EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was published before Bill Nunn was named a finalist in the contributor category for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021. Learn why NFL Network's Jim Trotter, a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee, feels so strongly that Nunn deserves a spot in Canton.
It's easy to forget just how bad the Steelers were before establishing themselves as the team of the 1970s with four Super Bowl victories in six years. The franchise was the definition of awful prior to that turnaround, posting just seven winning seasons, making 16 head-coaching changes and appearing in only one playoff game, which it lost 21-0 to the Philadelphia Eagles, over its first 35 years.
The Steelers' fortunes reversed with eight consecutive playoff appearances and four titles in the '70s. Rightfully, many associated with those clubs have been honored with a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where visitors can find busts of owners Art Rooney and Dan Rooney, coach Chuck Noll and players Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Jack Ham, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and -- before long -- Donnie Shell, a member of the class of 2020 who will join them in 2021 after this year's induction ceremony was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there remains one person who has yet to receive his due, a man without whom those championships probably don't occur, a trailblazer whose name belongs in bold print instead of footnotes. Fact is, the late Bill Nunn Jr. -- journalist turned scout turned personnel assistant -- was as instrumental as anyone in the franchise's success.
The lifeblood of any sports dynasty is talented players, and Nunn was largely responsible for the Steelers' ability to upgrade their roster with quality players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, most notably Blount, Stallworth and Shell, as well as L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes, half of arguably the greatest defensive line in league history.
I point this out today because the first reduction ballots for Contributors for the Hall of Fame's class of 2021 are due July 31. We voters have been asked to trim the list from 39 to 10 -- with those 10 tentatively scheduled to be discussed by a subcommittee in August, at which time a finalist will be selected and presented to the full body for an up-down vote (at least 80 percent approval needed for induction) on the eve of Super Bowl LV. My hope is that Bill Nunn Jr.'s name will go from a footnote to a headline on that day.
Before joining the Steelers, Nunn had followed in his father's footsteps and worked for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation's largest and most influential Black newspapers. His focus was sports, and each week he would attend an HBCU game, then select a Black College All-America team at the end of the year.
In those days, NFL clubs tended to treat Black colleges as afterthoughts, rarely sending scouts to games or onto campus. When Nunn accepted an offer to join the Steelers as a scout -- he later became the first Black person in team history to work in the front office -- the organization had a tremendous advantage over other teams.
"Of all the people Dan Rooney hired in his life -- including three Super Bowl-winning coaches -- none may have been as transformational as Nunn," Jim Rooney wrote in A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney's Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule, an ode to his late father that was published last year. "His presence gave the Steelers tremendous credibility among Black players and college coaches as a premier, forward-thinking organization."
Rooney outlines in his book how the Steelers failed to draft an HBCU player in the two years before Nunn joined the club full-time in 1969, but selected a total of 14 over the next three years. From 1969 through 1975, the Steelers drafted 25 players from HBCUs, more than any other NFL club and twice the league average, per Rooney.
"Chuck Noll was so important; he changed our mindsets from losers to winners," Rooney told me in a recent phone interview. "But Bill brought the potential folks to the table that Chuck and his coaching staff could put in positions to win."
"He was one of the best talent evaluators to come down the pike," said John Wooten, former chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance and someone who played for 10 NFL seasons before advancing from scout to personnel executive with several clubs. "Most teams did not have the sophisticated mindset of evaluating 'position specific' or using position characteristics and so forth. When I went to Dallas, I learned all of that, but Bill Nunn was ahead of that. There's a reason the Steelers were winning and had the good players back to back to back. Some of their drafts were two and three Pro Bowlers or two or three Hall of Famers. He was a major part of that."
"Of all the people Dan Rooney hired in his life -- including three Super Bowl-winning coaches -- none may have been as transformational as Nunn." Jim Rooney
Those who are familiar with Nunn's work remain shocked that he has yet to find his way to Canton. The Pittsburgh native, who died after suffering a stroke in 2014, wasn't simply an astute talent evaluator who helped build one of the greatest rosters in league history; Nunn, Lloyd Wells, Tank Younger, Dick Daniels, Jackie Graves and Wooten also were trailblazers who showed that Blacks were capable and deserving of opportunities in scouting and the front office.
"When you talk about men from his era, those were the guys who really led the way to open doors for the rest of us," said Rod Graves, son of Jackie Graves and a longtime personnel executive who is now executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. "Had they not done their jobs well, I don't think we would have seen the expansion of opportunities for Blacks like we did with scouting and other front-office positions. Bill was one of the very few at that time -- and he was very well respected. He was an icon."
His contributions went beyond just bringing in talent; Nunn also helped create a culture of inclusion that Dan Rooney sought when seeking to turn the franchise into a contender. He was the conduit from the owner's office to the locker room and, because he had the trust of Black players he had helped to bring in, he could give credibility to what ownership was trying to build. But beyond that, his success confirmed Rooney's belief that people should be judged on their merits and not their skin color.
"I sort of make the case in the book how Nunn was [symbolic] of what became the Rooney Rule," said Jim Rooney, referring to the league policy which, at inception, required teams to interview at least one minority candidate in a head-coaching search. "My father, because of Bill Nunn, saw the potential of going into talent pools that other people weren't examining and decided that, not only was that altruistic, but also the right thing to do. It was a competitive advantage. We had a competitive advantage because we were bringing these players in at a rate that no one else was."
Historically, it has been difficult for Contributors to find a place in Canton, largely because they had to compete against modern-era players and coaches. There are only 29 Contributors in the Hall, with 10 coming since 2015, when the Board of Directors voted to pull them from the rest of the field and allow one or two to be voted on separately each year (three will be enshrined as part of the Centennial Class of 2020).
Interestingly, four general managers have been selected for induction over the past five years -- Bill Polian, Ron Wolf, Bobby Beathard and George Young -- presumably because of their ability to build championship rosters. But that criterion cannot be used with Nunn because Blacks were not hired to be general managers until 2002, when the late Art Modell promoted Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore. Consequently, we can only judge Nunn on how well he performed the job he was hired to do, and I would argue that few, if any, did it better when it came to identifying elite talent.
On a separate yet significant point, it deserves mention that in the 101-year history of the NFL and the 57-year history of the Hall, there is not one person of color enshrined as a Contributor. It can't be that none are deserving (See: Nunn, Wells, Wooten and Younger). My point is not to insinuate something nefarious; rather it is to say that representation matters.
There are Black kids and Latinx kids who love the game but never will be good enough to play it professionally. They should be able to know that there is a place for them in Canton as something other than a player or coach. They should be able to walk the halls and see a face in that capacity that looks like theirs. They should be able to dream and know that their dream can come to fruition. That's a big part of why it's so important we as Hall of Fame voters make sure that Nunn is part of the class of 2021.