New book credits Nunn for Steelers’ 1970s success
When the Steelers were in the midst of winning four Super Bowls the 1970s, credit was given to the players, coaches and owners. But one of the most important men contributing to the team’s success remained in the background.
According to Andrew Conte, author of “The Color of Sundays: The Secret Strategy That Built the Steelers’ Dynasty” (Blue River Press, $25), scout Bill Nunn Jr. arguably was as essential as Chuck Noll, Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann. Nunn’s ability to find talent at small black schools brought Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood and Glenn Edwards to the Steelers.
“I think the key factor to them winning their first four Super Bowls was their willingness to go out and try these players nobody else was looking at,” said Conte, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Just look at the defensive line. … Without Nunn, you get (Joe) Greene but not Greenwood. You don’t get Stallworth in the ’74 draft. You don’t get Donnie Shell. You don’t get Glenn Edwards. You don’t get Sam Davis.”
Nunn initially rebuffed Conte’s efforts to be interviewed. Only after Conte approached Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and general manager Kevin Colbert did Nunn relent. And even then, the scout told Conte the book should not be about him.
“He was really pushing me to figure out the bigger story about the first blacks in football, the first blacks in sports and the racial tension that existed at the time he was coming out of high school,” Conte said.
Nunn, who died in 2014 at age 89 after a long career as a Pittsburgh Courier journalist and Steelers scout, was first an accomplished athlete. He starred on the basketball teams at Westinghouse High School in Homewood and West Virginia State near Charleston. The New York Knicks and Harlem Globetrotters offered him tryouts.
Instead, he followed in the footsteps of his father, Bill Nunn Sr., who was the managing editor at the Courier. He covered boxing matches between Joe Louis and Billy Conn; interviewed Jackie Robinson, the first black to play in the majors; and was traveling through Mississippi when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by two white men in 1955.
“He had a Forrest Gump type of existence where he turned up at key points in civil-rights history almost without effort, without trying to put himself there,” Conte said.
Nunn was working as the Courier’s sports editor when the Steelers asked him to be a part-time scout. He initially spurned Rooney’s offer because he “didn’t like the way the Steelers did business.” But Rooney insisted the team would be fair to him, and one of the first things Nunn did was insist the team stop putting black dots next to the names of black players on the Steelers’ draft board.
Nunn quickly proved his worth. His masterwork may have been making sure Stallworth, a future Hall of Fame receiver, was kept a secret from other teams. After Stallworth ran a subpar 40-yard dash time during a tryout, other scouts left Alabama A&M thinking he was not pro material. But Nunn grabbed the school’s game film on Stallworth, keeping the footage until a few days before the 1974 draft.
“Nunn knew the athletic director, he knew the coaches at Alabama A&M, and he could see the full picture none of these other scouts could see,” Conte said.
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.