(EDITOR’S NOTE: To access the Vito Stellino interview fast-forward to 10:15 of the attached audio: Ep 27: Al Davis, 70s Steelers and More w/ Vito Stellino | The Eye Test for Two | Spreaker)
Unlike other contributor candidates elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Class of 2021’s Bill Nunn Jr. is relatively unknown.
Outside of Pittsburgh, that is.
A former sports reporter and editor at the Pittsburgh Courier, Nunn joined the Steelers’ personnel department in the 1970s to become the club’s first African-American appointed to a front-office position.
But he was more, much more, than that.
As a scout combing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), he was a central figure in the Steelers’ dynasty that decade, finding key contributors like Mel Blount (Southern), L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas AM&N), John Stallworth (Alabama A&M), Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern) and Donnie Shell (South Carolina State) – all of whom played vital roles in Pittsburgh’s four Super Bowl wins in six years.
“Without Bill Nunn,” said former Hall-of-Fame voter Vito Stellino on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast on fullpressradio.com, “they don’t win four Super Bowls. It’s good the Hall of Fame is recognizing his contribution. He was a real pioneer.”
Stellino should know. He covered the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , was there for all four Super Bowls and got to know Nunn. In fact, he recalled one incident where the team’s trainer criticized Stellino for his story on a preseason game, and Nunn – always the newspaperman – stood up to defend him, saying the headline did not reflect the text.
But it wasn’t Nunn’s sensitivity that made him a Hall-of-Fame candidate. It was his ability to find players in places others did not – or would not. And that’s the HBCU.
“He had all this low-hanging fruit,” said Stellino. “You have to remember that in the ‘60s the SEC was still segregated. Even into the ‘70s. (Wide receiver) John Stallworth was a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the ‘Bear (Bryant)’ did not recruit him. Can you imagine that today?
“Stallworth said, ‘Well, they were only taking the elite of the elite of the black players.’ He had gone to a school that didn’t get a lot of attention.”
So he went on to Alabama A&M where Nunn found him, graded him and persuaded then-coach Chuck Noll and personnel director Art Rooney Jr. to draft him. That much is well known. What isn’t, however, is how the Steelers managed to wait until the fourth round before choosing Stallworth with the 82nd overall pick.
“(Nunn) gets a film of Stallworth,” Stellino recalled. "(He) had a reputation of not being speed burner, but he was fast enough to make an over-the-shoulder catch for 73 yards to win the Super Bowl. So he was fast enough, and Bill got the right time on him.
“So, he got a copy of him on film in college. And the Steelers were supposed to send it to other teams. Now, apparently the other teams didn’t make a big issue of ‘Where’s that film?’, but it just stayed on Art Rooney’s desk.
“Noll sees the film, and he wants to take Stallworth in the first round. (And he’s told) ‘Swann’s not going to last. We can take Swann in the first round, and the odds are we’ll get (Stallworth) later.’ And they got him in the fourth round. Had he gone to Alabama he would’ve probably been a first-round pick.”
Stallworth went on to become a Hall-of-Fame receiver, inducted in 2002. Of course, so did Swann. The Steelers have 10 players from their Super Bowl teams of the 1970s enshrined in Canton, and Nunn was directly responsible for several.
“They not only drafted players from those small black schools,” said Stellino, “they got them in later rounds. They got great bargains because no one else was scouting them; very few people were scouting them.”
Case in point: Donnie Shell. He went undrafted in 1974 but later signed as a free agent with Pittsburgh. He went on to become a starting safety who was so productive that he was elected to the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Centennial Class of 2020.
“You have to give Noll credit,” he said. “He gave (African-American players) a chance. He didn’t see color at all. In their famous ’74 draft, they drafted four Hall of Famers in the first five rounds. They did not draft Donnie Shell. They should’ve taken him in a later round.
“Of course, Bill Nunn knew of him. He knew the coach. And the coach tells Shell, “You go to Pittsburgh, you’ll get a fair shot.’ And so he became the fifth Hall of Famer in that class … (Bill Nunn) had an amazing contribution to those four Super Bowls. It’s really good the Hall of Fame recognized him."