Bill Nunn Pittsburgh Steelers

“It’s a new day for the Steelers. The tone is being set, you have to bust your butt to make the club and if you don’t get with it, we don’t want you.”

From their inception in 1933 through the 1971 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers made exactly one postseason appearance, losing a divisional playoff game in 1947.

The organization’s fortunes would change dramatically in the 1970s, and a key figure in the transformation from perennial losers to four-time Super Bowl champions in a six-season span was Bill Nunn, a scout and later the assistant director of player personnel for the team from 1968 to 2013.

A look at the team photo of the 1974 Steelers, winners of Super Bowl IX, illustrates Nunn’s influence. In the picture are 11 players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including three future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Mel Blount, Donnie Shell and John Stallworth. Nunn was integral in the Steelers finding talented players from HBCUs, giving the team an advantage over others in the NFL at that time.

Nunn, a standout basketball player at West Virginia State, spurned tryout offers from the New York Knicks and Harlem Globetrotters to join his dad at The Pittsburgh Courier, a national, Black-owned newspaper with a circulation of more than 400,000 at its peak. As sports editor, he regularly covered HBCU sporting events, making inroads at the schools no one else matched. Each fall, he compiled the definitive “Black College All-America” team, an honor the Courier first launched in 1950. He was a one-man selection committee, and his choices carried tremendous influence.

“That was the only exposure that the players from the black schools got,” he said in a 2010 interview with that coincided with his election in the inaugural class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame. “We would have a banquet in Pittsburgh and bring the guys to Pittsburgh and have the Black national champion, player of the year, coach of the year.” The Rooney family took notice of Nunn’s work and in 1967 offered him a part-time scouting role that within a couple of years became full time under the team’s new coach, Chuck Noll. He stayed 45 years — more than half of that time after he “officially retired” in 1987.

In addition to players from HBCUs, Nunn also found diamonds in the rough of smaller programs across the country. One success story was Jack Lambert (Kent State), who went onto a Hall of Fame career.

“With the success we had with the number of ballplayers from black colleges, I think it opened the eyes of a lot of other teams,” Nunn said. “With the attitude of Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll, it opened the eyes of a lot of people, and I like to think I was a part of that.”