Candid Talk with Kevin Colbert

The Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations speaks softly, but his actions have been deafening to the rest of the NFL.

Kevin Colbert is sitting across the conference-room table at FSN, and as he talks, his right hand, balled into a fist, comes down rhythmically on his right thigh. He looks comfortable enough and is answering every question, and yet the repeated action belies his relaxed pose. Finally, I ask the obvious question: “You don’t like talking about yourself, do you?”

“No,” he says, “I don’t.”

Colbert is the Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations, which means that he’s the main man responsible for drafting players, signing free agents and making trades. His decisions have helped fuel two Super Bowl titles and four AFC Championship game appearances for the Steelers since he was hired in 2000.

But ask him about his first round picks – Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes and Troy Polamalu – and you’ll get a shrug. “If you miss on a first-rounder, that’s inexcusable,” Colbert says. Of course, you’ll have to excuse many others around the NFL whose first-rounders have flopped.

Ask Colbert about the success of late-round picks like Brett Keisel, and you’ll get a ringing endorsement of the excellence of defensive-line coach John Mitchell. Point out the success he and the Steelers have had in getting All-Pro work from nondrafted players like Willie Parker and James Harrison, and you’ll hear praise for the talent and character of those players.

And there is truth in those statements. Mitchell is an outstanding coach, and Parker and Harrison have shown admirable perseverance. But it’s also true that Colbert deflects praise as a matter of course. Others are more willing to give him his due.

“I would hope that it is obvious that Kevin has been a key person in our recent success,” says team president Art Rooney II. “When you look at the talent level on our roster from top to bottom every year, that is attributable to Kevin and his department. His contributions have been a key element to our success.”

Coach Mike Tomlin is even more direct: “His contributions are why we have been able to win.”

As the discussion turns to subjects other than himself, Colbert relaxes noticeably. His modesty – in an age in which many of his peers have become household names and quasi-celebrities – is one of Colbert’s most endearing personal traits. “I think if I was in his position, I’d be walking around with signs all around me – ‘I’m the director of football operations!'” laughs Colbert’s former Robert Morris University coach Matt Furjanic. “But you would never know anything talking to him.”

“He has a unique way of working with everybody,” adds Ron Hughes, who coached Colbert in football at North Catholic High School and hired him to work with the Detroit Lions. “In this business, there are a lot of egos floating around. ‘Me people.’ This guy’s not one of them. His family’s not that way. They’re very laid-back. His brothers aren’t like that. They’re very unassuming.”

Colbert grew up on the North Side, the fifth of five brothers. His mother died when he was 5, and his father when he was 15. His brother Bud – 13 years older – became his legal guardian, although various family members also chipped in. “We had a great deal of support from our family,” says Bernie Colbert, the fourth-youngest brother, “and that meant a lot.”

And the influence of sports was everywhere. The boys played whatever sport was in season throughout the neighborhood. “We played hockey in the kitchen, too,” Bernie chuckles. “That was the advantage of just being five boys.”

The boys’ uncle Rip Scherer was a legendary high school coach in Western Pennsylvania. His son is a long-time NFL assistant, and Rip’s brother Dick was a star football player at the University of Pittsburgh. Two Colbert brothers earned college-football scholarships – Bob at University of Maryland, and Bernie at North Carolina State. Bud was a standout baseball player. Kevin’s best sport was baseball, too – he played varsity at Robert Morris University – but he was a good all-around athlete and an extremely hard worker. During his senior year at RMU, he became the school’s sports-information director in addition to being a full-time student. His organization and maturity attracted the attention of Furjanic, the RMU Colonials’ basketball coach, who hired him as a graduate assistant, and Colbert quickly proved to be a shrewd evaluator of talent.

“He was tremendous,” says Furjanic, who was one of many to describe Colbert as incredibly well-organized. “He was very instrumental in having one of our most successful recruiting years. Kevin was very responsible for recruiting the two teams that made the NCAA Tournament.”

Colbert also became the school’s head baseball coach and worked for Hughes at North Catholic and for Jack Butler at BLESTO, an NFL scouting service. He later became an assistant football and baseball coach with his brother Bob at Division III Ohio Wesleyan University, and his ideas of what makes a good athlete began to take shape.

“I think the one thing that you learn, no matter what the sport is – you’re trying to judge people. Competitors. Character. Intelligence. And that’s really universal beyond what sport it is,” says Colbert.

