Six years ago, pro scouts dutifully brought their stopwatches to the small collegiate outpost of Alabama A&M, timed an obscure wide receiver and dismissed him as an NFL prospect.
But the fellow representing the Pittsburgh Steelers noticed that the field where the timing had taken place hardly was conducive to a fair test. Bob Hayes probably could not have broken five seconds for 40 yards on that surface.
Bill Nunn took the player to a decent field and was overjoyed when his watch stopped at 4.6 seconds. The Steelers were enthusiastic enough about the receiver to have him rated first round on ability and were brazen enough to hope no one else would draft him before the fourth round.
"We took a calculated risk," Nunn said.
And won spectacularly, grabbing two Pro Bowl receivers from the same draft pot. On the first round, Pittsburgh selected the stunning and well-known Lynn Swann. Sure enough, John Stallworth still was available when the Steelers' turn came in the fourth round.
Everyone from Earl Weaver to Chuck Noll admits that the personnel decisions a team leader makes off the field are far more important than the personnel decisions he makes on the field. Whether a man can play, not when and for how long, is the reason some coaches get to the Super Bowl and others get fired.
The draft is the seemingly uncomplicated tool NFL teams use to make themselves stronger. Yet an amazing number scarcely know how to work the contraption, where to plug it in even. Some NFL personnel men would look at Earl Campbell and suggest he be moved to linebacker.
Until he relinquished daily control to his sons and Noll, Art Rooney's Steelers were among the drafting dolts of the NFL. For the last 11 years, however, they have used it as well as anyone in the history of the league.
Unlike so many teams, perhaps even the majority, Pittsburgh has not made a drafting mistake where that could be disastrous -- in the first three rounds. Anyone who spends months watching dozens of players and poring over hundreds of reports and fails to consistently find three fine prospects out of the first 84 deserves to find employment elsewhere.
The Steelers have been nearly flawless in the first three rounds. But they have gone beyond selecting the almost obvious players, the Joe Greenes and Terry Bradshaws and Lynn Swanns, and built an overwhelming team by finding Stallworths where most others were finding small worths.
Many of them first were uncovered by Nunn, who, as a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, had an entree to the smaller, predominately black school.
"Take L. C. Greenwood," said Nunn of the 10th-round draftee in 1969 who has become a six-time Pro Bowler. "Kids from black schools (Greenwood is from Arkansas AM&N) lasted a bit longer than they do now.
"And he might not be able to make our team if he came out of there now the way he did then. He had no weight.But he had height, agility and intelligence. And we had to gamble back then, that he'd get bigger. That's another time we won."
If Joe Gilliam, an 11th-rounder in 1972, had been slightly less reckless with his play calling and considerably less with his lifestyle, Nunn and the Steelers might have won even more. Gilliam was given a chance at quarterback and failed, during the Steelers' period of disenchantment with Bradshaw.
"What separates us from some teams is that we don't always go for the computer ballplayer," Nunn said."Jack Lambert, for instance, was not exceptionally big. He finished his rookie year at middle linebacker at 207. But he can tuck that butt and explode.
"We give smaller offensive linemen a chance, where we see a potential for growth.And once anybody we sign comes to camp he's treated like a No. 1. That's one reason we got Donnie Shell as a free agent. I assured his coach he'd get a good look."
Of Art Rooney's football sons, Dan became president of the Steelers and Art Junior vice president and in charge of personnel. At the end of the '60s and the early '70s, Artie and Nunn were almost the entire personnel staff.
It now has expanded and the Steelers are part of a scouting combine, though as Nunn insists "Artie has to get the majority of the credit for what we've done. And Noll has the ability to look at flesh pretty good, too."
What they have done, beyond the obvious, is to create a team capable of functioning at near-peak efficiency without several key parts. Or at least better than nearly all other teams.
For most of the playoffs, the Steelers have missed two All-Pros, offensive tackle Jon Kolb and linebacker Jack Ham, and two other regulars, guard Gerry Mullins and safety Mike Wagner.
Although all the Steeler personnel men have an eye for talent, they do not always see eye to eye. In 1972, Nunn and Noll wanted to draft Robert Newhouse instead of Franco Harris. Artie and the others prevailed.
"It wasn't a matter of talking us out of Newhouse," Nunn said of the smallish Houston fullback who became a fine player with the Cowboys. "They just thought Franco was more suited to what we needed. And we might not have won as soon with Newhouse. He's a survivor.
There is a theory about survival in the NFL. It states that a team cannot maintain Super Bowl excellence by drafting near the end of each round, that the Greenes, Bradshaws and Harrises who make fine teams champions are gone by the first 20 choices.
"It's possible we might sometime put together a trade package to get one of the first three or four picks," Nunn said. "But just because we pick 28th doesn't mean we're picking our 28th player.
"We figured Ham was a No. 1 and we got him in the second round. We had Ron Johnson and Bennie Cunningham all figured earlier. We had Cunningham as the Ninth best player in the country (before the '76 draft). But they were sittin' there for us."