When the tale of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ turnaround from doormat to dynasty is retold, it won’t be delivered without the inclusion of Bill Nunn Jr.
Nunn is not exactly a household name, but he could very soon be immortalized in the hallowed halls of Canton for work that was done over the course of five decades. The late, trailblazing Steelers scout has been named a finalist as a contributor for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.
Nunn’s story includes an unorthodox path to professional football by way of opening the eyes of those in power to something they’d ignored for years. The Pittsburgh journalist called on the local NFL team to take a closer look at historically black colleges and universities when evaluating the talent pool for upcoming drafts, and instead of pushing back against Nunn’s public challenge, Steelers owner Dan Rooney brought him in to work for the team.
What followed was the assembly of the backbone of Pittsburgh’s dynasty of the 1970s. Nunn’s expertise in the sport, and specifically in HBCU football from his days as manager of The Pittsburgh Courier — one of the most influential black publications in America at the time — led to his identification of some of the best talent to rise out of the collection of institutions. His deep level of information and understanding of such a talent pool led the Steelers to add many significant players. Among those were L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas AM&N), Mel Blount (Southern), Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern), John Stallworth (Alabama A&M) and Donnie Shell (South Carolina State), as well as many others.
Those players helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s.
As NFL Network’s Jim Trotter wrote in a piece urging voters to push Nunn to finalist in July, Nunn “was as instrumental as anyone in the franchise’s success.” Nunn’s familiarity with HBCUs and his scouting ability — which also uncovered small-school studs like eventual Hall of Famer Jack Lambert (Kent State) — helped upgrade Pittsburgh’s roster from pretender to not just contender, but dominator in the 1970s, turning the Steelers into one of the league’s legitimate franchises for the next 50 years.
Nunn’s contributions also helped serve as a tangible justification for a much-needed rule pushed forward by Rooney that helped increase inclusion in the NFL by requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate in a head-coaching search, and later, searches for senior football operation jobs. As Trotter wrote, Nunn’s “success confirmed Rooney’s belief that people should be judged on their merits and not their skin color.”
He’ll be judged on such merits and achievements by Hall of Fame voters in February when they assemble to decide on the Class of 2021.
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