctors. And they mess up. Like doctors mess up, but you can’t prove that they messed up.
And as a result, who’s coaching football today? Name a really great football player who is coaching in the NFL today. I say this because a couple of weeks ago this kid runs this computer program and gives me a list of all 32 head coaches in the National Football League. Only two or three have ever played football in the league.
I had been there a long time; Nunn wondered whether I had gotten what I wanted in terms of information. I assured him that I had, and that I also got a few things I hadn’t asked for—always a pleasant bit of good fortune. I was still feeling somewhat uncertain, not with the answers, but with the questions.
What I believe happened during Nunn’s time is that a unique group came together at just the right time to create a perfect storm. The issues, timing, and qualities brought to bear were not replicable. The results have helped catapult the Steelers from a local joke (Rooney U, Same Old Steelers) to an international model for greatness (usually defined as sustained excellence). Along the way the Steelers helped the NFL reach the zenith of popularity; helped transform attitudes and assumptions about race, gender, and class; facilitated the creation of a community (Steeler Nation) that strengthens and affirms its cultural and geographic roots while simultaneously transcending them; and engender loyalty and gratitude so consistent among present and past employees that one is left to wonder whether the team is some version of the Stepford Wives.
The members of that group all affected this progress in different ways.
Come back for Part 3 later in the week.