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Kevin Colbert: Steeler's new personnel boss is a man who gets things done

Friday, April 14, 2000

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

An ice storm struck Pittsburgh and painted a glossy sheet on Spring Hill on the North Side. Kevin Colbert left home for North Catholic High School but could not make it up the slippery hill for his daily two-mile walk.

  Kevin Colbert will bring some life lessons from growing up on the North Side to his duties as director of football operations for the Steelers. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Too bad, he thought, no school. Gleefully, he phoned his oldest brother Bud at work to tell him he could not go to school because of the ice.

"If you can't go up the hill," Bud replied, "then go down it."

An angry Kevin, who had not considered the longer alternate route, punched a hole in the wall, then reluctantly set off on his new trek. He reached North Catholic, only to discover school was canceled. He trudged back home, carrying his books and two valuable life lessons.

Lesson No. 1: "There's always another way to get something done."

Lesson No. 2, which actually didn't come to him until his brother saw the hole in the wall: "Fix it."

Today, Kevin Colbert, 43, is ready to apply those lessons from the 1970s in his new job as the Steelers' director of football operations.

Colbert succeeded Tom Donahoe, who was forced to resign Jan. 14 in a move as shocking as the Steelers' plummeting fortunes over the past 11/2 years. They have lost 15 of the past 21 games.

The way a native North Sider might say it, they need fixing, and it won't be as easy as slapping spackling all over it. It looks like an uphill skate on thin ice, and, in this case, the alternate route might look familiar to him -- downhill.

Part of the Steelers' reconstruction has been entrusted to Colbert, a former altar boy and grave digger on the North Side who has worked in the front offices of three major pro sports teams. His mother died when he was five, his father 10 years later and his four older brothers banded together, with help from nearby aunts, uncles and neighbors, to keep the family intact.

Colbert returns to Old Allegheny after 10 years in Detroit, pretty much the same man who left.

He is, in a way, much like Tom Donahoe.

"Kevin is not the type of guy you will find stories about, or find him someplace after hours or at scouts' hangouts," said Tim Rooney, a longtime pro scouting director who retired from the New York Giants last year. "That's not his venue. He's very conservative, quiet, dedicated, hard-working. I can't tell you a funny story about him. He'll enjoy the stories, on the fringe of the crowd, but he won't be the loud guy in the middle of the room."

Indeed, Colbert is neither loud nor the sophisticate. He enjoys a beer, but not to excess. He prefers pizza to pasta primavera, Pontiac to Mercedes, the oldies, and a good hockey game to the symphony. In fact, he played over-40 hockey in Detroit and wants to do so here.

Ron Hughes, his coach and mentor at North Catholic and his boss in Detroit, once took him to the Phantom of the Opera at a fancy London house when the Lions were playing a game there. All that big organ music had a profound effect on Colbert.

He fell asleep.

"I was kinda tired, I guess," Colbert explained without hint of embarrassment.

Hughes tried to take Colbert to his favorite upscale restaurant in Detroit, where Japanese and French cooking are featured and it can cost four people $700 to dine.

"I could never take Kevin down there," Hughes complained. "He eats hamburger. And hamburger there costs 35 bucks -- and they won't make it for you.

"You're dealing pretty much with a Plain Jane. That's not a negative. That's the type of person he is. He's very, very humble. It's not a pretense."

Hughes knows him as well as anyone. Now the vice president of player personnel for the Lions, where he has worked the past 17 years, Hughes was North Catholic football coach when Colbert attended high school there.

Colbert had played football at St. Boniface grade school but a traumatic injury to his left arm in fifth grade temporarily thwarted a budding career. The middle of his forearm bent at a 90-degree angle. Teammates vomited when they saw it.

So, he gave up football and played baseball and hockey in school. Then, as a junior, he helped the football team by keeping statistics, taping ankles and the like.

"I realized what I was missing," Colbert said.

He asked Hughes if he could play, and he became a backup linebacker as a senior and then the punter when the first-team punter was hurt.

Things came fast for Colbert after high school, mostly because he pursued them that way.

He attended CCAC on the North Side, and Hughes asked Colbert to help him at North Catholic.

"You're going to coach for me," Hughes said. "Be here at 4 o'clock. You're coaching the freshmen."

Said Colbert, "I don't know anything about coaching."

"I'll teach you," Hughes replied.

He later enrolled in Robert Morris College's sports management program and became the de facto sports information director as a junior. That allowed him to travel with the basketball team, where he got to know Coach Matt Furjanic.

He worked in the Detroit Pistons' ticket office for three months on an internship after college, where he also got his first taste of pro scouting. Tim Rooney, a Pittsburgh native, was pro scouting director with the Lions, the job Colbert eventually would fill. Rooney sent the NFLwaiver list to Colbert and he compiled a "short list" or "ready list" of players the Lions might want to sign.

