Labriola on 1994-95, Ron Hughes' legacy

INDIANAPOLIS – Ready or not, here it comes:

• It was a dark time in recent franchise history. Or at least it seemed like it at the time.

• Over a span of a few months, their talented team completed an underachieving season that included a stunning loss as a double-digit favorite, and then over a period of a couple of months of their offseason they lost their leading receiver in free agency, they lost their leading scorer after a protracted contract dispute that turned into a public relations nightmare, and they got so fed up with their No. 1 running back that despite him being a recent first-team All-Pro and a holder of some of the franchise’s rushing records they just decided to cut him.

• What they had been building over the previous few seasons had come crashing down. Clearly, the window had slammed shut. Or so everyone believed.

• That might sound like a description of where the Steelers are now, but in fact it’s a description of what they went through 25 years ago when their 1994 season ended ignominiously with a loss to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium.

• Then, in relatively quick succession:

• Eric Green, the guy who had organized that Super Bowl rap video rehearsal in the team meeting room the week of that game against the Chargers and who had led the team in receptions in 1993 and receiving yards in 1994, signed with the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent.

• Gary Anderson, the 13-year veteran kicker who had a streak of four straight 100-point seasons, repeatedly refused the Steelers’ efforts to re-sign him and at one point had a local television station come to a high school field to film him practicing with his wife serving as his holder and his young children shagging football in an effort to sway public opinion in his favor.

• And Barry Foster, who had set a franchise record with 1,690 yards rushing in 1992, who began his Steelers MVP acceptance speech by stating matter-of-factly that he would be a holdout the following summer unless his contract was renegotiated, who had 24 rushing touchdowns in his previous 34 starts, had become such an undependable and miserable malcontent that the Steelers just cut him.

• Even without social media, even without sports talk radio as we know it today, it was gloom and doom all summer in Pittsburgh. And the moves the Steelers made in response to losing Green, Anderson, and Foster made the fan base even gloomier and doomier.

• Replacing Green as the top receiving threat would be Yancey Thigpen, a street free agent the team signed in 1992. Taking over for Foster would be some combination of journeyman Erric Pegram, who had been signed as an unrestricted free agent from Atlanta. And the kicker assigned to replace the beloved Anderson was 35-year-old Norm Johnson.

• So significant were the losses perceived to be that the Steelers were picked to finish behind the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Central Division in 1995, the same Browns the Steelers had defeated three times in 1994, including a 20-point win in the AFC Divisional Round, the same Browns who would be in Baltimore before the end of the calendar year.

• But that’s not the way things worked out, because Thigpen caught 85 passes for 1,307 yards, because Pegram and Morris 1,372 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns, and because Johnson set franchise records with 34 field goals and 141 points.

• This isn’t supposed to serve as a prediction that these Steelers will overcome the losses of their top receiver and their top running back and overcome it to the extent that the team advances farther than it did when both of them were in the lineup. It’s just a reminder of a time when they did.

RON HUGHES’ INFLUENCE ON COMBINE WEEK
• Yes, it’s Combine week, and of all the things that aren’t the same, all of the ways that it’s not what it used to be, No. 1 on that list is it’s a Combine without Ron Hughes. On Tuesday, Feb. 12, Hughes died at the age of 75, and while he was a football lifer, his legacy is on display every February when the NFL gathers for this particular event.

• Hughes’ name is engraved on two Lombardi trophies for his work as the Steelers college scouting coordinator. His fingerprints were all over a period in Detroit Lions history in which the team qualified for the playoffs seven times during the nine seasons from 1991-99, and the Lions were one win away from a berth in Super Bowl XXVI. Hughes mentored and launched the careers of many of the young men who went on to successful careers in player personnel departments all over the NFL. And as the head coach at North Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, he was undefeated against Dan Marino, then the quarterback at Central Catholic High School.

• Hughes retired after the 2015 NFL Draft, but even when he wasn’t physically present for a Combine, his presence could be found in the system still very much in use today.

• “The thing about Ron was the consistency of his draft philosophy, and it has been passed on,” said General Manager Kevin Colbert, once a below-the-line outside linebacker/punter for Hughes at North Catholic. “His philosophy is one that’s very systematic, very consistent, very comprehensive.”

• Colbert still jokes that his own inabilities as a player may have helped end Hughes’ coaching career, and if that’s the case the scouting profession became the beneficiary. As enrollment declined at North Catholic and the football team continued to play in the WPIAL’s highest classification, the winning became less frequent and the school made a coaching change.

• As a coach, Hughes also had been doing some part-time evaluating of film for BLESTO, the NFL scouting service that was headquartered in Pittsburgh at the time, and his skill landed him a job there as an area scout after his stint at North Catholic. Because area scouts for BLESTO weren’t directly associated with any NFL team, the way those guys knew they were doing a good job was when they got hired by an NFL team.

• Hughes got hired by the Detroit Lions, where he started out scouting the West Coast. In a couple of years, his work was good enough that he got moved to Detroit and given an office by the Lions. Then Hughes started working his way up the ladder.

• “Ron implemented a system he learned from his early days grading film when he was a high school coach, a time when his direct boss was Tim Rooney, who was the Steelers pro personnel guy at the time,” said Colbert. “Tim Rooney then went to Detroit, and he hired Ron. Tim had taken the Steelers system to Detroit, and then when Ron eventually took over there some years later, he used the same system we still use today. It was really one big circle, but after Ron implemented the system, then he enhanced it.”

• One of Hughes’ moves with the Lions was to hire Colbert, who was working for the Dolphins at the time, to become Detroit’s pro personnel director. Colbert worked there until he was hired by the Steelers on Feb. 15, 2000.

• “Ron had been my boss in Detroit, and so when the Steelers hired me in 2000 I implemented his system here,” said Colbert. “When he was let go in Detroit, he still had three years left on his contract so I was able to add him, with the Rooneys’ permission, as a consultant. The year after that, we made him the college scouting coordinator. It was a chance to add considerable experience, you were able to add the mentor to your program. He was a valuable asset as the college scouting coordinator.”

• And one of Hughes’ greatest strengths, in Colbert’s eyes, was how he always preached the concept of “follow the development.”

• “His favorite phrase was ‘follow the development,’” said Colbert. “The development is the development of the draft, and you don’t let yourself be tempted into taking someone in the second round who should be taken in the fourth round because of need. That whole emphasis of staying away from the word ‘need’ comes from him. That was something that he constantly hammered home with us. His strength was organization, but on top of that, it was a willingness to stick with your system and your beliefs – what has worked for you. That was something he emphasized every day.”

• And it’s something still talked about, a principle still followed whenever and wherever NFL scouts gather. Like this week in Indianapolis.

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