Bill Nunn, Jr. Pittsburgh Steelers “Ace in the Hole” 1924-2014

Bill Nunn, Jr. the longest-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting community has passed away from complications suffered from a stroke on the eve of what would have been his 46th NFL Draft. Nunn was 89 and is survived by his wife Francis, daughter Lydell, and son Bill Nunn III.

  • A great many fans in Steelers Nation will react to news by asking, “Who is Bill Nunn?” 

The answer to that question is that nobody whose name isn’t “Rooney” or “Noll” had a bigger role in securing those six Steelers Lombardi trophies than Bill Nunn.

In the battle reverse the Pittsburgh Steelers first 40 years of straight losing:

  • Dan Rooney operated as the statesman orchestrating behind the scenes, 
  • Chuck Noll served as the field general, 
  • Art Rooney, Jr. and Dick Haley coordinated the logistics and material, 

And Bill Nunn Jr. acted as the Steelers Ace in the Hole.

Nunn could play that role because he brought something to the Steelers that other NFL teams were either unready or unable to embrace.

Blindsiding the NFL with Colorblindness

The National Football League began as an integrated organization, however by 1933 the league’s final two African American’s had left the league which stayed segregated until 1945. Integration came slowly to the NFL following World War II, in well into the 1960’s many NFL teams enforced unofficial quota systems limited the number of black players they selected.

Art Rooney Sr. was in no way a racist but the same cannot be said for some of his coaches, such as Bill Austin, who Roy Jefferson overhead making racist comments.

Whether Austin factored race into his draft decisions or not, when first approached by the Steelers Bill Nunn, who then worked as a sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, rebuffed the Rooneys, saying he didn’t like the way they did business.

  • Dan Rooney called him in for a face-to-face meeting which ended with Nunn agreeing to work part time for the Steelers.

With Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969 Nunn’s status shifted to full time, and six seasons later the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl. Nunn explained the transformation this way:

To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots.

Nunn, a former college athlete of course understood athletics and had annually produced an All-African American team based on players from HBC (Historically Black Colleges) rosters.

  • But it was Nunn’s network of connections at those schools that made him so invaluable to the Steelers. 

With the Steelers running one of the limited number of color blind scouting operations in 1969, and Nunn scouting the HBC circuit, the Steelers drafted Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, that’s half of the Steel Curtain and two NFL Hall of Famers, acquired thanks to active resistance to the prejudice that ruled the day

While finding these players was important, but Nunn’s role was far from limited to scouting the HBC’s under the radar. He also negotiated player contracts and ran the Steelers training camp for several years. But it is his work as a scout that made him famous, as the next section makes clear.

Steelers 1974 Draft: Nunn Helps Author the Greatest NFL Draft in History

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 Draft was the best in NFL history bringing the team four Hall of Famers named Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.

Nunn had a pivotal role in helping the Steelers identify Stallworth, who was a college student at Alabama A&M, first feigning illness and then helping hoard the only tape that existed of Stallworth. Noll had had his eye on Stallworth for a long time, and wanted him in the first round. Nunn talked him into drafting Swann.

Then Noll wanted him in the second. Art Rooney Jr. protested, recommending Lambert. The Steelers had dealt their third round pick, but Nunn coolly assured Noll “’The average (team) isn’t looking at him like we are.’”

The Steelers had to sweat out the third round, but when the 4th arrived, Stallworth was there, and the rest is history.

Pillar of the Steelers Franchise

Nunn continued to work in the scounting department until he “retired in 1987.” For a few years he and his wife wintered in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh, but eventually tired of the snowbird’s life.

  • And that “retirement” was in name only. 

Nunn continued to work in the Steelers scouting department as a Senior Assistant of Player Personnel, evaluating video and participating in the Steelers draft War Room, which is appropriately titled “The Bill Nunn Draft Room.”

