Art Rooney Jr. summoned me to his office. When you’re a Pittsburgh kid and that happens, you go. Every time.
We had a terrific conversation. He told me about the day Chuck Noll came into the team’s offices at the old Roosevelt Hotel, Downtown, for his job interview. The other guys — including Art Jr.’s dad and older brother, Dan — were lobbing softball questions. Noll had been working as an assistant coach to Don Shula with the Baltimore Colts. The guys wanted to know whether Noll had been watching the Orioles baseball team, who he knew throughout the league, stuff like that.
Art Jr. walked into the room and elbowed his way into the conversation. He asked first how Noll felt about the BLESTO scouting combine — in which the Steelers shared information about college prospects among other NFL teams. Noll said that was fine as long as the team had good scouts of its own.
Then, Art wanted to know something else. By then, he had decided the Steelers could not win by excluding black players. A previous coach Buddy Parker had been notorious for getting drunk after every team loss and then berating the players — using the N-word at times to talk about the black players. He also had been the coach when the team drafted black quarterback Roy Curry — who never got to take a snap under center. Curry ended playing wide receiver and then getting injured.
Art Jr. asked Noll point blank: How do you feel about black players?
Noll, who had played under Paul Brown in Cleveland, was ready: I don’t care about the color of a player’s skin, he said. Noll said he was more interested in whether a guy was intelligent about the game — and whether he would be a team player.
What if an assistant coach didn’t go along with that approach?, Art Jr. asked.
I’d fire him on the spot, Noll answered.
During my work on The Color of Sundays, Bill Nunn Jr. was adamant that Noll’s openness about black players was every bit as essential as Nunn’s own ability find them. The team could have scouted all of the best black players in the world but it wouldn’t have mattered if they never got a chance — especially at key positions. By all accounts, Noll was as good as his word.