Bill Nunn’s Scouting Opened an N.F.L. Pipeline
This year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction will be led by the usual archetypes: Peyton Manning, the greatest passer of his generation; the …
This year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction will be led by the usual archetypes: Peyton Manning, the greatest passer of his generation; the standout receiver Calvin Johnson, known as Megatron; and safeties John Lynch and Charles Woodson, two of the best at their jobs in their day.
But Bill Nunn Jr.’s contributions to the game were and still are more impactful than any of them, though he will never be as famous.
Nunn, who died in 2014 at 89, became the first Black scout and front office executive in the N.F.L. when the Pittsburgh Steelers hired him in 1967 to help recruit players from historically Black colleges and universities. Having covered these schools for years as a sportswriter, Nunn helped turn a moribund Steelers franchise into a dynasty in the 1970s, when they won four Super Bowls, and ushered in an era during which players from H.B.C.U.s dominated the N.F.L. draft.
Nunn identified some of the greatest untapped football talent in the country — Joe Greene, Donnie Shell, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount and many others — but he was far more than a scout. He ran Steelers training camp, which gave him a close look at rookies and veterans alike. At times, he recommended that players switch positions, like when he signed Shell, an undrafted rookie linebacker from South Carolina State, and converted him into a safety.
He also had rookies and veterans share rooms during training camp to build team chemistry and helped many Black players like Shell, who came from the South, adjust to life in Pittsburgh. His role as confidant gave the Steelers a big advantage, but was not the norm for executives at the time.
“You know what made me comfortable?” Shell said. “When I got to training camp, I saw another guy who looked like me who wasn’t a football player.”
Nunn nudged the league that had been slow to diversify on and off the field. In 1959, 12 percent of the league’s players were Black. That number jumped to more than 30 percent in 1970, when the N.F.L. absorbed the more diverse A.F.L. The rate steadily grew to about two-thirds of the league by the 1990s. Almost 10 percent of players inducted to the Hall of Fame — 30 of 318 members — went to H.B.C.U.s.
Nunn will enter the Hall as the N.F.L. tries to address a leaguewide regression on diversity that threatens the gains he pioneered. The Hall of Fame defender Deion Sanders, now head coach at Jackson State, lamented in May that for the first time in more than a decade no players from H.B.C.U.s were drafted this year. Doug Williams, who played at Grambling State and was the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, called it a travesty. To help reopen the scouting of players from Black colleges, the league will hold its first pre-draft combine featuring players from H.B.C.U.s in Mobile, Ala., in January.
“Much work to be done,” Troy Vincent, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president of football operations, said of the league’s diversity challenges. “I would just say we’ve made some progress. We still got a long way to go.”
That includes on the league’s sidelines and in its executive offices. Nearly two decades ago, the N.F.L. introduced the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview people of color for head coaching jobs. The rule continues to fall short of expectations and was expanded in 2020 to prevent teams from blocking assistant coaches and executives under contract from interviewing for open jobs elsewhere.
Six head coaches were hired this off-season, yet only one — Robert Saleh, who was hired by the Jets — is a minority. Five of the 32 teams in the league have Black general managers.
Nunn’s path to the N.F.L. is unlikely to be repeated. His father, Bill Sr., was managing editor at the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s leading Black newspapers. Nunn played college basketball at West Virginia State, an H.B.C.U., and was recruited by the Harlem Globetrotters. He went to work at the Courier instead.
As a sportswriter, Nunn rubbed shoulders with Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and other stars. He also helped compile the Courier’s Black College All-America Team. Each year, he hosted a banquet in Pittsburgh for the best players and coaches from H.B.C.U.s. Art Rooney Sr., the owner of the Steelers, saw that Nunn had deep contacts and told his son, Art Rooney Jr., to hire Nunn as a part-time scout.
“We covered the Black schools, but when Bill came in, it was much, much different,” Rooney Jr. said. “Bill had a big dinner every year and we would bring the players to the stadium and they’d meet Chuck Noll, the head coach. It was a big pitch for the Steelers.”
In 1969, the Steelers hired Nunn full time. He would rate players by position and create a second list of the best players regardless of their position. “That phase of it paid off for us,” Rooney Jr. said. By the time the Steelers won their second Super Bowl, their roster was almost entirely homegrown.
For most of a given year, Nunn would be on the road watching college players and getting to know their coaches, longtime relationships that paid off when he worked for the Steelers. Word got around, too. When Nunn’s daughter, Lynell, attended Morgan State in the early 1970s, she realized that some of the football players were trying to get to know her because of her father.
Until then, “it really hadn’t hit me then what scouts do, and what he was doing on the road all of that time,” she said with a chuckle.
Over the years, Lynell watched a lot of football with her father, asking him about the inner workings of the game. He would oblige, of course, and when warranted note that the team they were watching had a Black coach or front office executive.
“He was always mindful of moving ahead and changing the way things were done,” she said.
Nunn wasn’t one for finger-wagging or public pronouncements, said John Wooten, a former player who followed in Nunn’s footsteps and became a scout and player personnel director. Wooten later formed the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which is dedicated to increasing diversity in the N.F.L.
“We didn’t walk around waving flags,” Wooten said. “You went about your business knowing if you get things done the right way, you opened the opportunity for other Black guys. That’s what Bill was all about.”