The late Bill Nunn: a trailblazer, an icon, a scouting savant
Nunn’s knowledge and connections with Black coaches helped deliver stars – and eventually Super Bowls – to Pittsburgh
John Wooten hasn’t forgotten the videotape.
A piece of him is still irritated about it, even 50 years later. But to tell the truth, he remains impressed.
Within minutes of answering the phone, Wooten, a former NFL offensive lineman-turned-NFL-scout and executive, recounts that fateful day in 1974 when he, and the rest of the scouting community, were bested by his buddy, Bill Nunn Jr.
Nunn was one of the architects of the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. And that day, the sly scout all but delivered future Hall of Fame receiver John Stallworth to Pittsburgh.
“Bill Nunn goes into Alabama A&M and he takes all the film on John Stallworth and he tells the coach, ‘I’m going to copy the film and send it to the other scouts,’ ” said Wooten, retelling the most infamous Nunn tale of all. “And to this day, he has never sent us a copy of any of those tapes. To this day.”
The story of the Steelers – from their rise from futility to their 1970s reign, from their six Super Bowl titles to their legendary 1974 rookie class that yielded five Pro Football Hall of Famers – cannot be told without Nunn’s vision, intelligence and resolve. He had an uncanny eye for talent. But it was his deep-rooted connections to historically Black colleges and universities that made him a transcendent figure in NFL circles.
They are just two of the reasons he was recently selected as a finalist in the contributor category for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2021.
He was “a critical cog in the evolution of the Steelers,” according to current owner Art Rooney II, helping to assemble the 1974 class, which included receiver Lynn Swann, linebacker Jack Lambert, Stallworth and center Mike Webster. All four would win four rings in Pittsburgh and become Hall of Famers – just like safety Donnie Shell, whom Nunn convinced to sign with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent that same year.
Nunn’s disruption of the status quo and his sharp eye left an indelible imprint on the Steelers and the league at large.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn’t be the Pittsburgh Steelers without Bill Nunn right now,” said Doug Whaley, the former Buffalo Bills general manager who spent the first decade of his professional career with the Steelers.
But while Nunn’s scouting prowess made him indispensable to Pittsburgh’s personnel department, his role as mentor, friend and confidant behind closed doors made him a giant in the eyes of those who knew him well. And his passing in 2014 left a void that, to this day, hasn’t been filled.
“Not only did we lose a friend,” Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount said. “We lost a voice.”
Nunn was a trailblazer. An icon. A scouting savant.
He also was one of only four people outside of the Rooney family with six Steelers Super Bowl rings. And yet, many still don’t know his name.
But they’re hoping that day is coming.
THE SUPER SCOUT
Jackie Robinson. Muhammad Ali. Roberto Clemente. Joe Louis.
As a journalist, Nunn covered them all.
He always knew how to read, study and connect with athletes. After all, he was one himself.
He was a basketball player at West Virginia State who had the opportunity to sign with the Harlem Globetrotters. But he would forgo a sports career to follow in the footsteps of his father, William G. Nunn Sr., becoming a sportswriter and managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. But Nunn also became a bridge to an entire network of football players from Black colleges and universities who had long been ignored by the NFL.
While many league scouts avoided HBCUs on their scouting trips, because of a lack of interest or connections at the schools, Nunn traveled each week to the best games featuring Black colleges. And he continued the Courier’s tradition of compiling an annual HBCU All-America team (from 1950 to 1974) and hosting a banquet in Pittsburgh each January for players.
Names such as Art Shell. Elvin Bethea. Roosevelt Brown, Jr. And even Ed Tomlin.
“My first day on the job, Nunn walks up to me and says, ‘I know you. Your dad was on my All-American team in ’67,’ ” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “That shows you the impact of Bill Nunn, not only in terms of the scouting, but creating a mechanism of recognition for these players.
“These guys, they wanted to be on that Pittsburgh Courier Black All-American team, and get invited to that banquet in Pittsburgh, because they knew that meant they were on the radar and they would have an opportunity to pursue their dreams.”
The annual banquet ended in 1979 with the Courier’s final list of all-stars. But for more than 50 years, Nunn and the editors who came before him, such as Wendell Smith and Chester L. Washington, succeeded in highlighting HBCU players who might have otherwise gone unnoticed by the NFL.
