´ Steel Curtain Rising: Bill Nunn, Jr. Pittsburgh Steelers "Ace in the Hole" 1924-2014

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bill Nunn, Jr. Pittsburgh Steelers "Ace in the Hole" 1924-2014

Bill Nunn, Jr. the longest-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting community has passed away from complications suffered from a stroke on the eve of what would have been his 46th NFL Draft. Nunn was 89 and is survived by his wife Francis, daughter Lydell, and son Bill Nunn III.
  • A great many fans in Steelers Nation will react to news by asking, “Who is Bill Nunn?” 
The answer to that question is that nobody whose name isn't "Rooney" or "Noll" had a bigger role in securing those six Steelers Lombardi trophies than Bill Nunn.

In the battle reverse the Pittsburgh Steelers first 40 years of straight losing:
  • Dan Rooney operated as the statesman orchestrating behind the scenes, 
  • Chuck Noll served as the field general, 
  • Art Rooney, Jr. and Dick Haley coordinated the logistics and material, 
And Bill Nunn Jr. acted as the Steelers Ace in the Hole.

Nunn could play that role because he brought something to the Steelers that other NFL teams were either unready or unable to embrace.

Blindsiding the NFL with Colorblindness

The National Football League began as an integrated organization, however by 1933 the league’s final two African American’s had left the league which stayed segregated until 1945. Integration came slowly to the NFL following World War II, in well into the 1960’s many NFL teams enforced unofficial quota systems limited the number of black players they selected.

Art Rooney Sr. was in no way a racist but the same cannot be said for some of his coaches, such as Bill Austin, who Roy Jefferson overhead making racist comments.



Whether Austin factored race into his draft decisions or not, when first approached by the Steelers Bill Nunn, who then worked as a sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, rebuffed the Rooneys, saying he didn’t like the way they did business.
  • Dan Rooney called him in for a face-to-face meeting which ended with Nunn agreeing to work part time for the Steelers.
With Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969 Nunn’s status shifted to full time, and six seasons later the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl. Nunn explained the transformation this way:
To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots.
Nunn, a former college athlete of course understood athletics and had annually produced an All-African American team based on players from HBC (Historically Black Colleges) rosters.
  • But it was Nunn’s network of connections at those schools that made him so invaluable to the Steelers. 
With the Steelers running one of the limited number of color blind scouting operations in 1969, and Nunn scouting the HBC circuit, the Steelers drafted Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.
  • Note, that’s half of the Steel Curtain and two NFL Hall of Famers, acquired thanks to active resistance to the prejudice that ruled the day
While finding these players was important, but Nunn’s role was far from limited to scouting the HBC’s under the radar. He also negotiated player contracts and ran the Steelers training camp for several years. But it is his work as a scout that made him famous, as the next section makes clear.

Steelers 1974 Draft: Nunn Helps Author the Greatest NFL Draft in History

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 Draft was the best in NFL history bringing the team four Hall of Famers named Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.

Nunn had a pivotal role in helping the Steelers identify Stallworth, who was a college student at Alabama A&M, first feigning illness and then helping hoard the only tape that existed of Stallworth. Noll had had his eye on Stallworth for a long time, and wanted him in the first round. Nunn talked him into drafting Swann.

Then Noll wanted him in the second. Art Rooney Jr. protested, recommending Lambert. The Steelers had dealt their third round pick, but Nunn coolly assured Noll “’The average (team) isn’t looking at him like we are.’”

The Steelers had to sweat out the third round, but when the 4th arrived, Stallworth was there, and the rest is history.

Pillar of the Steelers Franchise

Nunn continued to work in the scounting department until he “retired in 1987.” For a few years he and his wife wintered in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh, but eventually tired of the snowbird’s life.
  • And that “retirement” was in name only. 
Nunn continued to work in the Steelers scouting department as a Senior Assistant of Player Personnel, evaluating video and participating in the Steelers draft War Room, which is appropriately titled “The Bill Nunn Draft Room.”

Make no mistake about it, Nunn’s role wasn’t as a figure head or elder statesman, he was an active participant of the Steelers scouting team. In fact, as reported by Andrew Conte of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nunn suffered his stroke while evaluating players on the South Side.

Kevin Colbert would send young scouts to study film or watch tapes at Nunn’s side. As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote on steelers.com
Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.
For the firs time since 1947, Bill Nunn’s chair will be empty for the Steelers on draft day. His presence will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising offers its sympathy, thoughts and prayers to Nunn's wife and children.

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