Bill Nunn Jr., an instrumental figure in the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty of the 1970s, was selected as a finalist in the contributor category for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021 on Tuesday morning, bringing the trailblazer one step away from his rightful place among the legends of the game.
The final requirement for induction will come on Feb. 6, when the 48-member selection committee gathers in Tampa, Florida, on the eve of Super Bowl LV. Nunn, who died of a stroke in 2014, must receive at least 80 percent “yes” votes to earn a bust in the hallowed halls of Canton. To those who knew him and have followed in his footprints, the honor is long overdue.
Nunn, who spent 46 years with the Steelers as a scout and personnel executive, helped stock the roster with talent from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that served as the backbone of teams that won four Super Bowls from 1974 to ’79. Before joining the organization, he was a journalist with the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s largest and most influential Black newspapers. He would attend an HBCU football game each week, then select a Black College All-America team at the end of the season, casting a spotlight on athletes who were largely overlooked by pro teams.
“Bill Nunn’s contribution to Black college football is historical,” said James “Shack” Harris, a member and co-founder of the Black College Football Hall of Fame who starred at Grambling State before playing and later working as a personnel executive in the NFL. “Nunn scouted our practices and games and circulated the top players around the league by selecting the Pittsburgh Courier All-American team. We competed hard to make the team. He hosted a banquet providing us our only opportunity to meet each other and NFL scouts. This enhanced players’ draft status. The AFL signed many (HBCU) players through this process. Those players contributed greatly to the merger of the AFL and NFL. We had many great players but this was the only team to which most of us would be selected. Through this process his commitment to provide a fair and equal opportunity to black college players was monumental. This, along with his eye for talent and willingness to stand up for our players, (played) a major role in the Steelers becoming four-time world champions. We all are indebted to Bill Nunn. He is truly deserving of a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
The relationships Nunn developed along the way gave him greater access and insight to players from HBCUs and helped create a culture of trust once those players arrived in Pittsburgh, because many had never played for a white coach to that point. Among the HBCU alums the Steelers drafted or signed during that time were Hall of Famers Mel Blount, John Stallworth and Donnie Shell, All-Decade defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood and starting defensive lineman Ernie Holmes.
“Of all the people Dan Rooney hired in his life — including three Super Bowl-winning coaches — none may have been as transformational as Nunn,” Jim Rooney wrote of his late father in A Different Way to Win, Dan Rooney’s Story From the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule. “His presence gave the Steelers tremendous credibility among Black players and college coaches as a premier, forward-thinking organization.”
John Wooten, a former NFL player and personnel executive and the retired chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, was among the Black scouts who followed in Nunn’s footsteps.
“What a great moment to see the realization of time when a truly deserving person is fairly given the highest honor in football,” Wooten said. “Bill Nunn is truly a great contributor to the HBCUs, the six-time Super Bowl champion Steelers and the NFL as a whole. The league is a better place today because of the work of Bill Nunn.”
The same goes for Jackie Graves, whose son, Rod, has held multiple front-office positions with NFL teams as well as the league.
“Bill was a great evaluator of football talent,” said Graves, now executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. “His contributions led to many of the great Steelers teams. He was an outstanding professional and he remains as one of the great inspirations in our game.”
Despite their current status as one of the NFL’s blue blood franchises, the Steelers were awful over their first 35 years. They had just seven winning seasons, went through 16 head-coaching changes and appeared in only one playoff game. But the foundation for change occurred in 1969, when Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll as head coach and Nunn as a full-time scout.
Within a few years the Steelers began a run of eight consecutive trips to the playoffs and four Super Bowl victories in six seasons. Rightfully, many associated with those clubs have been honored with a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: owners Art Rooney and Dan Rooney, Noll and players Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Jack Ham, Lynn Swann, Blount, Stallworth and Shell, who will go in next year as part of the Class of 2020 (this year’s induction ceremony was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Now it’s time for Nunn to take his place. If inducted, he would become the first person of color to go into the Hall as a contributor.
“There’s still a path forward we have to go, but it’s just so wonderful to hear that he’s a finalist,” Jim Rooney told me on Tuesday. “Bill is so deserving. And with where we are at right now in the world, in society, it’s long overdue. But I’m glad we’re waking up to not only Bill’s contribution, but also what Bill’s contribution represents. The contribution Bill made started 70 years ago and it changed the NFL. We all should have been able to recognize this in a shorter time period than 70 years, but that happened. I’m just really grateful that we are recognizing it now. He is so deserving of the honor.”
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