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Jim O’Brien: Bill Nunn always knew what stories to share about his Pittsburgh Steelers

May 15, 2014
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Bill Nunn always knew what stories to share about his Pittsburgh Steelers

O’Brien column for The Valley Mirror

Bill Nunn Jr. was, at heart, a newspaperman. He knew the needs of a sportswriter because he was one, and he was a great source of stories about the Steelers and sports in general. But he knew how his bread was buttered, and he was always cautious not to say anything that would upset Chuck Noll or Dan Rooney.

Before and during the early part of his stay as a much-valued talent scout with the Steelers he had followed in his father’s footsteps and served as a sports writer, a sports editor and a managing editor for The Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s weekly that focused on the black community.

I first met Bill Nunn in 1963 when I was a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and was also working as a publicity director for the Pittsburgh Valley Ironmen, a minor league football team in the Atlantic Coast Football League. The Ironmen played their home games at Duquesne High Field. I wrote special features about the black players on the Ironmen – or “tan stars,” as The Courier called them at the time — for Nunn and The Courier, and he carried them with my byline, which was a big deal for a young writer.

So I was a contributing writer for The Courier.

I teamed up with Nunn again in 1979 when I returned home after working one year at The Miami News and nine years at The New York Post. I was now covering the Steelers for The Pittsburgh Press, and Nunn was now a full-time scout for the Steelers and the operations director for their summer training camp at St. Vincent College.

Nunn died at age 89 on May 7 at the UPMC Hospital Complex. He had suffered a stroke two weeks earlier. Most of the tributes centered on his efforts as a scout, but he played a key role in his work as the camp director. One could learn a lot from Bill Nunn at that Benedictine school in Latrobe.

He assigned roommates, kept track of who was breaking curfew, and knew what information to pass along to the coaches and what information was best to keep to himself.

He had joined the Steelers on a part-time basis in 1967 and came on full-time in 1969 when Chuck Noll replaced Bill Austin as the head coach. During his days with The Courier, Nunn chose a black All-American football team. He knew the coaches and players at the predominantly black colleges and that became a real asset to the Steelers and a major building block in Noll’s dynasty.

Nunn was most responsible for the Steelers selecting and signing such players as Mel Blount, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Donnie Shell, Frank Lewis, Sam Davis and Ernie Holmes who all came from rural backgrounds in the Deep South. They all had the most interesting histories of the Steelers of the ‘70s.

Nunn told me that Noll was not interested in having him serve as a warden at a prison at St. Vincent. He said Noll was not looking for confrontations with his players about their nocturnal habits. “He knew what fights were worth picking,” noted Nunn. Nunn would talk to the players, and he was an adviser and confidante for many of them. They trusted Bill Nunn.

Nunn also kept a close eye on the waiver wire so he could let Noll know if some player might be available from another team, but Noll was seldom interested in other people’s cuts. He didn’t think you could build a championship team with other people’s cast-offs.

Nunn grew up in Homewood and I grew up in Hazelwood. I played on sandlot football teams that played teams from Homewood and neighboring Brushton, so Nunn and I knew the same football fields in the inner-city of Pittsburgh. We knew the same nightspots. We knew some of the same people.

We shared a good friend, one of my first sports heroes in Hazelwood, a gentleman named Herb Douglas Jr. Herb had won a bronze medal in the long jump in the Summer Olympic Games in London in 1948. Whenever I’d manage to get on the wrong side with Steelers’ management, Nunn would inform Douglas by referring to me as “your boy O’Brien.”

But Douglas told him I was all right, and Nunn knew I could be trusted. He felt the same way about Myron Cope, Norm Vargo, Jim Kriek and Bill Hillgrove, I know that, and he told the players what writers they could talk to without worrying and what writers they should be leery about.   I think Chuck Noll bought into Nunn’s assessment in that scouting area as well.

Nunn was always affable, always approachable, and shared good stories. But there was often a hesitation in his voice, as he thought twice before saying anything. He nodded a lot and he said “yeah” quite a bit whenever you would offer a thought or observation. In short, Nunn could confirm most of your suspicions, which was quite valuable.

These were different days with the Steelers. The young people on the beat today have a hard time believing the way the camp was conducted in the ‘70s.

You could make an appointment with a player to visit him in his own room at Bonaventure Hall. The media had its own sleeping quarters on the top floor of the same building where the players and coaches were housed.

It was so much easier to talk in a more relaxed setting, sitting in a chair next to the bed, or maybe even at the bottom of the bed.

There was a “happy hour” after the second practice session of the day and before dinner. Coaches mingled with the media while drinking alcoholic beverages or soft drinks in an off-the-record but always useful session.

Writers would join some of the coaches at Pete’s Bar on Rt. 30 and drink with them until 1 or 2 a.m. We played games to get a head start on what players would be cut the next morning. The coaches were careful not to say anything you could quote them on in a story, but they nodded and smiled as you went over some potential cuts, and you knew who the goners would be come morning.

You felt like you were dealing with “Deep Throat” in the book or movie called “All the President’s Men,” starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as reporters for The Washington Post during Watergate.    I never saw Nunn or Noll at Pete’s Bar. I know Noll did not go out at night. He said he needed his sleep.

There was less security, fewer boundaries and off-limits areas. The players walked the campus and signed autographs. They were not transported here and there on golf carts and buses. It was easier for the fans to get close to them, to get autographs, to get their pictures taken with a Steelers’ player.

Nunn was a valuable resource and he had known Jackie Robinson and Sugar Ray Robinson and some of the great boxers and basketball and football players, and he knew Eddie Robinson Jr., the great football coach at Grambling and Jake Gaither, the great football coach at Florida A&M.

When I was working in Miami in 1969, I covered a college football game in Tampa between Florida A&M and Tampa U. It was the first time Gaither’s team had ever played a predominantly white school. Florida A&M won the game. I had spoken to Nunn in the press box during the game and he took me with him to the hotel room of Gaither after the game. Gaither was relaxing in his bed, so happy in his mid-60s to have had the opportunity to show that his team could play with the big boys.

Nunn had played basketball at Westinghouse High School and at West Virginia State and for one season with Chuck Cooper who later transferred to Duquesne. Earl Lloyd was also on that team at West Virginia State.

Cooper was the first black player drafted into the NBA, with the Boston Celtics in 1950, and Lloyd was the first black player to appear in an NBA game with the Washington Caps that same season.

Their names were in the news earlier this month when the new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver apologized to them by name, as well as to Bill Russell and Magic Johnson, when Silver announced that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was banned for life from the NBA for “racist remarks” he had made in a taped conversation with a girlfriend.

Some things never change.

Bill Nunn had seen a lot of things change, however, during his career with the Steelers. No one ever felt awkward or ill at ease in the company of Bill Nunn. He knew a football player when he saw one. Color didn’t matter with him or with Chuck Noll or the Rooneys.

I felt bad when I heard he had died. He was a good man and he served the Rooneys well. He and Noll played major roles in turning the team into a championship team. Bill Nunn left his mark. I can still see him nodding and smiling and letting me know I was on the right track.

Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has a book out called “Chuck Noll: A Winning Way,” that is available through Albert’s Gifts and Amazon.com or at his website at www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

 

 

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