Colbert returned to Robert Morris as a graduate assistant coach to Furjanic. While Colbert coached basketball in college, he worked part-time for Jack Butler at the Blesto football scouting combine downtown.

Furjanic gives Colbert credit for recruiting one of the Colonials' all-time best players, Forrest Grant of Beaver Falls. Colbert, though, landed a more lasting prize for himself. Back then, college scouts could make virtually unlimited visits to a recruit.

"I put Kevin in charge of recruiting Forrest Grant," Furjanic said. "Kevin said one day that he met the neighbor's daughter, and that he wanted to see her. I said, 'That's great, Kevin, just keep going back to Beaver Falls.'"

It was some recruitment. Robert Morris got Grant, who helped them to two NCAA tournament berths, and Kevin got the girl. Her name is Janis, a.k.a. Mrs. Kevin Colbert.

Touching all the bases, Colbert even worked briefly for the Pirates after Robert Morris. He served one month in their scouting department and "I got sandwiches for the scouts."

He left there to become an assistant football coach under his brother Bob, the defensive coordinator, at Ohio Wesleyan University, where he also worked for one year as baseball coach.

Eclectic, is the word to describe it. Football, baseball, basketball, maybe even hockey. Colbert was a scout/coach looking for a sport to match his talents.

"I always thought he'd be one hell of a basketball coach one day," said Furjanic, now the coach at Pitt-Greensburg. "He did everything -- recruiting, coaching, scouting, scouting reports. He was unbelievable for someone that age who had never played college basketball."

By 1984, however, Colbert had cast his lot with football. That's when he joined Blesto as a full-fledged scout. The next year, he went to work for the Miami Dolphins as a scout, and lived in Beaver County the whole time. After five years with them he rejoined his mentor, Hughes, in Detroit.

"Some of the things he did to learn this business are pretty amazing," Hughes said.

It is hard to imagine a player personnel director with a more diverse background, or with more difficult circumstances as a kid.

His mother, Eva, died of cancer when Colbert was five. His father died of heart-and-lung disease when he was 15. His oldest brother, Bud, now 56, became head of the household and the authority figure in Kevin Colbert's life.

"It was a hard life for him without his mom and dad," said his aunt, Marie Scherer Weidner. "The five boys just stayed together. Our family is very close and we tried to instill that in them."

Brother Bob, 53, played football at Maryland, coached in the NFL with the Redskins and Colts and coaches today at Bridgewater College in Virginia. Brother Bernie, 47, played at North Carolina State and coached at North Catholic and Kiski Prep. His other brother, Bruce, is 50.

Other than punching that hole in the wall, no one can remember Colbert ever again lashing out in anger or getting into any kind of trouble.

"His brother Bud would never stand for that," said Aunt Marie, who taught Colbert to play tennis. "Bud is very serious and extremely instrumental in his life."

Almost all who knew him at an early age describe Colbert concisely: Disciplined and organized. Nothing was ever handed to him. He even dug graves at St. John's cemetery during his high school days to make a buck.

"His personality hasn't changed since he was five years old," said Bud, who would take his kid brother on dates with him and had him move in with him and his new wife until Colbert graduated from college. "He's always been a pretty level person, never real high and never real down."

Rip Scherer, his uncle, taught him a few things about sports, and with Hughes helped direct Colbert on a path to where he is today. Scherer, a former coach at North Caholic, Norwin, Moon and others, scouted in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts when Colbert began his career with Blesto and the Dolphins.

"When I was scouting and on the road, I watched how his peers interacted with him," Scherer said. "I would hear the other guys asking him for his opinion on personnel, on certain things related to scouting. He had that kind of respect from the other guys. He had the personal and professional qualities that other people gravitated to him. I sat back and said that young son of a gun will make it.

"I told my brothers, some day Kevin will be a GM. I don't know where."

Colbert had interviewed with the Steelers before Tom Donahoe's job came open. In fact, he talked to Donahoe about an opening for the college scouting coordinator's position here when Tom Modrak left two years ago. He also interviewed with other teams, including the New York Giants.

Few jobs, however, would have put him under the kind of spotlight he will be in here. The schism between Donahoe and Coach Bill Cowher led to Donahoe's forced resignation. It was widely suggested that whoever filled Donahoe's position would be nothing but a 'yes'-man for Cowher. After he was hired, a Post-Gazette sports cartoon depicted Colbert standing inside the open jaws of the head coach.

The cartoon made its way to Detroit.

"He is no 'yes'-man, I guarantee you," Hughes said. "That does not exist. He's his own man."

Said Rip Scherer, "I don't think anyone should misunderstand him being a gentleman for being a pussycat. He'll get it done in his way. He's not going to be buffaloed or pushed around. Kevin will hold his ground, he'll never compromise his strong principles.

"You don't have to be the bully on the block to be respected."

You just have to find another way to get it done.

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