“For us in Black colleges, that was the All-America team to make – Bill Nunn’s team,” said Stallworth, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002. “It meant that if you made that team, you got to fly into Pittsburgh, and you were put up in a great hotel and your exploits were told to a wider group of folks. And to us, that was a really big thing.”
Players weren’t the only ones who realized the significance of that event.
“It caused us scouts to start to realize that Bill Nunn was getting the upper hand on us,” Wooten, a former scout and personnel executive for the Dallas Cowboys, Washington and the Baltimore Ravens, said with a laugh. “So we finally got smart enough that whenever he was having the event, we’d go to Pittsburgh and we’d try to cut him off.”
By the late 1960s, the Steelers also were paying attention to Nunn – who was critical of the organization’s scouting – and his annual All-America team. At the strong urging of “The Chief,” founding owner Art Rooney Sr., Nunn joined the personnel department, which was under the direction of Art Rooney Jr.
“The Chief thought there was value in having a person like that on Art’s staff and Art agreed,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. Nunn, who was a part-time scout for two years, was hired full time in 1969, the same year Chuck Noll became head coach. “And then, really, the rest is history because Bill was a significant contributor to those great teams of the ’70s – not the least of which was the Hall of Fame class of 1974 that had five Hall of Famers. Probably the best draft class in NFL history.”
It didn’t take long before Nunn’s knowledge and connections with Black coaches helped deliver stars – and eventually Super Bowls – to Pittsburgh.
“From the stories that Bill told me, some of the scouts weren’t very comfortable going into those schools,” said Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene, an anchor of the Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defensive line.
“Bill made it personable,” said Shell, an inductee of the Hall of Fame Centennial class of 2020. “He knew everybody.”
Nunn did his due diligence gathering information on prospects, talking to coaches, teammates, academic advisers and sometimes, people in student union buildings who had no connection to the football team. In the case of Stallworth, though, he had to be a little sneaky.
After the Alabama A&M receiver clocked a poor 40-yard dash time in wet conditions in front of scouts, Nunn secretly stayed in the area to watch film of Stallworth in the coach’s office. And the next day, he asked the receiver to run the 40 again – this time on a different field, in dry conditions.
“I asked Bill, ‘Was it better?’ He never told me. And I never knew why I was going to a different field to run,” said Stallworth, who became a part-owner of the Steelers in 2009. “… But it was a method to his madness. … Maybe four Super Bowls is not a part of my time in the NFL had it not been for Bill Nunn.”
Armed with the only game tape of Stallworth – and the knowledge that no other scout had as much intel on the HBCU player – Nunn convinced Noll to draft Swann in the first round and hold off until a later round to select Stallworth.
“Bill, he pulled the coup,” said Greene. “Because no one else knew the value of John Stallworth, as the story goes.”
HBCU players such as Stallworth, Blount, Shell and L.C. Greenwood would join Greene, Ernie Holmes and Glen Edwards as eventual household names in Pittsburgh.
“Bill Nunn made them look at Black colleges in the way they should have been looked at. That’s the legacy that he bought,” said Wooten, who until 2019 was the longtime chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that aims to get more head coaches and executives of color hired in the NFL. “Not only to the Steelers, but to the National Football League. And that is why he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a contributor.
“… Bill Nunn probably was a bigger factor in the turnaround of the Steelers as Ambassador Dan Rooney was.”
In late August, Nunn’s daughter, Lynell, was notified that her father was selected as a finalist in the contributor category for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2021. If chosen, Nunn will be the first NFL scout and person of color to earn the honor.
“Once Coach Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn and [former director of player personnel] Dick Haley put this thing together in the ’70s, it grew into a championship organization,” Colbert said. “And it’s up to folks like myself to try to continue that.”
Nunn scrutinized the prospect standing before him, deducing Brandon Hunt’s entire backstory within seconds.
“Oh, here we go,” Nunn said, donning a white Starter Steelers tracksuit and yellow Oakley shades indoors. “Another reject coming to work for us.”
It was the summer of 2005 and Hunt was just beginning his scouting internship with Pittsburgh. And in that moment, he had no idea he was coming face to face with a Steelers legend.
“I’m mad about that to this day,” Hunt, who interned with the Steelers in 2005 and ’06, said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Who the heck is this dude?’ ”
But it was anything but personal. It was quintessential Nunn: a football assessment delivered with swift efficiency and, oftentimes, sharp-tongued honesty.
