How the Pittsburgh Steelers' progressive approach changed NFL scouting forever

Curious about the changing selection of photos appearing behind former NFL executive Scott Pioli during his appearances on NFL Network? Each image is from a framed cover of a sports magazine, chosen to highlight some of the lesser-known stories from football history that deserve to be widely told. For example, Pioli has focused this season on featuring some of the greats associated with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who have not been given their due.

Below, Pioli digs into the Pittsburgh Steelers' forward-thinking scouting department of the 1960s and '70s.

It's common in today's society for companies and organizations to talk about business models that reflect diversity and inclusion. But looking back through this prism at the actions taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late 1960s and early '70s, it was nothing short of amazing. The leadership group in charge of personnel decisions -- made up of Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, Chuck Noll and Dick Haley -- built a roster through a collaborative effort of player evaluations and acquisitions, doing things other NFL teams weren't willing to do.

A finalist in the contributor category for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021, Nunn began his career as a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most influential African-American weekly newspapers, after his days as a standout basketball player at West Virginia State. In 1950, Nunn began selecting a Black College All-America team; his connections with HBCUs gave him unprecedented insight on some of the best football players in the country who were often overlooked.

Nunn joined the Steelers as a scout in 1967 after Art Rooney Sr. strongly urged his son to hire him based on Nunn's knowledge of HBCU players. Two years later, Noll was named head coach and Nunn became the assistant director of player personnel shortly thereafter, with Haley assuming the director of player personnel role in 1971. In the book A Different Way to Win, Dan Rooney's Story From the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule, Jim Rooney discussed the importance of Nunn's hiring: "His presence gave the Steelers tremendous credibility among Black players and college coaches as a premier, forward-thinking organization."

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the first non-AFL team to build a roster brimming with HBCU talent, and it was on full display during the 1974 season, as the Steelers won their first of four Super Bowl titles during the decade. Here's a closer look at players on Pittsburgh's '74 roster from HBCUs:

Table inside Article
Player Position School Drafted
Joe Gilliam QB Tennessee State 1972 11th-round pick
Steve Davis RB Delaware State 1971 third-round pick
John Fuqua RB Morgan State 1969 11th-round pick by NYG (acquired in 1970 via trade)
Frank Lewis WR Grambling State 1971 first-round pick
John Stallworth (HOF) WR Alabama A&M 1974 fourth-round pick
Jim Wolf DL Prairie View A&M 1974 sixth-round pick
L.C. Greenwood DE Arkansas-Pine Bluff 1969 10th-round pick
Ernie Holmes DT Texas Southern 1971 eighth-round pick
Mel Blount (HOF) CB Southern 1970 third-round pick
Glen Edwards S Florida A&M 1971 undrafted free agent
Donnie Shell (HOF) S South Carolina State 1974 undrafted free agent

One of the major differences between the AFL and NFL in the '60s was the former's willingness to scout and fill rosters with HBCU players, and as the AFL grew in strength and prominence, so did the diversity of roster makeup. The 1968 Super Bowl-winning New York Jets featured six players (five starters) from HBCUs, and the 1969 Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs boasted a roster that featured 13 players (nine starters) from HBCUs, including future Hall of Famers Willie Lanier (Morgan State), Buck Buchanan (Grambling State) and Emmitt Thomas (Bishop).

The Dallas Cowboys, who made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in the early '70s (winning one), were one of the first non-AFL teams to follow suit. Some of the outstanding HBCU players on those rosters were Jethro Pugh (Elizabeth City State) and HOFers Bob Hayes (Florida A&M) and Rayfield Wright (Fort Valley State).

Organizations like the Steelers that operated through decision-making that fostered the importance of diversity of thought truly transformed how rosters were built. This kind of progressive thinking has since spread to other areas of organizations, including front office positions, shaping a more diverse and inclusive future for the league.

Follow Scott Pioli on Twitter.

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