Former Pittsburgh Steelers executive Bill Nunn wasn’t just one of the first African-American scouts in NFL history. He was also one of pro football’s greatest innovators.
Nunn wrote his annual Black College All-America team for the Pittsburgh Courier from 1950 until 1969.
It was a game-changer for unheralded football players who hailed from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Nunn’s exceptional eye for talent unearthed HBCU gems such as Donnie Shell, Mel Blount, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood, and Ernie Holmes.
Shell, Blount, and Stallworth eventually became members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
Nunn’s scouting prowess helped turn the Steelers into a dynasty in the 1970s. Pittsburgh, which had made just one postseason appearance from 1933 to 1971, won four Super Bowl titles in six seasons from 1974 to 1979.
Nunn, one of the greatest scouts in NFL history, became a posthumous member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.
This is Bill Nunn’s amazing football story.
Early Life and College Days with the West Virginia State Yellow Jackets
William Goldwyn “Bill” Nunn, Jr. was born to parents Bill Sr. and Maybelle in Pittsburgh, PA on September 30, 1924.
Bill Jr. spent his early years in the Pittsburgh suburb of Homewood, a predominantly African-American community.
Sports ran in Bills Jr’s blood. His father, Bill Sr., was the first African-American player in Westinghouse High School football history. The latter eventually ventured into sports journalism and became the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier.
According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor Chuck Finder, several 20th-century African-American icons such as Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, and Lionel Hampton were frequent visitors at the Nunn residence.
Bill Jr. also attended his father’s high school alma mater. However, he was more fascinated with the basketball court at the time. He played hoops for the Westinghouse High School varsity team.
Bill Jr. was determined to remain in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, and play for the Duquesne Dukes men’s basketball team.
World War II had reached its peak when Bill Jr. was about to enter the collegiate ranks. Unfortunately, Duquesne’s men’s basketball team ceased operations during that critical time in world history.
Nevertheless, the Dukes’ head men’s basketball coach Chick Davies scheduled a workout with Nunn and Chuck Cooper, a future Boston Celtics standout.
Cooper wanted to attend Long Island University. Coincidentally, LIU Sharks head men’s basketball coach Clair Bee was present at the workout.
Defying His Father
In an ironic twist of fate, Cooper wound up with Davies at Duquesne. On the other hand, Bill Nunn, Sr. wanted his son to attend a black college so he could learn more about African-American culture, per Finder.
Bill Jr. resisted his father’s wishes. He even told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette more than sixty years later that the two butted heads regarding his college choice.
Bill Sr. eventually told his son he had to find employment and pay his way through college. The younger Nunn agreed.
The younger Nunn worked, saved money, and enrolled at West Virginia State University, a historically black school in Institute, WV. It’s also the same school famous Jackie Robinson biographer Wendell Smith attended.
Bill Jr.’s exceptional skills on the hardcourt earned him a spot on the West Virginia State Yellow Jackets basketball team during his college days.
One of his teammates was future Detroit Pistons great Earl Lloyd, the first African-American in National Basketball Association (NBA) history.
Bill Nunn, legendary Steelers' scout and sportswriter at the Pittsburgh Courier! #Steelers pic.twitter.com/UyOhBFNOxe
— Blitzburgh (@Blitz_Burgh) July 4, 2018
Nunn, an outstanding basketball player at West Virginia State, turned down offers from the New York Knicks and Harlem Globetrotters so he could work with his father, Bill Sr., at The Pittsburgh Courier.
In 2006, Bill Jr. told Finder that his dad never forced him to work with him at The Pittsburgh Courier. The elder Nunn wanted his son to blaze his own trail in life.
The younger Nunn covered many sports during his time with the publication. One of his main sports beats was boxing. He covered boxing champions such as Floyd Patterson, Ezzard Charles, and Archie Moore during his tenure with the Pittsburgh Courier.
Bill Nunn also promoted boxing fights and baseball games involving the all-black Indianapolis Clowns whenever they played at Forbes Field in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.
Change of Pace
Nunn wrote a weekly column for the Pittsburgh Courier entitled “Change of Pace.”
Among the most noteworthy topics Nunn wrote about in the mid-1960s were Cassius Clay’s outgoing nature, Sonny Liston’s trouble with the law, Willie Mays’s future in baseball, and Henry Aaron’s thoughts on getting beaned by opposing pitchers, to name a few.
Before long, Nunn’s journalistic prowess spread far and wide. Various NCAA publications and The Sporting News featured some of his stories from the Pittsburgh Courier.
