Steelers' Colbert must help Tomlin assimilate
By Mike Prisuta
Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, entering his eighth season on the job, has advanced from newcomer to incumbent during his tenure with his hometown team.
The North Catholic High School graduate arrived from Detroit, where he had been the Lions' pro scouting director, on Feb. 15, 2000. Then, Colbert was entering an environment dominated by Bill Cowher, who had just won a power struggle with Colbert's predecessor, Tom Donahoe.
This time, Colbert will be helping new head coach Mike Tomlin assimilate and continue to glean an understanding of what Colbert calls "The Steelers Way."
Colbert spoke with the Tribune-Review about a variety of subjects on the eve of Training Camp 2007 at St. Vincent College:
Q: On a depth chart of the organization, is the head coach above, below or on the same line as the director of football operations?
A: There are two lines, one from Art Rooney (II), the president, and one from Dan Rooney, the chairman, and everybody else is under that. Really, that's how the organization works. This is the Rooneys' team, the Rooneys' organization and we all work under that umbrella. Beyond that it's kind of nebulous as far as who you are. I think that's what makes the organization great. Even the Rooneys will say they're part of the group, too. It's not like it's a direct corporate structure; I don't think they've ever wanted that. The big thing that they always stress is, 'Look, we're all in this together.' I don't think there are any direct lines other than we all answer to the ownership."
Q: But in the last seven years at least once there had to have been a stalemate on some issue and somebody had to have made a call. Who made it?
A: There have been situations like that and 99 percent of the time you talk through it and you work through it. Any football decisions, it's always going to be Art, Mr. Rooney (Dan), the head coach and myself. And that's how it's always been -- draft day, cuts, free-agent signings, trades, whatever. The coach and I will be more involved and then we'll go to the ownership and say "This is what we're thinking about doing." Or, it's coming down to the final cut day, we'll meet and we'll talk about it. Or, it's coming into draft day, we have meetings. And, really, the four of us collectively; no decision is made that one part of that four-headed group didn't know what was going to happen.
Q: How long will it take to establish the type of working relationship you'd like to have with Mike Tomlin?
A: I think you have to go through a full season. When I started here it was pre-draft and when Mike started it was pre-draft. He started at the same kind of time I started. The difference is then I was the new guy and now he's the new guy. The thing that's the same is the organization and it's still the organization. I think you gotta go through that draft, free agency, the offseason, training camp, your first win, your first loss, the end of the season, where you ended up, and then you turn it all over again. Nobody knows how anybody's going to work together until you've gone through that whole process.
It'll take a year for coach Tomlin to learn what we're all about, for us to learn what he's all about, how he's going to deal with every situation that comes up. I think you need at least one year and I would anticipate that not changing.
Q: So your role and your approach hasn't changed all that much as the incumbent in the coach-director relationship. Or has it?
A: The organization's the same, the goal is the same. Now you have a new on-the-field leader trying to get us there. He's going to have a different style than coach Cowher did. But ultimately, it's still the Pittsburgh Steelers and we're still trying to win a Super Bowl. There is going to be a different approach. There's a new coach, which is a very important part of this, but it's still the same organization with the same goal.
Q: With the exception of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who was here from 1992-96, left and then returned in 2004, the Steelers hadn't brought in a director, a head coach or a coordinator from another organization since you were hired. Was it by design that the franchise went in a different direction this time, and how will that impact the Steelers moving forward?
A: When you're bringing someone in from the outside, the one thing that is stressed is, "This is the Pittsburgh Steelers and we have a certain way of doing things. We're not closed to new ideas and new approaches, but understand that it has to fit in the general philosophy of the organization." That was explained to me and that was explained to coach Tomlin and all the candidates that were interviewed for the job, "You're going to be a part of this."
It's never about one individual. It's never about the director of football operations. It's never about the owner. It's never about the head coach. It's never about one player. It's about the whole group and they have to understand that. Anybody coming in from the outside has to understand that you're joining a successful organization and they have a certain way of doing things. We'll be open to your ideas, but (only) as long as they fit the general structure and we're all shooting for the same general goal.
Q: So if June Jones had interviewed and had wanted to install the run-and-shoot offense, he'd have been told 'thanks, but no thanks,' correct?
A: Again, ownership never dictates what they want you to do. But you understand that you fit in a certain mold. They're going to, more or less, tell you "We've been very successful in the past," and they have been. We're as successful as any franchise in the history of this league. So we have a general way we want to do things. You have to understand that. And again, it's a nebulous thing, "The Steelers Way." And nobody ever knows exactly what that means, that's the beauty of it.
Q: It sounds confusing.
A: It's confusing but the message is clear. The Steelers are the Steelers because they're the Steelers. It's a special organization. People on the outside know that. People on the inside understand it and accept it.
Q: And if you're doing something that doesn't fall into accordance with "The Steelers Way," is that made clear to you?
A: You'll know. It doesn't even have to be a tangible thing. You just know, "This isn't what we do." It's the unwritten rules of this organization. You see things that go on in other organizations, whether it's their spending habits or the types of players that they're going to have, whatever. You just know, "We're not going to do that and in the long run we're going to be successful." You have to believe it, too. As long as you believe it, we'll continue to be successful.
Q: Bill Cowher emerged as a dominating presence among the players. How long before Mike Tomlin can be the same, provided he's so inclined? When will this be "his team?"
A: I think it's directly correlated to success on the field. The more you have success on the field, the quicker the players are going to be to accept you as their leader.
Q: The issues heading into training camp appear to be three spots on the offensive line that are apparently up for grabs (center, right guard and right tackle), Alan Faneca's status as a disgruntled employee, running back depth behind Willie Parker, James Harrison stepping in for Joey Porter at right outside linebacker and the special teams' ability to improve dramatically.
Did we leave anything out?
A: You hit everything. It sounds like we were 0-16 with that dilemma.
Q: We left out Ben Roethlisberger throwing 23 interceptions because we're not anticipating another motorcycle accident and appendectomy.
A: Thanks. On the offensive line, (center) Jeff Hartings retired and you have to go through whoever winds up being your starter and they have to show that they can play at a championship level. The secondary, there are some things going on, there's good competition back there. Ike (Taylor's) going to get in there and compete, Deshea (Townsend) is as good as he's ever been and Bryant McFadden's pushing (at cornerback). Anthony Smith and Ryan Clark are going to have a great battle (at free safety). And, of course, James Harrison's stepping up to replace Joey. We think he can do it.
The great thing about it is you can speculate; they will or they won't. It's the same thing when you draft a guy. If you take him at a certain point he's supposed to do something. The only way you know for sure is when he gets out on the field and he either does it or he doesn't. We've had guys that have done it and guys that haven't. Over time they sort themselves out.
Training camp is always fun for those type of unknowns. The best thing is the competition will sort it out.
Q: Did the Steelers suffer at all from a Super Bowl hangover in 2006, or was the biggest problem how the other teams prepared for and performed against the Steelers?
A: Our team was as focused, they worked as hard as I've ever seen them work, they knew what was coming, but everybody knew we were coming, I guess is the way to put it. Our training camp was just as physical and just as hard, we did everything the same as the year we won the Super Bowl. But we didn't win it again.
Q: Is the scheduling of 15 two-a-day practices an indication that Mike Tomlin intends to use training camp to make a statement about who's in charge?
A: Coach Tomlin is going to be himself and he's going to do things the way he wants to do them underneath that Steelers umbrella, as part of the organization.