Nunn Better: Conversations with Steelers Scout Bill Nunn, Part 3

Billl Nunn and Joe Greene, via Steelers.com

by Ivan Cole

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. In the finale Cole talks about the unique group of men when came together at the right time to create the perfect storm:

The Pittsburgh Courier
During my freshman year in college I returned to Pittsburgh on a September weekend to attend something known as the Renaissance Classic at Three Rivers Stadium. The game featured Grambling and Morgan State University.

In those days Grambling’s football team was only slightly less popular than its marching band, and they would travel from Yankee Stadium to Tokyo playing in front of huge crowds. This barnstorming approach provided high-profile exposure for the players and lots of money for the schools. Just another example—like the Courier—of the counterculture that existed in response to institutions dead set on exclusion.

As stated earlier, the Courier was not just any newspaper. It was the flagship of the black press. Its support of integra- tion in sports was not something a sports columnist cooked up one day, it was the editorial policy of the institution, leveraging its influence and resources to make that happen no matter what it took. The paper had a track record of success with Major League Baseball earlier. The Rooneys weren’t creating a resource, but tapping into a very sophisticated system that already existed.

And the Courier was unique to Pittsburgh. No other media outlets, black or white, had the infrastructure in the Jim Crow South to provide a competitor with similar advantages. The poignant irony in all this is that the success of this effort, rather than strengthening its hand, probably hastened the Courier’s demise. Although there may have been alternative scenarios that led to survival—even an increase in acceptance and influence—as more institutions began to desegregate, black institutions like the Courier, and before it the Negro League baseball teams, either died or exist in sad irrelevance. Today it is known as the New Pittsburgh Courier.

The Rooneys

You may have heard the story of when NFL Films came up with the concept of “America’s Team.” They first approached Art Rooney since it seemed to most aptly describe the then dominant Steelers of the 1970s. The Chief reportedly firmly declined saying that the Steelers would be satisfied with being Pittsburgh’s team. Unfortunately this is why we have to put up with a Cowboy Nation that doesn’t realize that the title they ceaselessly brag about is only theirs because the first choice turned it down.

In a similar vein, Chuck Noll was asked during the ’70s about the slogan of the Oakland Raiders, “Pride and Poise.” Noll’s response was that the Steelers had those qualities, “We just don’t put them on our stationary.” The Steelers then, and now, function on a principle that is all too rare in American life—their beliefs and values are reflected in their actions alone.

The Steelers were on the cutting edge of scouting (the development of the BLESTO scouting combine, for example) and inclusion long before Dan Rooney and Bill Nunn began their collaboration. However, sometimes timing is everything. The passage of federal Civil Rights legislation and serious competition from the upstart American Football League changed the landscape radically. At the same time, the Steelers were undergoing internal changes as a second generation of Rooneys commenced making their mark on the organization and the NFL.

Chuck Noll

The best laid plans can be shot to Hell by an obtuse head coach. This had happened before with the Steelers. Remember, the Steelers are the franchise that will live in infamy for cutting Johnny Unitas. The Chief often had to bear the consequences of boneheaded decisions by his coaches, of whom he was too respectful to overrule. For his part, Noll famously informed his first team that they lacked the talent to carry the franchise where it needed to go.

Something of an unknown when he was hired in 1969, very similar to Tomlin, Noll had fewer options for building a team. There was no free agency, so he had to lean more heavily on the draft, which meant that he leaned more heavily on the scouts: Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Nunn.

The 1970s Steelers is the monument to the success of their efforts. Only two players who had been a part of the franchise prior to Noll’s arrival (Andy Russell and Ray Mansfield) played any significant role in the Steelers’ championship success. The draft classes were one breathtaking coup after another, climaxing in the famous class of 1974 that produced four Hall of Famers (Grossman was a free agent signee that year). John Stallworth and free agent Donnie Shell represented the type of player most often associated with Nunn from small, mostly Southern schools. However, Lynn Swann (USC) and Mike Webster (Wisconsin) were about as mainstream as you could get, while Jack Lambert was a bit out of the box in another sense. One unique feature of those ’70s teams is that they were completely home grown: No one played for any organization other than Pittsburgh.

There is a certain Catch-22 here. One of the things that obscures superior leadership is the presence of great talent. For example, some have argued that one reason that Ben Roethlisberger is consistently underrated is that he is considered to be the fortunate beneficiary of a highly talented supporting cast. The same probably can be said about Tomlin. In a similar vein, Noll’s teams were viewed as being so overwhelmingly talented that presumably only a bare minimum of coaching was necessary.

What is forgotten is how much intelligence and skill is involved in recognizing quality talent and placing it in the position to be successful. One example was Noll’s decision not to put Bill Nunn in a box titled “Black Scout.” After all isn’t that the purpose of the exercise? Is it not the intent to liberate talent from the boxes in which it is imprisoned and allow it to show where it can do the most good?

Nunn described his function as equivalent to an assistant director of personnel. This included extensive scouting all over the country. Art Jr. commented on how helpful Nunn was on cueing him in on the nuances of local etiquette in the South. Since nothing like the NFL Combine in Indianapolis existed then, he also worked closely with coaches in arranging player evaluation sessions around the country. In addition, he was responsible for running training camp, and he played an integral role on draft days in recommending who to draft and when. One thing that could not be captured just by words is how fully meaningful it seemed for Nunn that Noll saw him outside the box. And that might be all anyone really needs to know to understand the greatness of that 1970s crew.

Bill Nunn

And then there is the last piece, Bill Nunn himself. One of the things that stand out as common among the Rooneys, Noll, and Nunn is the genuine sense of personal modesty. Nunn indicated during our conversation that any number of people had encouraged him to write a memoir of some sort, but he failed to see the point of such an exercise. It was if he convinced himself that there was nothing he could say that would possibly have any long-term resonance. He makes a persuasive argument: He spoke of books that he had sitting in his house that were gathering dust and presumably serving little other purpose.

But in the final analysis I am not convinced. At the beginning of our conversation we both expressed regret that we had so many questions for our now deceased fathers that would be forever unanswered. I suggested that he might be forever known as Radio Raheem’s dad. He said he was okay with that. But I don’t know if that would be alright with Radio Raheem. I think Nunn would be quite surprised by how many people would be more than a little interested in what he had to say.

And, being a newspaperman, he would undoubtedly say it well.

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