After the older Nunn retired, Bill Jr. took over as sports editor and managing editor of the paper in the mid-1960s. His emphasis on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in sports coverage eventually had long-term historical implications.
Nunn selected The Pittsburgh Courier‘s much-anticipated Black College All-America team annually in the fall. It was a tradition he continued since its inaugural year in 1950.
Nunn thought it was the only chance those African-American players had at playing in the National Football League someday.
“That was the only exposure that the players from the black schools got,” Nunn told Steelers.com (via ProFootballHOF.com) in 2010.
Players who made Nunn’s annual list received an invitation to a banquet in Pittsburgh, PA. That gave them an opportunity to mingle and rub elbows with NFL scouts, coaches, and executives.
55 years ago (10/27/62): Bill Nunn Jr. of the Pittsburgh Courier profiles #Steelers' running back John Henry Johnson. #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/c9FQ06ttD5
— PGH Sports History (@PGH_Sports_Date) October 27, 2017
To make a long story short, it was their ticket to football’s highest level. It all began with Bill Nunn.
Nunn made a profound impact on the NFL in 1952. Then-New York Giants owner Wellington Mara held a copy of the Pittsburgh Courier‘s edition that included Morgan State College Roosevelt Brown’s name.
Mara told his coaching staff to make Brown the 27th overall pick that year. Brown entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame some twenty-three years later.
Nunn reached out to the Los Angeles Rams and informed them about Mississippi Vocational College (now known as Mississippi Valley State University) defensive lineman Deacon Jones in 1961.
The Rams eventually made the unheralded Jones, who many football history experts say coined the phrase “sacking the quarterback,” the 186th overall pick of the 1961 NFL Draft.
Lo and behold, the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrined Deacon Jones, an eight-time Pro Bowler, in the summer of 1980.
Nunn included Maryland State College’s (now known as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) Art Shell in his Black College All-America team twice in the 1960s.
Al Davis’s Oakland Raiders eventually made Shell the 80th overall selection of the 1968 American Football League (AFL) Draft.
The unheralded Shell eventually earned two Super Bowl rings with the Silver and Black. Shell enjoyed a successful 23-year football coaching career from 1983 to 2006.
Bill Nunn also included Hampton Institute’s (now known as Hampton University) Ed Tomlin—father of current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin—in his 1967 list. The NFL’s Baltimore Colts eventually drafted Tomlin the following year.
When Mike Tomlin took over as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach before the 2006 NFL season, he remembered Bill Nunn approaching him.
Nunn told Tomlin that he’d included his dad, Ed, in the Pittsburgh Courier‘s 1967 All-American Team.
The younger Tomlin was impressed by Bill Nunn’s encyclopedic knowledge of football.
“That shows you the impact of Bill Nunn not only in terms of the scouting, but creating a mechanism of recognition for these players,” Tomlin told ESPN (via the New Pittsburgh Courier) in 2014.
Before long, Bill Nunn would also innovate the Pittsburgh Steelers’ recruiting system and become one of the cornerstones of the franchise’s six Super Bowl titles.
Pro Football Executive Career
Thanks mainly to Bill Nunn’s scouting genius, the Pittsburgh Steelers changed their status as the NFL’s laughingstocks in the 1960s to serious Super Bowl contenders from the 1970s until the present day—a span of more than four decades.
Nunn’s tireless efforts in placing HBCUs at the forefront of The Pittsburgh Courier‘s sports coverage soon caught the eye of the Steelers’ owners, the Rooney family.
The Rooneys dangled a part-time scouting contract to Nunn in 1967. Nunn gladly accepted and eventually began working full-time for the Steelers in 1969—Chuck Noll’s first year as Pittsburgh’s head coach.
Steelers vice president and general manager Kevin Colbert said Nunn’s ties and access to HBCUs made him a can’t-miss prospect for the Rooney family.
“Bill could break down a lot of barriers and get the information and find out some things other people couldn’t and that was huge,” Colbert told Steelers.com’s Teresa Varley in February 2021.
Colbert thought Nunn was a natural for the job. He had the ability to visit schools, schmooze with coaches, and do scouting work as if he were in a traditional office.
Little did Steelers fans know Bill Nunn’s impact would resonate well beyond his tenure with the team. Nunn and Pittsburgh head coach Chuck Noll helped lay the foundation for a Steelers juggernaut that set the bar high in the 1970s.
In the summer of 2006, Nunn told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he joined the Steelers at a time when Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced in the South.
For instance, whenever Nunn scouted in the southern states, hotel managers assigned him to rooms on the first level.
