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The Scouting of a Dynasty: Nunn Art Better than the Pittsburgh Steelers

From 1969 through 1974 the Pittsburgh Steelers had the greatest run of drafting success in the history of the National Football League.  Certainly the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers can lay claim to some pretty impressive drafting, and the Chicago Bears take delight in getting Dick Butkus and Gayle Sayers with picks three and four in the first round of the 1965 draft (alas the Butkus pick came via Steelers' coach Trader Buddy Parker).  But in those six years from 1969 through 1974, the Steelers drafted an entire dynasty that included nine Hall of Fame players who today collectively own 36 Super Bowl rings.  That mark is the heavyweight champion of the world.

Steelers' fans young and old remember the names Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ron Shanklin, Mel Bount, Frank Lewis, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Mike Wagner, Steve Furness, Joe Gilliam, Donnie Shell and John Stallworth.  What most people don't know is where any of those players came from.  There are 119 college football programs that make up today's highest level of NCAA play, including a dip down into the ranks of conferences such as the Mid-American Conference and Western Athletic Conference.  This "highest level" even includes schools such as Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Still, despite how watered down the NCAA's top football grouping is, none of those 12 players listed above came from any of those colleges.  This phenomenon, added to all the other great Steelers drafted in those six years, begs the question, how was this remarkable dynasty put together?

Prior to the early 1960s, scouting and drafting were crude practices that were often counterproductive and cost-ineffective.  Scouts from several teams would often find themselves in the same little off-the-beaten-path town learning the same information.  Sure enough, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers who spearheaded the NFL's very first scouting combine.  It was in the early 60s and it was called LESTO, standing for Lions Eagles Steelers Talent Organization.  The Bears jumped on board soon thereafter and the name became BLESTO.  Today's world of televised combines and sophistiacted pro days began in Downtown Pittsburgh under the leadership of Ken Stilley, a former Steelers assistant coach.

Jack Butler, a recently-retired Steelers' cornerback and now a member of the Steelers' Legends Team and 75th Anniversary Team, took over operations in 1963 and held the leadership post for 44 years, until his retirement in 2007.  BLESTO still operates today for at least seven clubs, but it is certainly no longer the only talent evaluation organization of its kind.


Jack Butler, Former Steelers Cornerback, Ran BLESTO for 44 Years

Just as BLESTO was maturing into a viable mechanism, the Steelers broke a watershed color barrier by hiring the first African-American executive to work in any NFL front office.  His name was Bill Nunn and at the time, 1967, he was the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a very popular and influential Black newspaper at a time when such media was in its heyday.

Nunn covered and wrote about Black college football all stars and was hot-wired into most of the coaches at historically Black colleges in the South.  Nunn was the perfect tonic at the perfect time for a starving franchise that had never won a championship.  He knew the ins and outs of the Black South better than anyone, and his relationships with all the coaches would soon pay ripe dividends.


Bill Nunn Photo from Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Art Rooney Jr., Dan's brother, deserves the lion's share of credit for stepping up the Steelers' scouting department by teaching and coordinating the talents of Bill Nunn and Rooney's other top scout, former player Dick Haley.  Today Art Rooney Jr. is the forgotten Rooney, but his skillful work in pulling together all the Steeler scouting efforts cannot be overstated.  By 1969, Nunn was on board full time and looked at his newspaper business in the rear-view mirror.


Art Rooney Jr. Visits the Hall of Fame

So at the beginning of 1969, while three rivers were converging upon Point Park in Downtown Steeltown, another convergence of sorts was taking place in the front offices of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The maturation of BLESTO, Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr. and a freshly-hired coach by the name of Charles Henry Noll all came together to form the team behind the team.  This new group couldn't care less about the color of a player's skin nor the size of his college and ended up profiting against those who did.

It started with Joe Greene, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood in 1969 and a year later Terry Bradshaw, Ron Shanklin and Mel Blount were drafted.  Of those first six, perhaps only Kolb played at a college that you've ever seen on television (Oklahoma State).  In 1971 the Steelers really armed themselves for the future by drafting Frank Lewis, Jack Ham, Gerry Mullins, Dwight White, Larry Brown, Ernie Holmes and Mike Wagner.  My goodness.  The next two years welcomed the likes of Franco Harris, Steve Furness, J.T Thomas and Loren Toews.

And finally in 1974, the end of that six-year rainbow, the greatest single-year draft in the history of the NFL took place.  The Steelers landed four Hall of Famers in the first five rounds - pretty good considering they traded their third-round pick.  First Lynn Swann, then Jack Lambert, then John Stallworth and finally Mike Webster.  For good measure, they signed Donnie Shell from free agency and he should be in the Hall.  In case you're wondering, the next best NFL draft, by many teams, landed just two Hall of Famers, half of the Steelers four.

Stallworth hailed from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the back yard of one of the nation's finest college football programs.  Fortunately for the Steelers, Stallworth's skin was the wrong color for Paul Bear Bryant so, like many other Steelers of the day, he played in relative obscurity at Alabama A&M.  Just one year after Stallworth enrolled at A&M, Bear Bryant recruited and signed Alabama's first Black football player.  As fate would have it, that player was John Mitchell, who in 2008 will begin his 15th season as Steelers defensive line coach.

Stallworth may have been hidden from the masses, but not from Bill Nunn.  I say "fortunately for the Steelers," because Bill Nunn ended up knowing what everybody else would have known had Stallworth played at Alabama.  Alabama A&M hosted a pro day for Stallworth and invited scouts to check out the goods.  Nunn, of course, was present.  Stallworth was timed on a rain-soaked field and as a result the stopwatch did him no favors.  Nunn was not convinced, so while the other scouts departed Alabama, he faked an illness so he could stay another day without suspicion.  He timed Stallworth again, this time on dry land, and the results were markedly improved. 

Using his relationship with the college, Nunn immediately secured all the highlight tapes of Stallworth from Alabama A&M.  In those days producing a highlight tape was a dubious task that required cutting and splicing.  It wasn't unusual for a small college to have only one original with the idea of passing it around to all interested parties.

The Steelers ended up returning all of Stallworth's highlight tapes, as promised, but took their good old time.  The tapes that showed a decent Stallworth were returned immediately, while the tapes that showed a Hall of Fame Stallworth were conveniently viewed only in Pittsburgh until after the draft.  Nobody was screaming for the footage anyway, since nobody else bothered to scout him properly in the first place.  Because of all this and the fact that the Senior Bowl coaches actually had Stallworth playing defensive back, the Steelers took a calculated risk by waiting for the fourth round to select him.  Everything fell into place.

Stallworth_1_medium  Stallworth_2_medium John_stallworth_3_medium

The Greatest Receiver to Ever Play in Tuscaloosa, But Not at Alabama

They say that good luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.  The Pittsburgh Steelers leading up to their dynasty were on the cutting edge of two NFL milestones.  They "prepared" the NFL's first scouting combine and then provided "opportunity" for the first Black executive to work in the league.  No matter how you do the math, innovation plus color equals Lombardi times four.