Gorman: Nunn a champion for change
Kevin Gorman is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review staff writer and can be reached at 412-320-7812 or via e-mail.
Bill Nunn used an eye for talent and his influence as sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier to champion a cause, one that changed both college and pro football forever.
When the Black College Football Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class Saturday in Atlanta, Nunn was among the 11-member class that included coaching giants Eddie Robinson of Grambling and Jake Gaither of Florida A&M; and players such as Deacon Jones, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice.
Not bad for a guy who didn't play or coach college football.
"I really considered it an honor," Nunn said, "not so much for me as for the paper that I represented for so long and, to a large degree, a lot of the guys who played black college football before they could get into the league."
The next trip for Nunn, 84, a Steelers scout since 1967, should be to Canton for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His promotion of black college football opened doors for some of the game's greats.
A Homewood native and Westinghouse graduate, Nunn was a high school teammate of Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted by the NBA. Nunn played basketball at West Virginia State with Cooper and Earl Lloyd, the first black man to play in an NBA game.
Upon graduation, Nunn joined the Courier, the city's crusading black newspaper, which once boasted a circulation of 400,000. He was the ghostwriter for its "Jackie Robinson Says" columns and for 25 years served as a one-man selection committee for its Black College All-America team.
"He gave us exposure," said Donnie Shell, whom the Steelers signed as a free agent out of South Carolina State in 1974. "You look back at the picture, and a lot of guys wouldn't have made it if not for him. What a great legacy, to have opened that door.
"He had some extraordinary gifts. Along with being a writer and communicator, he had the gift of identifying talent. When Bill was scouting, you'd find some diamonds in the rough in black colleges."
Nunn also has a magnetic personality and used it to build relationships in black college football amid segregation in the 1950s and '60s. Often, he stayed on campus or at the homes of the football coach or university president. More often than not, he was the only scout there.
An unspoken level of respect for Nunn transcended through the white coaching ranks. When Alabama's Bear Bryant came down from his tower at practice, scouts were supposed to leave the field. But Bryant allowed Nunn to stay. And Ohio State's Woody Hayes once sent a jacket over to Nunn while it was raining.
A legendary tale involving Nunn is how he helped the Steelers steal John Stallworth out of Alabama A&M; in 1974. After Stallworth ran slow times before scouts, Nunn asked for his game films and held onto the great plays until the Steelers selected the receiver in the fourth round.
What bothers Nunn is how scouting has become so open.
"The one doggone thing that tickles me about scouting is that you didn't talk about what we really thought," Nunn said. "Nobody lies anymore!"
While Nunn helped discover Hall of Fame players in Stallworth and cornerback Mel Blount, he takes particular pride in finding defensive end L.C. Greenwood, a 10th-round pick out of Arkansas A&M; in 1969.
"Here was a guy hardly anybody knew about," Nunn said. "You could see the athletic ability. He was undersized but had quickness. That was one of the early things (Steelers coach) Chuck Noll said when he came on board: 'Your job is to find me athletes. Our job as coaches is to bring it out of them.'"
The Steelers selected more than a dozen players from black colleges between 1969 and '74. While Nunn takes pride that 27 of the 47 players on their Super Bowl IX team were black, including 11 players from black colleges, he resented that they were overlooked by the NFL for so long.
Nunn championed their cause and became a champion in the process, winning six Super Bowl rings. That he left one dynasty with the Courier to help build another with the Steelers was a sign of the changing times.
"That," Nunn said, "is progress."