Relationships: A Secret of Excellence


via—Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert with Pirates stadium announcer Robby Incmikowski

by Ivan Cole

As I am getting back up to speed on the 2016 season, an interview of Mike Tomlin catches my attention.

He and GM Kevin Colbert were in Florida on football business but, as is the case every year, they had dropped by Bradenton to visit the training camp of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

I am not privy to what happens in every town with multiple professional sports teams, but based upon what I know about four municipalities, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City, the interaction and support among the three major teams, Penguins, Pirates and Steelers, their team leadership and management, players and fans is different, even peculiar in a very positive way.

Tomlin and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle appear to be genuinely close. Tomlin describes Hurdle as ‘friend and mentor’. Players from the three teams openly root for each other, especially during the ‘prime time’ of the run up to playoffs (spring – Pens, fall – Bucs, winter – Steelers). Currently, Steelers and Pirates players are prominently in attendance at Penguins playoff games. Pens players will return the favor at the appropriate times. There are Steelers fans that don’t care one bit about the Pirates or Pens, but in my experience it is rare that those who either reside in the Pittsburgh area or have deep roots there don’t support all three teams.

Okay. So what? Is this just a case of provincialism? A small market community rallying around sports teams for a lack of other diversions? There almost certainly has to be some of that. When river power was at its height, Pittsburgh’s status as Gateway to the West was critical to the expansion and development of the nation. But today, unless you have a purpose to get from Harrisburg to Columbus there really isn’t much reason to be passing through. Art Rooney Sr., The Chief, felt that every year the team ought to give an opportunity to at least one kid with local ties, an Irish Catholic maybe and so forth. Was this Pittsburgh Guy thing just a manifestation of Appalachian insularity?


However, I will be making the argument that it is genius at work.

The Tomlin interview touched both indirectly and directly on the issue of relationships. It you pay close attention you may get a glimpse into the secret of the long term success of the Steelers franchise, as well as the more recent good fortune of the city’s other two teams. For organizations in general, and team sports in particular, the secret to sustained success is the quality of the relationships that are fostered and maintained.

We don’t discuss or understand relationships much, even though the quality of them is so central to every aspect of our lives. But if we did it would be quickly apparent that one of the great strengths of Pittsburgh is its cultural genius in the area of relationships.

I wrote about this at length a few years ago as the Pittsburgh Way. You will rarely hear it characterized in that manner. It will more likely be referred to as ‘blue collar’ or ‘family’. These terms are probably too narrow and can even be unintentionally deceptive in trying to capture the glue that binds the community, and when the principle is applied by the Steelers it provides a competitive advantage that is difficult for outsiders to fully understand, much less replicate.

I contrasted the Pittsburgh Way with what is so often the cultural norm in the Washington DC area. I termed it ‘white collar’, but this is just as imprecise as ‘blue collar’. A better way to characterize it is that relationships in and around the Nation’s Capital can be extremely utilitarian in nature.

An acquaintance relocated to this area as part of the governing administration. He had lots of friends. When that administration left power people stopped returning his phone calls. Conversations often begin with ‘What do you do?’ not just out of curiosity about how someone spends their time or their values, but as an evaluation tool to determine whether or not you are worthy of their association.

And while I am sure there are any number of exceptions, in Pittsburgh such an attitude would constitute an unpardonable sin. In the blue collar value system what one does is subordinated to how they conduct their lives. Do you work hard, put forth your best effort and am responsible to yourself, your family and community? Good enough. Welcome to the family.

Want proof? Look at the Steelers. The most revered player in the history of the franchise is Joe Greene, a defensive lineman. The only player other than Greene to have his jersey retired was Ernie Stautner, a defensive lineman. In almost any other setting that status would have been reserved for an offensive skill position player, likely a quarterback. Terry Bradshaw, a Hall of Famer, maybe Bobby Layne. You would also think that Ben Roethlisberger should be standing head and shoulders over all others in terms of popularity. Not true.

To the uninitiated they may be tempted to feel that this is due to the lingering effects from Ben’s personal difficulties of several years back. I disagree. While we all understand that his role in the team’s success is important to a disproportionate extent, his value as a member of the team is no greater than anyone else. In this sense his popularity will be no greater than that of James Harrison, Antonio Brown, or the now departed Heath Miller or Brett Keisel. Nor was Bradshaw in a more exalted position than Greene, Franco, Mel Blount, even Rocky Bleier.

Why? You keep hearing people bandy about the term ‘family’. It has to be understood in the Pittsburgh context, which is far more expansive than is understood elsewhere.

Some of you might remember when I related that I had an hour long phone conversation with a Rooney family member with close ties to the football operation for no good business reason. Why would he do such a thing? Because we’re family. That’s the secret. In Pittsburgh the highest expression of community is ‘family’, with the attendant obligations and benefits.

