(Editor’s Note: This article was written by contributor Chris Ward. He did the back end work on the interview and produced the article for BTSC.)
Earlier this month it was announced that Bill Cowher and Donnie Shell were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as members of the 2020 Centennial Class. Two other Steelers legends who are among the 15 modern-day finalists — Troy Polamalu and Alan Faneca could join Cowher and Shell this summer with enshrinements in Canton if they’re voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame by the Selection Committee on Feb. 1, the day before the Super Bowl.
Polamalu should be a lock for the Hall, Faneca should get in as well unless there’s some bias of too many Steelers being in this year’s class. However, there should be at least three Steelers enshrined into football immortality this summer. It’s a real shame that one man won’t be joining them though, and it’s an even bigger travesty that he wasn’t even nominated as a contributor for the Centennial Class by the blue-ribbon panel. That man is Bill Nunn, who was a scout for the Steelers and architect of those great teams from the 1970s who went on to win four Super Bowls in six years.
Without Nunn, the Steelers don’t find diamonds in the rough like John Stallworth (Alabama A&M), Mel Blount (Southern University), L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas-Pine Bluff), Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern), Dwight White (East Texas State) and Shell (South Carolina State), who played at historically black colleges and universities. And quite frankly, the Steelers’ 1970s dynasty probably doesn’t even exist without Nunn.
Prior to accepting a part-time scouting position with the Steelers in 1967 and eventually a full-time position in the scouting department when Chuck Noll was hired in 1969, Nunn was a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier and from 1950 until the late 1960s, Nunn would select the black college All-American football team for the Courier and held an annual awards ceremony. Nunn would travel all over the South every fall to compile information on players for his All-American team, along with that he built close relationships with coaches and athletic directors at HBCUs.
“I think Donnie Shell is a perfect example where he might have not ended up playing in the NFL at all except that his coach in college knew Nunn and knew what the Steelers were doing and Nunn had that connection, so he was able to give him a shot at the NFL,” said Andrew Conte, author of “The Color of Sundays: The Secret Strategy That Built the Steelers Dynasty,” a story that gives an in-depth look at Nunn’s scouting strategies that helped reshape the franchise, along with breaking racial barriers. “There were a few players like that, Sam Davis was another one, guys who went undrafted from small black colleges that have been overlooked, but because of Nunn they were able to get a shot at playing in the NFL.”
Teams are fortunate enough if they select one player in a draft class who goes on to have a Hall of Fame career. The Steelers struck gold in 1974, as they would have five future Hall of Famers from their rookie class in Lynn Swann (first round), Jack Lambert (second round), John Stallworth (fourth round), Mike Webster (fifth round) and Shell, who went undrafted. It’s by far the greatest rookie class in the history of the NFL and probably all of sports. It’s a feat that won’t happen again. There’s six Hall of Fame members across the league from the 1974 rookie class, five of them are Steelers and the other member is Dave Casper, who was selected by the Raiders in the second round. That statistic in itself just shows how far in advance the Steelers’ scouting department was compared to the rest of the league at the time, and Nunn had a lot to do with that.
“You look at the 1974 draft, they were able to take Swann so early in the draft and hold off taking Stallworth until later in the draft because Nunn basically figured out that Stallworth was worth taking and nobody else knew that because Nunn held onto the tapes from his tryout at Alabama A&M,” Conte said. “I think those two things put together, the Shell one that really stands out in my mind, but then the ability to get Stallworth so late in the draft that sort of really allowed them to get four Hall of Famers in their first five picks.”
Nunn was able to find superior athletes at small black colleges throughout the South and the rest of the teams around the league knew there was talent there, but they were way behind Nunn.
“When Nunn came to black college campuses as a reporter from the Courier he was really seen almost as a celebrity,” Conte said. “He would end up staying at the athletic director’s house or the coach’s house, the president’s house. He was really treated like a special person. By the time he became a professional scout, he already had such an advantage because he knew all these people and knew his way around these schools, and at the same time, conversely, a lot of the white scouts felt uncomfortable going into an all-black campus and try to figure out what was going on. Everybody knew that there was talent at black colleges by the point Nunn came around, but they didn’t know how to go find it.”
In 2014, the Pro Football Hall of Fame decided to add contributor as a category for nomination to make the Hall of Fame in an effort to get more deserving contributor candidates in. Since then, only one scout has made the Hall of Fame and that was Gil Brandt in 2018.
Brandt was an executive and scout with the Cowboys from 1960-1988 and helped pioneer many of the scouting techniques used by NFL teams today. Brandt oversaw the drafting of 10 Cowboys’ players who went on to be Hall of Famers, in addition to constructing two Super Bowl championship teams for the Cowboys in the 1970s. In comparison, the Steelers had 11 players who went on to have Hall of Fame careers under Nunn’s watch, along with architecting four Steelers’ Super Bowl championship teams within six years in the 1970s. If Brandt is in the Hall, Nunn should be as well. Making the Hall of Fame as a scout is no easy task, however. Of the 27 contributors in the Hall of Fame, Brandt is the only one that comes from a scouting background.
“It’s tough, scouts really haven’t gotten the shot at being in the Hall,” Conte said. “It’s one of those things where we don’t see them as much. Whenever I talk about Nunn, I always mention, here’s a guy that never threw the ball, caught the ball, never had a breakaway touchdown, didn’t stand on the sidelines coaching the players, and yet I think he was as responsible, and in many ways more responsible for the success of the Steelers during the 1970s than almost anyone else.”
Nunn had a tremendous eye for talent, but his contributions to the Steelers were more than just helping the team win Super Bowls and building one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the NFL. He was a champion for change. He was a trailblazer to opening the door for players at small black colleges who probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance if it wasn’t for him. For those two causes, it’s hard to fathom how Nunn is not in Canton.
“If you were standing in the room, making the argument for why Nunn deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, you would point out the players like Stallworth and Shell, the players that Nunn identified that nobody else saw and then you would talk about the players that didn’t make the Hall but contributed to the Steelers’ championships,” Conte said. “And then you would really remind people that this was a person who contributed in a very special way, at a time that’s hard for us to understand exactly today what kind of challenges Nunn was facing at that time.
“When he first started out looking at draft boards, teams had markers on the board where they would identify the black players from the white players and that was one of his contribution saying ‘take that marker off there, it doesn’t matter what color the guy’s skin is, it’s about what he brings to the team.’ I think that’s the greatest contribution he made, this idea that we don’t evaluate players based on their skin color or the way they look, we evaluate them on their ability to play and what they can contribute to the team. When you look back across the success that the Steelers had collectively, and now individually, a lot of that goes back to the work that Nunn did, without a lot of fanfare, without a lot of attention, but that has tremendous results that continue to play out decades later here.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s blue-ribbon panel for the 2020 Centennial Class got it wrong with not even nominating Nunn. Hopefully, in the future, the Hall of Fame gets it right and enshrines Nunn into football immortality, as he certainly deserves to be right there along with the 11 other Steelers greats in Canton that he helped bring to Pittsburgh.