“I don’t want to say better than,” said Steelers general manager, Kevin Colbert, while speaking to reporters alongside head coach Mike Tomlin during a post-draft press conference on Saturday. “I’m proud to say we added to that [trophy] room. It was four trophies. There was four when we got here. And you knew the task. You think about DMR [the late Dan Rooney] and being able to add to that room means a ton. It doesn’t mean it’s over. The next step, I mean we gotta get more than, and we’ll never lose that. But it means a lot.”
I should say “former” Steelers general manager, Kevin Colbert. That’s right, after more than 22 years as the team’s de facto general manager– he was the Director of Football Operations from 2000-2010 — and then first official general manager (the organization simply refused to name one for the longest time), Colbert wrapped up his full-time duties with the organization on Saturday by putting the finishing touches on the Steelers 2022 NFL Draft.
In case you didn’t watch Saturday’s press conference–and in case the quote from above didn’t convey it — Colbert got surprisingly emotional when he talked about being able to help the Steelers add two more Lombardi Trophies to their trophy case during his tenure.
It was certainly a tall task to get the Steelers back to the top of the mountain after spending most of the 1970s there and giving the founder and owner — the late Art Rooney Sr. — a reason to actually have a trophy case for the first time ever in the history of what had forever been a floundering franchise.
Times were tougher in the 1980s, and after head coach Chuck Noll retired in 1991, there were a lot of near-missed in the 1990s under new head coach, and Pittsburgh native, Bill Cowher. It may have actually been because of all of those near-misses that Colbert, like Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, got a great job with his hometown football team. Tom Donahoe, the Steelers Director of Football Operations (general manager) starting in 1991, resigned from the organization after losing a power struggle with Cowher after the 1999 season. Like Cowher and Colbert, Donahue was a Pittsburgh native, but just because two people grow up in the same city, that doesn’t mean they’re going to get along.
Kevin Colbert was able to put his ego aside — if he even had one — and build some of the greatest rosters in franchise history while working alongside Cowher and his huge ego.
The fruits of their labor ended in more near-misses early on in Colbert’s reign, but after the drafting of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 — a move that was, as legend has it, “strongly encouraged” by Dan Rooney, the late, great president and owner of the franchise–Colbert was able to finally help the organization add to that room with a fifth Lombardi, thanks to a victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Colbert was able to do it again a few years later, this time while working alongside the Steelers’ new head coach, Mike Tomlin, a man who also seems to have — as most head coaches do — a huge ego.
Head coaches are always at the forefront and are certainly vital to a team’s fortunes, but general managers also play a huge role. They might not share the same spotlight as the coach, quarterback or often even the team owner, but they have to be involved with every facet of the organization–including drafting, development, negotiations and even disciplinary issues.
It would be easy — and maybe even understandable — for someone with so many responsibilities to yearn for the spotlight, for attention, for credit. But while Kevin Colbert certainly got the credit — and even his share of the blame when things went askew — he always seemed to be more than happy with being in the background. Don’t get me wrong, Colbert certainly spent a lot of time talking to the media during his time as the Steelers’ general manager. He didn’t hide.
- People knew who he was.
But he never seemed to care about anything other than getting the job done and doing so with a calculated, even-keeled approach. Colbert was a calm facilitator in a profession with strong, type-A personalities.
- The Steelers have rarely ever acted on impulse.
Even sudden moves like signing the just-released Joe Haden to a lucrative deal just days after he was released by the Browns in 2017 or trading a first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019 seemed pragmatic and sensible.
Colbert always talked about moving up or down in the first round of the draft, but the Steelers rarely did that; when they did, however, the moves usually panned out.
The Steelers have rarely acted aggressively during unrestricted free agency or when there was a public cry to get one of their own players signed to a huge deal. In order for an organization to have that kind of an approach, it needs someone who isn’t prone to overreactions. That’s a job for a person who stays the course and sticks to the plan.
- Maybe that’s why the Steelers only had one losing season during Colbert’s tenure.
Yes, we talk about Tomlin’s streak of non-losing seasons — as well as the organization’s lack of a sub-.500 record since 2003 — but imagine being the general manager of an NFL team for 22 seasons and only suffering one losing record. Imagine being an NFL general manager for two decades and having more Super Bowls than losing seasons.
There’s a lot of luck that goes into that, but there’s also a lot of skill. Colbert certainly was a very talented NFL executive, but, to reiterate, he didn’t seem to care about getting any of the glory.
He just wanted to add to the room.
Colbert did that, and he did his job–a job that can be a hot pressure-cooker if you allow it to be–better than few in his position ever have.
- I don’t think people realize how good Colbert was at his job.
Take a bow, Kevin Colbert, I know you don’t like to do those kinds of things, but you certainly deserve it.