While we would be justifiably proud of a family member who earned a PhD, it would be unconscionable to treat that individual any better than a family member who was a high school dropout. In the Washington paradigm what defines the relationship is that one party is a member of ownership of a billion-dollar enterprise, while the other is a writer of a sports blog of no great importance. But the way Art Rooney Jr. saw it, these were two Pittsburgh guys (family members) having a conversation. This was the same vibe that I had when I sat on the back porch of the late Bill Nunn’s home for several hours conducting an interview, but also just talking.

This would also explain why Dan Rooney would stand in the cafeteria line like everyone else, and why the cafeteria workers will go to the next Super Bowl like everyone else associated with the organization. It explains why wide receivers like Hines Ward not only do their bit to block, but that would do it so well that they terrorize defensive players and have rules concocted to curtail the mayhem they foster. It explains why quarterbacks like Bradshaw and Ben end up bloodied because they have to kick in as well. It explains why a Deion Sanders, as talented as he is, probably couldn’t be a part of the Steelers secondary because of his aversion to putting his body on the line for the family.

It also explains that though many have left the community for a variety of reasons, you never really leave the family. Distance and circumstances can only dull family loyalty so much. They show up any and everywhere, displaying the colors and providing maximum support regardless of whether the times are fat or lean.

Loyalty cuts in both directions. Though no one is immune from the harsh standards of the game and the business, within those limitations you can expect maximum respect from the family (management, coaches, teammates and fans), and will never be treated like a commodity to be used up and discarded. Nobody gouges anyone for money.

There is a bias in favor of those who have some sort of family ties. I can’t say whether it is because they understand and fit the system more seamlessly or if it is just a more advanced form of nepotism. Among coaches and upper management those who are either Pittsburgh guys or with other close ties to the region (and in this regard I am including neighboring Ohio, our hated siblings, but siblings nonetheless) or the team includes Kevin Colbert, Todd Haley, Richard Mann, Danny Smith, Jerry Olsavsky, Mike Munchak, Joey Porter and Carnell Lake. Players with similar ties or whose families have team loyalties includes Le’Veon Bell, B.J. Finney, Bruce Gradkowski, Doran Grant, James Harrison, Cameron Heyward, Mike Adams (departed), Jesse James, Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier and Ross Ventrone.

And maybe it is just a coincidence that the team’s top three draft picks, Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave will fit right in with this group.

Generally speaking, many people just don’t get relationships. We are currently in political crisis because too many people have come to believe that politics is a battleground of competing ideas when, in fact, its highest expression is the art of relationships. In a healthy political environment ideology will transform and morph in response to the demands of relationships. Instead, ideas have been elevated to the status of false gods, limited and rigid, ultimately failing.

Sports, and specifically, football is no different. Those who put their faith in measurables, metrics, commodification and one size fits all thinking are doomed to ultimate disappointment. Team sports, as do all group endeavors, have need for such things, but they must always be subordinated to governing a philosophy and system of relationships.

Most outsiders and some who claim to be insiders just don’t get the Steelers. Many of my Washington area friends get that there is something about the Pittsburgh culture that their team does not have. But this ‘family/blue collar’ thing just flies right over their heads. Unfortunately, it flies over the heads of some in Steelers Nation as well.

Homer J, a family member who would do a better job with this topic than I, has related stories to me of former players who are on bad terms with some in the Nation for violating family ethics. A useful litmus test for fans and media members is how the conversation is shaped by family values. If, for example, a family member was failing by your reckoning in some endeavor, would you publicly and prematurely disrespect, discredit or ridicule that individual? Not if you were a member of my family.

Being a member of the family requires more than just saying that you bleed black and gold. Family members will fail, but this is never a cause to deny them their dignity.

The benefits of the family approach are clear. Quality people want to come here. Once here many will make what appear to be sacrifices based upon common values (but in reality are not) in order to stay. That’s one competitive advantage.

The needs of the one are sacrificed for the needs of the group; something that some can’t ultimately abide, and they move on. But for those who get it, the value of everyone within the group is elevated. There is a certain amount of hero worshipping, but in the final analysis the prize is adoption into the family.

And here is the ultimate advantage and where that elusive quality of chemistry comes into play. Take two competing groups. One group consists of mercenaries who fight for riches, ego and reputation. One group fights for family. Whom do you bet on?


  • I enjoyed the article, Ivan. As a matter of fact, the piece you wrote about “The Pittsburgh Way” is still bookmarked in my Steelers folder. When I get a little homesick I will pull it up and reread it. I moved from western PA 15 years ago for work but I still love my Steelers and am proud of the values I was taught. I am reminded of such with these types of articles. Thank you.


  • