Author Recounts Scout’s Impact on Steelers’ Glory Years
Author Andrew Conte thinks much of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ success in the 1970s can be traced to a scout who found talented black players for the football team.
Conte, who grew up in Pittsburgh, spoke at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling Tuesday. He talked about his book, “The Color of Sundays: The Secret Strategy That Built the Steelers Dynasty.”
The central figure in Conte’s book is the late Bill Nunn Jr., the scout who discovered black athletes who became key players in the Steelers’ Super Bowl years. Nunn joined the Steelers front office after working many years as a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally recognized black newspaper. His father, who was his inspiration, was the managing editor of the Courier.
Conte said Nunn, who covered many sports including Negro League baseball, told him many interesting stories from his career. He said Nunn was reluctant to talk about his personal life, but his family opened up and shared many stories after Nunn’s death.
Wendell Smith, a sports reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, advocated for the integration of Major League Baseball in the 1940s and served as Nunn’s mentor. In 1961, long after teams were integrated, Nunn wrote articles about the continuing segregation of players’ housing during spring training in Florida, Conte said.
The author said professional football had black players up until 1933, but none from 1934-46. The Rams, after moving from Cleveland to Los Angeles, reintegrated the National Football League.
Conte said that after graduating from West Virginia State College, Nunn had four job offers: coaching, playing for the Harlem Globetrotters, trying out for the New York Knicks or joining the Pittsburgh Courier’s staff. At the Courier, he put together an annual all-American team of players from historically black colleges and universities. In the early 1960s, a banquet to honor the team was held at the Pittsburgh Hilton, and the Rooney family always attended, Conte said.
Art Rooney Sr., who had publicly stated he would take any available player for the then-mediocre team, tried to hire Nunn as a scout. Nunn was not interested initially, but agreed finally on the condition that he could work one more year for the Courier, Conte said.
“He (Nunn) made a major impact on the team,” Conte commented. He thinks Nunn had a key impact on the first four Super Bowl victories by helping the Steelers draft overlooked players such as L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.
Conte added that perhaps Nunn’s greatest impact came in encouraging the Steelers to sign free agents Sam Davis, Glen Edwards and Donnie Shell who, combined, won 10 championships during their pro careers.
Noting that other teams overlooked players from historically black colleges and universities, Conte remarked, “Think about how much talent was left on the table all those years.”
Conte also related that Nunn gave John Stallworth a second chance after other scouts walked away from him. That year, the Steelers drafted Lynn Swann in the first round and selected Stallworth in the fourth round.
Nunn was still working, at age 89, when he suffered a stroke and died on the eve of the 2014 draft, Conte said. The draft room at the Steelers’ training facility on Pittsburgh’s South Side is dedicated to Nunn.
Conte, a former investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is now director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. He also is the author of “Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Rebirth” and a children’s book, “All About Roberto Clemente.”
He began his career in journalism by working for syndicated columnist Jack Anderson for a couple of years. After attending graduate school at Columbia University, he worked for Scripps Howard newspapers in Florida and in Cincinnati, before returning to Pittsburgh and joining the Tribune-Review staff.