In 1984, Colbert left Ohio Wesleyan to take a full-time job with BLESTO. Hiring him was an easy choice. “He’s very bright to start with,” says Butler. “He was dedicated, very detailed, and always on the ball. He was always there at work. He always showed up, stayed longer – he had all the things you wanted, and it didn’t take a brain surgeon or a genius to figure out that if you’re going to hire a person, this is the kind of person you want to hire.”

Colbert moved to the Miami Dolphins for five years as a college scout, and then in 1990 to Detroit, where he served as the Lions’ pro scouting director under Hughes. The Lions are now the league’s laughingstock, but they made the playoffs six times in Colbert’s decade in the front office.

And in his 15 years in the NFL, Colbert had acquired the skills and experience – scouting college and the NFL, and learning the nuances of the NFL’s salary cap – to be ready for a bigger challenge. A Steelers’ job as director of player personnel opened in 2000 after Tom Donahoe left, but Colbert waited for the Steelers to get in touch with him. “I always believed that if someone wants you, they’ll find you and they’ll hire you,” Colbert says. And that’s exactly what the Steelers did.

As Hughes recalls, “I remember writing a little note to Steelers chairman Mr. [Dan] Rooney, saying, ‘Good choice’ on a postcard.” Rooney wrote back with these words: “I know.”

“Kevin is a great fit for our organization,” Dan Rooney says. “We always try to look for good people, and his work ethic and humility are among the many reasons he is one of the NFL’s top executives in his field.”

No one man, of course, can take credit for the success or failure of an organization. The Steelers don’t have the normal chain of command, in which a general manager can become something of a dictator. Colbert has most of the duties of a G.M., but not the title, and both he and Tomlin report to the Rooney ownership group. And for Colbert – who says “we” more than an agreeable Frenchman – the structure is a good one.

“To me, there should be three visible entities: The ownership. The head coach, because he’s out there. He’s the lead guy. He’s the one who has to be the face of the organization whether he likes it or not. And then there’s the players.”

As Mike Tomlin sees Colbert, “He embodies what this organization is about and stands for. He is a detailed and diligent worker who doesn’t care who gets the credit. He is not a self-promoter. It is not in his makeup. He just does his job and wants to do it well.”

And so Colbert chugs along like a reliable old car. He is exactly what he appears to be: a people person; a listener who’s inclusive, and yet strong enough to make the final, important decisions; a smart, dedicated, organized and loyal worker whose résumé is littered with winning teams. Colbert is someone who hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“Kevin’s a good family man,” says his brother Bob. “He’s always looking out for his immediate family, and he’s very generous with his extended family – us, his brothers, and his aunts and uncles, who were factors in his upbringing.”

In 2007, Robert Morris elected Furjanic into its Hall of Fame. He knew the person he wanted to introduce him, but he wasn’t sure if he could get his man.

“I told my wife, ‘I’d like Kevin to do it, but the Steelers play the Browns on Sunday, and there’s no way he’s going to do it.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you call him and ask him?’ And I was very hesitant to do it, because this is the middle of the Steelers’ football season, you know. I called him and left him a message and told him what I was asking. And he called back and said, ‘Matt, it would be an honor to do it. It would be a pleasure.'”

Colbert went and reminisced with his old pals. And in case you’re wondering, the Steelers beat the Browns the next day.

There was another party – this one hosted by his brothers and other extended family members who decided to celebrate his achievements after the Steelers’ Super Bowl win over Arizona. They decided it would be best to make it a surprise party. “We did it under some false pretenses just to honor him,” Bob says. “We had a nice little affair to tell him how proud we are of him. Of course, if we’d told him, he’d never have showed up.”

“No, I wouldn’t have,” Colbert agrees.

He went, and he had a good time. His family – his brothers and relatives; his wife, Janice, and their three children – are important to him. Being the center of attention is not. “It doesn’t matter,” Colbert says. “It really doesn’t. When we win, we all feel good about it. That’s all the incentive you need really.”

Former major-league baseball manager Leo Durocher is said to have observed, “Nice guys finish last.” He didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Kevin Colbert.

“He makes it fun in the work we do,” says Tomlin.

“You meet him, you like him. There’s no ifs, ands or buts,” says Furjanic.

“He’s just a great person,” says his brother Bernie.

And he’s done a whole lot of finishing first.

Rob King’s versatility places him in the studio or at the game for FSN Pittsburgh. He brought his enthusiasm for sports to the ‘Burgh in 2000 after having spent the previous five years in Syracuse, where he was the sports director at CBS affiliate WTVH and hosted a radio show on WHEN-AM. Before that, Rob spent 21/2 years as a reporter at KPLR-TV in St. Louis and also hosted a radio show on KFNS-AM. He’s a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he was an all-conference quarterback.

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