Back then, Pittsburgh Pirates baseball stars Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente resided in the black neighborhoods of the Steel City. Nunn also recalled Pittsburgh’s Webster Hotel refusing to admit legendary musician Nat King Cole during that era.
“A lot of hotels were discriminating still (into the 1970s). It was a difficult time,” Nunn told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in July 2006.
A New Era for the Steelers
Before Nunn’s hiring as the Steelers’ assistant personnel director in 1970, Pittsburgh was a franchise in disarray.
The Steelers tasted postseason football just once in their previous 39-season history from 1933 to 1971. The Philadelphia Eagles shut them out in the 1947 Divisional Round, 21-0.
The Steelers had thirteen head coaches in the first four decades of their existence—a stark contrast to the continuity coaches have had from the Chuck Noll era until the current Mike Tomlin regime.
When Nunn came on board as the league ushered in the 1970s, he instigated a paradigm shift in recruiting. He scoured unheralded football talent from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
When Pittsburgh won its first Super Bowl title in 1974, Nunn helped recruit eleven players from HBCUs. The most prominent ones were future Hall of Famers Donnie Shell (South Carolina State), Mel Blount (Southern), and John Stallworth (Alabama A&M).
The #Steelers may have had the greatest draft of any team in any sport in 1974.
A key member of the #Steelers scouts was Bill Nunn, who should be in the #HOF
He made sure the only #Stallworth tape didn’t get to any other teams. pic.twitter.com/iAiQkeBpao
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) April 25, 2019
Nunn also scouted other Steelers legends from HBCUs, such as defensive end L.C. Greenwood (University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), defensive end Dwight White (East Texas State), and defensive tackle Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern) in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Nunn also scoured lesser-known schools such as Kent State University in Ohio. His efforts paid big dividends when the Steelers landed eventual Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert in 1974.
The Steelers also drafted future Hall of Famers wide receiver Lynn Swann (USC) and center Mike Webster (Wisconsin) that year. It was one of the best draft classes in pro football history—a core group that transformed the once-woebegone Steelers into a dynasty.
Still Seeing Winners Where Others Did Not
Stallworth and Swann became one of the greatest wide receiver tandems of the 1970s. When the Steelers drafted them in 1974, it had to be one or the other.
According to Steelers.com, Nunn and Co. had to choose between Swann and Stallworth when it was their turn to choose 21st overall in 1974.
Since Swann—a product of perennial college football powerhouse USC—had the better credentials, they took him off the draft board.
Pittsburgh had no draft picks in the third round. The Steelers, who were coming off consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history, had other glaring needs apart from wide receiver.
Steelers head coach Chuck Noll asked Nunn if Stallworth would still be around in the fourth round.
Nunn replied in the affirmative. He felt Stallworth’s lack of speed and credentials would dissuade other teams from drafting him.
“Bill Nunn just went on and on about him,” Noll told Steelers.com in 2007. “I hadn’t seen him at all. But Bill was one of those guys when he was high on somebody, you had to listen.”
Noll told Nunn to help him find athletes during their first year together with the Steelers in 1969. Bill Nunn certainly found one in John Stallworth five years later.
In 2014, former Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak told the team’s official website that Stallworth’s first workout with other NFL teams at Alabama A&M in Huntsville, AL went badly.
Stallworth ran on a wet track and produced a less-than-stellar finish in the 40-yard dash. The other scouts left unimpressed.
However, Bill Nunn stuck around and wanted to size up Stallworth again. It turned out Nunn felt sick. He told the other scouts he wanted to stay one more day to recuperate.
Building a Dynasty
When Nunn timed Stallworth’s 40-yard dash on drier track conditions the following day, it was much better than his previous time.
Sure enough, John Stallworth fell into the Steelers’ laps with the 82nd overall selection in 1974.
Both Swann and Stallworth, who caught for a combined 114 touchdowns and more than 14,000 yards in their NFL careers, became Pro Football Hall of Famers in later years.
“Bill, in my mind, was a game-changer for guys in my era that went to black colleges,” Stallworth told Varley in February 2021. “Bill was a voice in the room for guys in black colleges in the early years. He paved the way.”
Nunn thought Stallworth should have been a higher pick than Lambert, another eventual Hall of Famer. However, Steelers scouting head Art Rooney, Jr. wanted Lambert badly, so the team drafted him in the second round.
Behind Bill Nunn’s genius, the Steelers built a dynasty teeming with eventual Hall of Fame greats in the 1970s.
Since Nunn became Pittsburgh’s assistant personnel director in 1970, the Steelers flipped a switch and orchestrated one of the greatest turnarounds in league history.