Make no mistake about it, Nunn’s role wasn’t as a figure head or elder statesman, he was an active participant of the Steelers scouting team. In fact, as reported by Andrew Conte of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nunn suffered his stroke while evaluating players on the South Side.

Kevin Colbert would send young scouts to study film or watch tapes at Nunn’s side. As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote on steelers.com

Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.

For the firs time since 1947, Bill Nunn’s chair will be empty for the Steelers on draft day. His presence will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising offers its sympathy, thoughts and prayers to Nunn’s wife and children.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or… Follow @SteelCurtainRis

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Cameron Heyward – Reason for Steelers Nation to Give Thanks

Since Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969, defense has formed the backbone with the franchise’s legacy of excellence. Irnoically enough, the Steelers Nation cannot lay claim to the same sort of unbroken line of succession on the defensive line the way it does with its Linebacker Legacy.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers thanksgiving, Cameron Heyward fumble return, Steelers Browns 2013

Cameron Heyward retruns a fumble vs. the Browns in November 2013. Photo credit: David Richard, AP via Pittsburgh Courier

The original Steel Curtain, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Joe Green, and Dwight White set the gold-standard for excellence at the position. Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton deserved mention alongside them. In between them the Steelers have started a spectrum of players from the very good Joel Steed, to the good such as Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Kevin Henry, to the “not so much” – Keith Gary, Aaron Jones, and Donald Evans.

As we do every year at Thanksgiving, Steel Curtain Rising stops to take stock and give thanks for something Steelers related.

At Thanksgiving 2014 Steel Curtain Rising stops to recognize the blossoming of a young defensive lineman who one day might be worth of mention with franchise greats.

When the Steelers picked Heyward in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it was a great day for the franchise. Heyward of course was the son of Pitt great Iron Head Craig Heyward. A player with deep ties to community of Pittsburgh was coming home.

Yet after two years, Heyward remained an enigma to Steelers Nation. Stuck behind Smith, Brett Keisel, and Ziggy Hood, Heyward looked strong when he got playing time, but why didn’t he get more? It took an 0-4 start, but Steelers Nation got its wish as Mike Tomlin started Heyward over Hood.

  • And Heyward has been a one man wrecking crew since then.

3-4 defensive ends in Dick LeBeau’s system are not supposed to get gaudy statistics. Yet in 8 starts he’s registered 3 sacks. But that number, while impressive, does not measure his impact, his On the Field Presence. In a short time as a starter, Heyward is showing a knack for being around the ball at the right moment, and for making “timely plays in a timely manner.”

  • To wit, he’s already recovered two fumbles (yes, that is counting Jason Worild’s strip-sack vs. the Bills)
  • Although uncredited, Heyward clearly hit Matthew Stafford helping force a game-sealing interception vs. Detroit

Heyward still has a ways to go, and still must of course sustain the flashes he’s shown. But he certainly is one reason for Steelers Nation to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Football and the Steelers are of course only a small part of life. And fortunately, I have many, many non-football reasons to be thankful at this time of year. I sincerely hope you can say the same.

And with that, Steel Curtain Rising wishes everyone in Steelers Nation a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Nation Bids Farewell to L.C. Greenwood; The Steel Curtain Stands at Quarter Strength

Pittsburgh was never always synonymous with “Defense.” Chuck Noll began to changing that in 1969.

Noll inherited the 4th pick in the 1969 NFL draft thanks to Bill Austin’s “error” in not allowing him to pick O.J. Simpson. The Emperor picked Joe Greene instead in the first round.

  • Piece one of the Steel Curtain was in place
  • Nine rounds later he added piece two:  L.C. Greenwood

In 1971 he added Dwight White in the 4th round and then Ernie Holmes 4 rounds later.

And in an ironic twist of destiny, the good Lord has decided to take them back from us in reverse order.

Art Rooney Jr. Finds the Man with the Yellow Shoes

Chuck Noll employed many means in transforming the Pittsburgh Steelers from doormat to dominance. But one often overlooked aspect is his total colorblindness when it came to selecting players.