“Knowing what I know now, he was saying, ‘Here’s a player that didn’t work out, who transitioned his football career into scouting.’ It’s hilarious that everything to him was always in football terms,” said Hunt, who was a full-time scout for Houston, starting in 2007, before returning to Pittsburgh in 2010 to be the Steelers’ pro scouting coordinator.
“Our first conversation was him calling me a ‘reject.’ And at the end of the day he wasn’t wrong.”
It’s a lesson members of the organization, and the NFL scouting community, would realize time and again: When it came to evaluating football players, Nunn was often right.
“Over the years, he tried to retire a number of times and my dad talked him out of it,” said Rooney II, who replaced his father, Dan, as president in 2003. “… It turned into pretty much an annual conversation where he would come in and say, ‘I think I’m going to retire, Art.’ And I would say, ‘You know, Bill, do whatever you want, but we’re keeping your desk and your chair open and you come in as often as you want. And of course, he kept coming in.”
Nunn, in essence, became like family. So, too, did his son.
“For a lot of us who have been around for the whole time that Bill was here, we just lost a great friend, and somebody who was a great mentor and just will always mean a lot to me,” said Rooney II, who was 16 when he met and began working for Nunn as a ball boy at Steelers training camp in the 1960s. “And one of the other blessings for me was that one of my best friends turned out to be Bill’s son, Bill Nunn III.”
Before the actor became best known for playing Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing, he was a fixture in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The Rooney and Nunn families are forever linked by another story too: the brief theft of Greene’s aqua Lincoln Continental.
“I would leave my car parked and I would leave my keys at training camp headquarters,” said Greene, who later worked alongside Nunn as a Steelers scout. “I had no idea all of that was going on.”
“We snuck into his room and lifted the keys,” Rooney II said, smiling. “I had never intended to ever let this story get out, but I don’t know what got into my friend, Bill. But he let the story get out.”
Greene remembered Nunn’s son as “a fun guy” who always was playing catch with players during camp. Especially Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw. But it wasn’t until years later that the former defensive tackle realized what became of the younger Nunn. “I was watching Regarding Henry and I said, ‘My goodness. I know that guy.’ And I waited until the movie was over and I looked at the credits and there he was: Bill Nunn.”
Bill Nunn III, 63, died of leukemia in 2016.
“I wound up with two great friends named Bill Nunn,” said Rooney II.
Nunn Jr., the longtime scout, was more than an employee to the Rooneys. He was a confidant and surrogate father figure to countless people inside the organization.
“Bill Nunn could do whatever he wanted in that building, but deservedly so,” Whaley said with a chuckle. “The people that served our food, they’d bring him out his to-go package when he was getting ready to leave to go home. They knew where he sat every morning and they’d put the USA Today and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette folded right there in front of Nunn because when Nunn comes in, he wants his papers. He was the favorite son.”
Interns and executives alike wanted to be in his presence. They were eager to absorb his wisdom, hear his stories – both as a newspaper reporter, football scout and Black man traveling through the segregated Jim Crow South. Nunn was an encyclopedia full of experiences and a wealth of knowledge of American history, Black history, sports history and Pittsburgh history.
And everyone in his presence was determined to soak up as much information as they could.
“People would fight to drive him home,” said Whaley, the current senior vice president for the XFL. “People would fight to sit next to him when we’re eating, sit next to him watching film – ‘Come in, Nunn. Let’s watch this film.’ All the time. ‘Hey, Nunn. I kind of like this guy. Let me know what you think.’ … He just had so much knowledge and it would just ooze out of him, pour out of him like an open faucet.”
When the Steelers advanced to Super Bowl XLIII to face the Arizona Cardinals, Whaley immediately volunteered to drive the semi-retired Nunn (who no longer liked to fly) all the way to Tampa, Florida.
“I knew, driving there and back, I had unfiltered access to him and to stories for a good 24 hours. Twelve hours down and 12 hours back,” Whaley said. “I drove his Cadillac DeVille – you know those big, four-door long ones your grandpa has?”
Whaley was captivated by the oration of a life well-lived. Nunn was “a natural stimulant,” the perfect storyteller for a journey Whaley didn’t want to end: “It was like I was listening to a podcast or a book on tape for the whole ride.”
Nunn lived only 10 minutes from the Steelers facility, but everyone knew the commute to his house would take at least a half-hour because he would restart a conversation right as the car turned onto his street.
Over time, his drivers termed it “the long goodbye.”