Pittsburgh averaged ten wins per season from 1970 to 1979. The Steelers made eight postseason appearances and won seven division titles and four Super Bowl titles during that decade.
Nunn retired for the first time in 1987. However, Steelers president and eventual majority owner Dan Rooney would have none of it. Nunn eventually remained with the Steelers for the next twenty-seven years.
“I retired in 1987,” Nunn told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the summer of 2006. “Every year, I tell him, ‘I’m going to quit coming in.’ And he says, ‘Nah, you’re not.'”
Steelers for Life
Bill Nunn worked for the Steelers on a part-time basis from 1987 until his death in 2014. Pittsburgh made sixteen postseason appearances, won twelve division titles, and won two Super Bowl titles during those 27 years.
When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Chuck Finder asked Bill Nunn who his greatest ever recruit was, the latter told him guys like Donnie Shell, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth first come to mind.
However, Nunn also refuted the notion that the Steelers’ best free-agent recruits over the years came only from HBCUs.
“I scouted white ball games, too,” Nunn told Finder in 2006.
Nunn’s impact on the Steelers organization went beyond the game of football.
In the summer of 2021, Pittsburgh pro scouting coordinator Brandon Hunt told Varley Nunn was a frugal man who had taught him how to save money 16 years earlier.
Nunn saved his money the old-school way. He stashed his cash in mattresses and shoe boxes.
Mel Blount on why Bill Nunn should be part of the #PFHOF21 Class: pic.twitter.com/og0AZJe7e5
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 16, 2021
Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Mel Blount aptly summed up Bill Nunn’s impact on the franchise.
“You can’t write the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers without Bill Nunn,” Blount told Steelers.com in February 2021. “When you look at the Steelers of the 1970s, none of that would have happened without Bill Nunn.”
Bill Nunn’s Death and Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction
Bill Nunn became a member of the Black College Football Hall of Fame’s pioneer class of 2010. He was part of a distinguished group that also included Tank Younger, Willie Lanier, Walter Payton, and Deacon Jones.
Nunn credited his previous sports journalism experience with the Pittsburgh Courier for his induction.
“My feeling is that so much of what I did to be part of this was done when I was with the newspaper,” Nunn said at the time (via the New Pittsburgh Courier). “Getting to the Steelers, of course, also was due to the newspaper.”
On the other hand, James “Shack” Harris told the Steelers’ official website in 2021 that Nunn was one of the reasons he co-founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame twelve years earlier.
Sadly, Bill Nunn passed away on May 8, 2014, due to stroke complications, per The Associated Press (via the New Pittsburgh Courier). He was 89 years old.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH inducted Bill Nunn posthumously in the summer of 2021. He became the first African-American who earned the distinction in the Contributor category. Nunn’s granddaughter, Cydney, unveiled his bust.
Nunn earned his gold jacket and bust the same weekend as former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Donnie Shell, one of the rookies he recruited in 1974 and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020.
Shell whittled down his short list to the Denver Broncos and Houston Oilers in 1974. If neither option panned out, Shell would have become a high school teacher.
Accolades and Legacy
Had it not been for Bill Nunn’s timely intervention, Donnie Shell would not have worn Steelers black and gold.
Nunn told Shell that Steelers head coach Chuck Noll wasn’t particular about the schools his players came from. Noll simply wanted his players to work hard on the gridiron.
Before long, Nunn’s sales pitch made Shell want to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
During their time together in the Steel City, Nunn became Shell’s confidant. Whenever Shell had a bad day at practice, he spoke with Nunn, who told him to continue working hard and good things would happen.
That meant the world to Donnie Shell. He took Bill Nunn’s words to heart and eventually became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class of 2020.
Bill Nunn is also a member of the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Honor.
Every year, the Professional Football Writers of America presents the Bill Nunn Memorial Award to the best pro football journalist. The organization renamed the award, which began in 1969, in Nunn’s honor in 2021.
Some of the past winners include The New York Times‘s Arthur Daley (1970), The Baltimore Sun‘s Vito Stellino (1989), the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Ira Miller (1993), Sports Illustrated‘s Paul Zimmerman (1996), and SI.com’s Don Banks (2020). ESPN also claims several winners, including John Clayton (2007), Len Pasquarelli (2008), Chris Mortensen (2016), and Ed Werder (2017).
At the time of Bill Nunn’s death in 2014, he left behind his wife, Frances, son and actor, William Goldwyn III, and daughter and former U.S. Attorney Lynell Wilson.
Wilson is the only surviving member of Nunn’s immediate family. Her mother and brother have both passed away in recent years.
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