  • Noll didn’t care if you were black, white, yellow, or purple, he only cared if you could play.

With Noll’s attitude and Bill Nunn’s connections in the HBC network the Steelers uncovered gem after gem in the drafts of early 70’s while many other teams handicapped themselves with color quotas.

Art Rooney Jr., head of the Steelers scouting department, fully embraced this philosophy, having fought Noll’s predecessors who refused to pick African American players simply because they had already taken two of “them.”

And so it was that Art Rooney Jr. found himself on the campus of Arkansas A&M in late 1968. He was down there to check out some halfback whose name history has forgotten. He was also interested in looking at a defensive end named Clarence Washington.

But while he was watching tape of Washington, some other kid caught his attention. The kid was 6’6”. Rooney had noted that the kid was too tall for his position. Defensive ends that tall aren’t supposed to have leverage.

  • But this kid had leverage, and nothing stopped him in getting to the quarterback.

The Kid’s name was LC Greenwood, and he became the second most recognizable name on famed Steel Curtain Defense.

Unlike Greene, Greenwood didn’t start immediately, but when he did break the Steelers starting lineup in 1971 he made noise, quickly. Greenwood:

When Greenwood was cut by the Steelers in 1982 he had 73.5 sacks, then a franchise high and still the number two mark.

  • Steelers Digest described Greenwood as “Cool. Confident. Smooth.”

How confident?

Shortly before the 1974 AFC Championship game, Greenwood sat in the hallway outside the lock room in the Oakland Coliseum watching the Vikings and the Rams duke it out for the NFL crown. Gene Upshaw walked by and asked, “Whatta watchin LC?”

  • Greenwood deadpanned:  “Just watching to see who we’re going to play in the Super Bowl.”

Greenwood was also a leader both on and off the field, and one of the first Super Steelers to find commercial success. His Miller Light commercials were legendary.

But like so many of the Super Steelers, Greenwood’s off the field success was not simply a bi-product of his on the field fame. Chuck Noll wanted self-starters and hard workers on his team, and those traits carried the Super Steelers to success off it.

Greenwood was no exception, founding Greenwood Enterprises, which operated out of West Main Street in Carnegie and worked in engineering, coal, natural gas and highway operations. After that he led Greenwood-McDonald Supply Co., Inc., which supplied of electrical equipment to retail outlets and manufacturers.

The Steel Curtain a Band of Brothers

The quartet of Greene, Greenwood, White and Holmes started out as teammates. They grew to be friends and ultimately brothers, sticking close together long after their playing days ended.

Dwight White’s wife recalled Joe Greene being so upset he could not even speak when he learned of “Mad Dog’s” death. And the first two people at White’s funeral were Greene and Greenwood.

White of course had gone into the hospital for back surgery, and ended up dying of a lung clot. As reported by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the normally upbeat Greenwood told Joe Greene he was apprehensive about his own back surgery due to what had happened to White.

But Greenwood, hobbled by a back injury, in pain and walking around on a walker and needed the surgery. Midway through the Steelers embarssing 0-4 loss in London to the Vikings, Greene got a call from Mel Blount informing him that Greenwood had died of kidney failure.

Now only Joe Greene remains, and the Steel Curtain permanently stands at quarter strength.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or… Follow @SteelCurtainRis

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Watch the Steelers vs. the Raiders in the 1975 AFC Championship

Missed seeing Bradshaw, Lambert, Franco, Greene, Swann, Blount and Stallworth in their primes?
(Scroll down for the video.)

