Bill Nunn’s Scouting Opened an N.F.L. Pipeline

That includes on the league’s sidelines and in its executive offices. Nearly two decades ago, the N.F.L. introduced the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview people of color for head coaching jobs. The rule continues to fall short of expectations and was expanded in 2020 to prevent teams from blocking assistant coaches and executives under contract from interviewing for open jobs elsewhere.

Six head coaches were hired this off-season, yet only one — Robert Saleh, who was hired by the Jets — is a minority. Five of the 32 teams in the league have Black general managers.

Nunn’s path to the N.F.L. is unlikely to be repeated. His father, Bill Sr., was managing editor at the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s leading Black newspapers. Nunn played college basketball at West Virginia State, an H.B.C.U., and was recruited by the Harlem Globetrotters. He went to work at the Courier instead.

As a sportswriter, Nunn rubbed shoulders with Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and other stars. He also helped compile the Courier’s Black College All-America Team. Each year, he hosted a banquet in Pittsburgh for the best players and coaches from H.B.C.U.s. Art Rooney Sr., the owner of the Steelers, saw that Nunn had deep contacts and told his son, Art Rooney Jr., to hire Nunn as a part-time scout.

“We covered the Black schools, but when Bill came in, it was much, much different,” Rooney Jr. said. “Bill had a big dinner every year and we would bring the players to the stadium and they’d meet Chuck Noll, the head coach. It was a big pitch for the Steelers.”

In 1969, the Steelers hired Nunn full time. He would rate players by position and create a second list of the best players regardless of their position. “That phase of it paid off for us,” Rooney Jr. said. By the time the Steelers won their second Super Bowl, their roster was almost entirely homegrown.

For most of a given year, Nunn would be on the road watching college players and getting to know their coaches, longtime relationships that paid off when he worked for the Steelers. Word got around, too. When Nunn’s daughter, Lynell, attended Morgan State in the early 1970s, she realized that some of the football players were trying to get to know her because of her father.