Bill Nunn Jr remembered…Black pioneer journalist, NFL scout dies at 89

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He said he always based his life’s decisions on where he could do the most good.

Forner Courier Managing Editor and legendary Pittsburgh Steelers scout Bill Nunn Jr. died May 7 after suffering a stroke two weeks’ prior at a Steelers meeting in which he was helping the team put together information for the recent 2014 draft.

He is survived by his wife Frances of 63 years, a son, Bill Nunn III, an actor; a daughter Lynell Nunn, an attorney; three grand children and one great grand-child. The viewing was at John A. Freyvogel Sons May 13, and the funeral was sheduled for Grace Memorial Church in the Hill District, May 14.

Nunn had two great careers which impacted Blacks nationwide as he opened doors and kept doors open for Blacks in sports, as a writer, editor for the Courier and as a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I had some tough choices when I graduated from West Virginia State in 1948,” Nunn said. “I could have signed with the Harlem Globetrotters but I chose the Courier.  I chose the Courier because I could do more good.”

Nunn left the Courier in 1969 to join the Steelers scouting team full time, once again stating that he felt he could do more good.

He became the first African-American appointed to a front-office position with the Steelers and held the title of senior assistant in their player personnel office when he died.

“We have lost a great friend and a great person who did so much for the Steelers organization with the passing of Bill Nunn,” said Steelers chairman Dan Rooney.

“Bill was a special person who did everything in his career, from playing sports to being an excellent journalist, all of which led to his outstanding career in scouting for the Steelers.”

After joining the Steelers part time in 1967 and moving to fulltime in 1969 Nunn more than anyone else helped channel Black College players into the NFL. Prior to Nunn there were not just a few Blacks entering the NFL from Black colleges but few Blacks period.

Nunn, first through his work with the Courier, after replacing Wendell Smith as the principal sports writer crusading to get more Blacks into the professional ranks of football, basketball and baseball, after Jackie Robinson broke the color barriers in pro sports, and then as a scout for the Steelers.

As the man who put together the Pittsburgh Courier Black College All American team which showcased the best of the best among Black Colleges, Nunn knew better than anyone the talent available at Black Colleges and he used this knowledge to feed these players along with others to the Steelers.

Even though they all didn’t come from Black colleges, Joe Greene, L. C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Frank Lewis, John Stallworth, Donnie Shell, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, Glen Edwards, are just some of the players who were drafted by the Steelers through the guidance of Nunn, which led to four Steelers Super Bowls.

The Steelers success led to other teams realizing that if they wanted to win or be competitive they had to go after the Black players not only from the larger colleges but Black colleges as well. It also forced major Division I football and basketball college programs to go after the top Black athletes, who had previously been going to Black colleges. This led to the NFL and NBA growing from less than 10 percent of the players being Black to more than 70 percent.

“I left the Courier to become a fulltime scout for the Steelers because John Sengstacke, (the new owner of the Courier at the time) wanted me to leave Pittsburgh and go to Chicago. I’m a Pittsburgher,” Nunn said about his decision to leave the Courier at which he had worked for 22 years. He was the managing editor of the National Edition at the time. “I loved the Courier, but I knew it was in good hands. Plus with the great decline in the national readership and my working relationship with the Rooney’s I felt I could do more to help get more Blacks into the NFL as players, coaches, and front office personnel.”

Nunn continued to put together the Courier Black College All American team for several years after leaving the paper.

Even though Nunn never played or coached football, he was an inaugural member of the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, joining the likes of Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Deacon Jones and Eddie Robinson. Nunn also was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

He said that a conversation with Art Rooney, the Steelers founder and Dan Rooney is what led to him being hired as a scout. He said it also helped in that his father knew Art very well. They had been friends for years. Later Dan Rooney stated that in his conversation with Nunn Jr., about which direction the team should go in selecting players they agreed on just about every point.

In talking about his decision to join the paper after graduating from West Virginia State instead of joining the Harlem Globetrotters, who had offered him a lucrative contract Nunn said. “My father never put any pressure on me to join the paper. I think he wanted me to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, who wanted me badly. But I chose the Courier because of its history, and what it was doing and what it was going to do. And I knew Wendell was leaving which would make me the main sports writer.”

Following in his fathers’ footsteps, Nunn Jr. had some big shoes to fill. Robert L. Vann, publisher; Ira Lewis, business manager; and Bill Nunn Sr., managing editor; together built the Courier into the largest and most influential Black newspaper in the country. So when the young Nunn decided to join the paper his boss was his father, and the man he was replacing was the legendary Wendell Smith, but that didn’t faze him.

He went on to build his own legacy as a writer and editor with the Courier then moved on to become one of the greatest scouts in NFL history helping turn the Steelers from a perennial loser to one of the greatest franchises in history, all because he always put the interest of the Black community first.

He always spoke with great pride in the fact that he stayed in the Hill District, and lived in his father’s house.

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