State Your Case: Bill Nunn, Pittsburgh's scout extraordinaire
There is a writers’ wing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The enshrinees have their names on a plaque at the Hall. It features some of the most impactful scribes ever to write about the sport, including Dave Anderson of the New York Times, Will McDonough of the Boston Globe, Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times and Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated.
There’s another sports writer who should be in Canton – but he deserves a bust, not just his name on a plaque. Bill Nunn had an impact on the game beyond the printed word.
Nunn was the long-time sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most influential black publications in America with a circulation in excess of 400,000 and bureaus in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York. Nunn would cover the top football game each weekend involving black colleges and, at the end of the season, pick an All-America team of players from the Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
In 1952, Nunn’s All-America team put the New York Giants on the trail of offensive tackle Roosevelt Brown of Morgan State. The Giants took him in the 27th round, and he went on to become just the second offensive lineman ever inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. In 1961, Nunn touted David “Deacon” Jones of Mississippi Vocational College to the Los Angeles Rams. They selected him in the 14th round, and he also became a Hall of Famer, inventing the term “sack” along the way.
With such a quality resource living in their own town, the Steelers hired Nunn as a part-time scout in 1967, then made him full-time in 1969. His job? Continue to find the gems in the HBCU and get them on Pittsburgh’s drafting radar.
How well did he do that job?
“You cannot write the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers without Bill Nunn,” Hall-of-Fame cornerback Mel Blount said. “When you look at the Steelers in the 1970s, none of that would have happened without Bill Nunn.”
The Steelers drafted defensive end L.C. Greenwood in the 10th round out of Arkansas A&M in 1969 and Blount in the third round out of Southern in 1970. Pittsburgh then claimed wide receiver Frank Lewis of Grambling in the first round, defensive end Dwight White of East Texas State in the fourth round and defensive tackle Ernie Holmes of Texas Southern in the eighth, all in 1971. Then came quarterback “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam of Tennessee State in the 11th round in 1972 and wide receiver John Stallworth of Alabama A&M in the fourth round in 1974. The Steelers also signed safety Donnie Shell as an undrafted college free agent out of South Carolina State that year.
Shell and Stallworth have joined Blount with busts in the Hall of Fame. Along with Hall-of-Famer Joe Greene, Greenwood, White and Holmes formed the defensive front of the Steel Curtain that helped Pittsburgh win four Lombardi Trophies in the 1970s. Blount was named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary team, and Greenwood joined Blount on the 1970s' NFL all-decade team.
”Bill had an extraordinary instinct in identifying talent throughout his career, including the legendary 1974 draft for us (four Hall of Famers),” said the late Dan Rooney, a Hall of Famer himself. “He put us ahead of so many other teams in the NFL by leading the efforts of drafting African-American players at the traditional black colleges. Very few people had a bigger impact in the history of our franchise.”
Nunn spent 18 years as the franchise’s assistant personnel director from 1970-87, then the next 17 years as a part-time scout before passing away in 2014. He was inducted in the inaugural class of the Black College Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame established a “contributor” category in 2015 for worthy candidates who did not set foot on the playing field. Owners, general managers and commissioners have since been enshrined. The scope should be expanded to include at least one scout.
“He gave us exposure,” Shell said. “If you look at the (big) picture, a lot of guys wouldn’t have made it if not for Bill Nunn. What a great legacy to have opened that door.”
Arguably a Hall of Fame legacy.