The resume of an NFL general manager might look something like this: played football; coached football; scouted football; ate, slept and drank football.
Then there is the one Kevin Colbert brought to the NFL: coached baseball, coached basketball and, OK, coached a little football along the way, too.
Thirty years ago, when he embarked on a career in the NFL, Colbert went directly from head baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan University to football scout with BLESTO, one of two scouting services in the NFL. He turned down an offer to join the Robert Morris basketball staff to do so.
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It was one of those forks in the road that, had he not accepted the late Jack Butler’s job offer to scout college football players for their NFL clients, he might today have Clint Hurdle’s job managing the Pirates. Or he might be general manager of the Detroit Pistons, for whom he once worked selling season tickets.
But football was in his blood. This one-time punter and backup linebacker for North Catholic High School had uncles (Rip and Dick Scherer) and brothers (Bob and Bernie) in the sport. In a well-rounded way, his path took him to become the only man to ever carry the title of general manager of the Steelers.
This former Robert Morris baseball player and head baseball coach, now 57, rose to the top of the sport he finally chose for his career. He helped form the second-best era in Steelers history, in which they reached three Super Bowls in six years, winning two of them under different coaches.
Now, as he marks his 30th year in the NFL and embarks on 15th season with the Steelers, he has been presented with another challenge: get his team back in the playoffs and Super Bowl hunt. Consecutive records of 8-8 left them out of the playoffs two years in a row for the first time since 2000, the year the Steelers hired Colbert. It is a sport that prides itself on having a system that works against those who experience success, parity being the NFL’s favorite word.
While some fans predictably issue their what-have-you-done-for-us-lately tweets, more influential people have little doubt that Colbert is the man for the job ahead, just as he was for building two Super Bowl winners. One of them is his boss.
“I think Kevin has done a great job,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said. “I think when you put our record up against other teams in the league, it’s something we’re proud of. Obviously, we’re disappointed in the past two seasons, but we’re very comfortable with Kevin and the job he’s done, his whole approach. I’m very confident in the way he does his job.”
The Steelers hired Colbert to succeed another Pittsburgh native, Tom Donahoe, in 2000. Colbert had worked the previous decade as the Detroit Lions’ pro scouting director, and his boss was his former football coach at North Catholic, Ron Hughes. Before that, he spent five years as a scout with the Miami Dolphins and that first one with BLESTO.
In 14 years as the Steelers director of football operations and now general manager, Colbert has experienced one losing record, the 6-10 team of 2003. He responded by selecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the draft four months later, and three Super Bowl appearances followed.
“If you were to say to me, describe Kevin Colbert in one word, I would say selfless,” said Bill Cowher, who spent seven of his 15 seasons as the Steelers coach under Colbert. “The guy to me is the ultimate — I don’t want to say team player because he’s more important that. He puts the organization ahead of anything else. He can see the big picture.”
The general manager who acquired Eli Manning for the New York Giants might be the biggest fan of the man who picked Roethlisberger in the same draft 10 years ago.
“He is the most-unheralded GM in the league,” said retired Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. “I feel there is nobody better, he’s No. 1. He does such a great job and has done such a great job over the years.”
Accorsi, also general manager for the old Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns, still does some consulting work with the league office in Manhattan.
“I put together a GM/executive committee, and Kevin was the first name I wrote down. He contributes, he’s so humble and so good. He has no ego.”
Donahoe could be excused if he declined to analyze the job his successor has done. He did not.
“He’s done a great job,” said Donahoe, who went on to become president/general manager of the Buffalo Bills and now is a senior football advisor for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“He’s kept them stocked with good players, he’s done a good job with the drafts and with his scouts. Kevin has a great personality, he’s an easy guy to be around. If you ask him an opinion on a player, you can trust his opinion. He’s fit in perfectly with what they’re looking for to handle that position.
“It’s tough to stay in one place five years let alone 15. You have to give him a lot of credit.”
Yet, some of the public will not give Colbert credit, despite the success the Steelers had before they rolled double eights the past two seasons. There’s not a bust among his 14 first-round draft picks, and there may be a Hall of Famer or two, such as Troy Polamalu and Roethlisberger. There have been busts in the second and third rounds, but, as Accorsi and others like him know, anyone who has ever selected a draft pick has misses.
Yet after consecutive 8-8 records, there have been suggestions that Colbert has lost his drafting touch, although they have not come from anyone in the business.
“It’s not surprising; today, it’s what have you done immediately,” Accorsi said. “The thing about it is, if the Steelers do slip, they always come back. The Steelers always are going to be competitive. They’re never non-competitive. Sometimes you’re going to slip back a little bit, the system kind of dictates that, too.
“If I were a Steelers fan, he’d be the last person I’d worry about whether he’d get good players for me.”
Tom Modrak, another Pittsburgh native and former Steelers scout who is director of BLESTO, has known Colbert for years, although they never worked together.
“He’s honest, straightforward and really good at what he does. There are no peaks and valleys; he’s been the same guy for 30 years, which is really remarkable. He’s had a lot of success and he never went high-hat. I remember when he was carrying his projector like everyone else, and he’d still do it if they had one.
“He’s really a unique guy to be in that role and to be the guy he is all the time.”
That low-key approach is also how Colbert attacks the draft, Rooney said. He has a system and sticks to it, never allowing emotion or panic to knock things off track.
The same holds true with the salary cap. Colbert and the Steelers have made some difficult decisions on which players to keep and which to let go the past few years as they have weeded out many of the iconic veterans who helped deliver two Lombardi trophies.
Did they wait too long? Did Colbert miss the chance to keep some of his best draft choices such as Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis and Emmanuel Sanders because the team pushed cap money into future years in order to keep aging veterans?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
“It’s something where you have to make tough decisions every year and certainly is a complicated part of our process,” Rooney said. “I feel like the bottom line is, we were able to put a competitive team on the field that you had an opportunity to win championships with.
“By and large, we were able to do that, that’s the test whether you’re up against the cap or not: What did you do on the field? We’ve had competitive teams on the field and had opportunities. Even last year at 8-8, we felt if we snuck into the playoffs, we had the kind of team in which we could have made noise in the playoffs.”
The test now is to get over that hump they’re not used to seeing. More talent, picked by Colbert again starting Thursday, could help.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.