Nunn had too much to say, he had too much wisdom to impart on younger generations for conversations to be superficial and brief.
Over the last four years of Nunn’s life, Hunt drove the longtime scout to and from work daily, and also made the 55-mile round-trip drive from Nunn’s Pittsburgh home to Latrobe every day during training camp.
“First and foremost, he taught me that eyes are always going to be on you,” said Hunt. “Always watch what you’re doing, and never forget you represent that logo on your chest. And, just to keep it real, as an African American in this business with that logo, there’s no margin for error. That was one of the lessons out the gate: ‘You’re replaceable and you can’t make any mistakes. But if you work and you do your job, and you’re diligent, this can be forever for you.’ ”
Nunn’s lessons were about life, and how to survive it. He preached the power of financial literacy and the importance of saving. “He would call it the ‘dust’ – ‘How do you take care of your dust?’ ” Hunt said, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about saving because I never had money before. So he taught me how to prepare to put money away to eventually one day be a homeowner.”
“As much of a Hall of Famer as he should be as an evaluator, to me, he’s a Hall of Famer of teaching me how to be a man,” said Whaley, the Bills general manager from 2013 to 2017.
By the time Hunt returned to the organization as pro-scouting coordinator, he had upgraded his car from a Ford Explorer to a black Range Rover. And no one was happier than his ride-along companion, Nunn.
Said Hunt: “He was a little more excited about the rides because he got to drive in the Big Boy.”
LOSING A LEGEND
They all assumed there would be more rides. More talks. More laughs.
Nunn had walked the hallways of the Steelers facility for decades, befriending and advising generations of Rooneys, personnel scouts and players. For so long, he had been the guy behind the scenes. The gravelly voice in the back of the room. And no one could picture the building without him.
It was a normal day in their draft meeting room back in 2014, Colbert remembered, with Nunn sitting in his customary spot in the back. The veteran scout purposely kept himself out of the way when others were sharing their reports – that is, until he could no longer bite his tongue.
“If he strongly disagreed, he would start coughing in the back,” an amused Tomlin recalled, “and that always was a signal for me to give him the floor.”
The group had just returned from their first break of the morning and a scout was in the process of reading his report on the next prospect: Brent Urban, the former University of Virginia and Canadian Football League defensive end.
“I happened to look over and Bill was kind of slumped in his chair but he still had a report in his hand,” Colbert said.
The scout kept reading. About 10 more seconds passed.
“I looked back over,” said Colbert, “and Bill was slumped even a little bit more.”
Paramedics arrived within 10 or 15 minutes. But even in the midst of panic, Nunn remained true to form. “I think he said to [longtime scout] Ron Hughes, ‘Guess we won’t be having wine tonight,’ ” said Tomlin.
Two weeks later, on May 6, 2014, Nunn died of complications from a stroke. He was 89.
At Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, members of the Steelers organization said a final farewell to their friend, their mentor, their legend.
Bill Nunn Jr. The “super scout.” The dynasty builder.
“His life should be a movie,” said Whaley.
Nunn was the missing link that connected NFL teams to HBCU talent that would redefine the football landscape and reshape the value of Black players. He had been a teacher to members of the Steelers’ inner circle, and a surrogate father and trusted adviser for up-and-coming scouts who heeded his direction.
“I wasn’t ready for it to end,” said Hunt, one of the pallbearers at Nunn’s funeral. “I was living as if Nunn was going to be there forever. I didn’t appreciate ‘the long goodbyes’ as much as I should.”
The room where he dispensed so much knowledge now bears his name: The Bill Nunn Draft Room. Next to the plaque is a picture of Nunn and the 1974 draft class he helped assemble. It serves as a daily reminder for Steelers scouts to “remember the people that built this room and built this organization,” said Colbert, who first met Nunn in the 1970s and considered his former boss one of his greatest mentors.
Nunn spent more time with the Steelers as a semi-retired scout than a full-time one. But his presence behind the scenes and his role in shaping the organization can’t be overstated.
“To get Bill Nunn, you have to touch everybody,” said Hunt. “Because he personally and intentionally left a piece of himself in each and every person. And that’s what it’s going to take to get his story. His story is through all of us.”
Hunt transferred Nunn’s funeral program to the glove compartment of his new car, a grey Tesla, after retiring the Range Rover. Even now, six years later, his mentor is by his side.
The “long goodbye” continues. Because it’s impossible to say farewell for real.
“He’s still my rider,” said Hunt.