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Steelers' football is Nunn's business

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers scout Bill Nunn Jr. File photo.

Before Franco Harris made the Immaculate Reception, before the Steelers were good enough to even think about making the playoffs for the first time, they needed to change the way they conducted business during four decades of nearly nonstop losing.

Bill Nunn, now 87 and believed to be the oldest active scout in the NFL, became one of the primary agents of change. He pushed the Steelers to acquire players with speed, power, confidence and aggression, no matter where they played.

And he did so with initial reluctance because Nunn — like many members of Pittsburgh's black community in the 1950s and '60s — once didn't care about the Steelers at all.

“It was amazing, so many people here, in the minority community, they'd go over to Cleveland to watch the Browns — they didn't watch the Steelers,” Nunn said. “The Browns had Jim Brown, Marion Motley and other great (minority) players.”

The Steelers? While they had long had excellent black players such as John Henry Johnson and Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, they didn't regularly scout traditionally black schools, even though Nunn annually selected the Black College All-America football team for the nationally distributed Pittsburgh Courier.

As Dan Rooney took on a greater role in running the Steelers in the late '60s, he began paying closer attention to Nunn's team, and he finally asked Nunn in 1967 to work part-time for the organization. After Chuck Noll became coach in 1969 and the Steelers made numerous organizational changes, Nunn was brought on full-time.

Nunn was skeptical at first, because he liked the newspaper business and the Steelers had never seemed interested in drafting players who weren't from big-time schools. But Rooney understood that the American Football League caught up to the NFL talent-wise in only a few years partly because it grabbed often-overlooked players from often-overlooked schools.

“For the Steelers, Bill was that line into the black colleges and the tremendous amount of talent they had,” said Hall of Fame receiver John Stallworth, one of Nunn's finds.

Before Noll, personnel chief Dick Haley and scouting director Art Rooney Jr. began running the draft, the Steelers drafted two players from black schools in three years. Once the new regime took over, they chose 16 in their first three drafts.

“Bill was ahead of most everybody,” Haley said. “Nobody was more in tune with those players, and people weren't spending enough time there. Bill knew everybody.”

Players such as Mel Blount, Joe Gilliam, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Chuck Hinton, Ben McGee, Donnie Shell and Frank Lewis were drafted or signed after being scouted by Nunn.

“We all had an impact, and that's because of Bill Nunn,” Stallworth said.

Stallworth, for example, ran a poor 40-yard dash time on a muddy track when the combine scouts watched him. Nunn went back a day later, timed him under better conditions and got a much more accurate reading.

“Chuck was ready to take him in the first round, but I told him I thought Stallworth would be there in the fourth,” Nunn said. “I said, ‘The average (team) isn't looking at him like we are.' We had to sweat, but he was still there in the fourth round.”

Not surprisingly, the Steelers' top competition for such talent often came from the Cowboys, who, like the Steelers, recognized that great players didn't always come from the big-name schools. Shell, for example, was so overlooked that he wasn't drafted in 1974 and signed as a free agent.

“Bill Nunn, he had the contacts,” said Blount, the Hall of Fame cornerback. “He knew what was going on in black college football. It was pretty neat the way it all came together. What an integral part of the history of the Steelers that Bill Nunn played.”

Nunn retired in 1987, but he still drops by the Steelers' offices to watch college game tape. And when a scout first starts working for the Steelers, one of his first assignments is to take a scouting trip or evaluate tape with Nunn. Dan Rooney's son did so. So did Kevin Colbert's son. So did Chuck Noll's son, although he never went into the business.

“It's pretty unique what he did,” Blount said.

Nunn had a large network of contacts, but he didn't rely only on the raw data he accumulated or the game evaluations he wrote. He also leaned on his instincts and street smarts, saying metaphorically, “You can have a whole lot of Ph.D.s, but put them in a craps game, and they're not as smart.”

Yes those 1972 Steelers shed the image of being football's version of the never-won-forever Cubs, but it took good players and more than one memorable play to achieve.

Unlike the Immaculate Reception, Nunn isn't just a distant memory or an archive item tucked away neatly in somebody's scrapbook, brought out only on special occasions or on anniversaries. He's still a part of what the Steelers do, what the Steelers are.

“He still comes to work,” Blount said. “That's amazing. He's a big part of everything.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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