Fortunately those you too young to remember or those who remember but were too young to appreciate get a second chance thanks to Dan Gigler’s Blog ‘n Gold over at the Post Gazette.
Gigler’s Blog and Gold, long a supporter of this site, is a veritable trove of treasures from Steelers Nation. Dan’s schedule for updating the site is irregular, but when he does update it he always delivers.
This time he’s out done himself by securing a copy of the 1975 AFC Championship game between the Steelers and the Raiders.
You can watch a commercial free, edited version of the game here (available as of 6/17/12):

Folks, this has been up since October 2011 but its unlikely the NFL’s lawyers will allow YouTube to keep this up for much longer. So watch it while you can, it’s a good investment of an hour.

Steelers vs. the Raiders – a Legendary Feud that Defined a Decade
The Patriots and Colts of the ‘00’s can have their rivalry. Compared to the Steelers vs. the Raiders, theirs is a high school popularity between opposing pretty boys who fear dirtying their hands.
  • The Steelers and the Raiders fought a grown up fight. And they played for keeps.

No one ever uttered the words “criminal element” following a Patriots-Colts match up.

This game featured the first of several illegal George Atkinson close line tackles of Lynn Swann  that prompted Chuck Noll to level the “criminal element” charge.
  • The Steelers and Raiders dueled in many an epic battle in the ‘70’s but this game perhaps more than any other defines the rivalry.

Winter is bitterly cold in Pittsburgh and the Steelers had tarpped and heated the surface of Three Rivers Stadium the night before the game. But winds whipped in off of Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohiotore open the tarp, creating slick spots throughout the field, but especially on the sidelines.

Al Davis had (allegedly) watered down the field in Oakland to give his slower running backs an advantage. Davisreflexively assumed that all NFL owners were as unscrupulous as he, and accused Dan Rooney of intentionally icing down the field to stifle his sideline passing game.
The Californian Davis failed to realize this game was simply played as January football is meant to be played: in an open air stadium in single-digit temperatures in front of over 50,000 rabid fans.
Both Ken Stabler and Terry Bradshaw made some impressive throws to give Dave Casper and John Stallworth breakout moments.

  • But defense defined this game.   
Monte Johnson and Jack Tatum notched three interceptions for the Raiders, while Mike Wagner had two picks, including one that was downright Troy Polamaluesque. 

Chuck Noll declared that the game featured some of the hardest hitting he had ever seen. He was right, there were 9 fumbles in this game, including three recovered by Jack Lambert.
Breaking Down the 1975 AFC Championship Game, the Steelers vs. the Raiders
While the editing on this video does make for some disjointed viewing at times, watching the raw, NBC footage allows you to enjoy the flavor of the moment in a way that NFL Films, for however much they’ve immortalized key moments in the game, misses.
Seeing the original Steel Curtain Joe Greene, Dwight White,Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood play snap-by-snap in front of greats such as  Jack Ham, Andy Russell and Mel Blount lets you understand just how great they were.
It gives you a chance to appreciate things that don’t show up on the stat sheet nor make it into highlight reels, such as the way the RayMansfield, Mike Webster, and Sammy Davis kept Terry Bradshaw clean.
  • The video also offers some important reminders. Yes, the Hall of Fame contingent of the Super Steelers made them great, but they were only a necessary, and not a sufficient element in the Championship runs.

Watch the AFC Championship game video and you’ll see players like J.T. Thomas and Glen Edwards make fumble forcing hits or guys like Larry Brown and Frank Lewis coming up with key hits.

  • It’s also good to see guys like Franco Harris get stuffed, repeatedly by the Raiders defense.
That might sound strange, but it’s true. Franco had a hard day against the Raiders and his partly 79 yards on 27 carries shows that.
For most of the day, John Madden’s defense left nowhere for Franco to run. Nowhere at all until he ripped off 25 yard burst that ended in the end zone with Pittsburghclinging to a 3-0 lead early in the 4th quarter.
Seeing Franco struggle then soar underscores the oft forgotten fact that the Super Steelers weren’t gods – instead they great athletes blessed with the On the Field Presence necessary to step it up and make plays when the game was on the line.
Enjoy.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or, click here to follow us on Twitter @SteelCurtainRis.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.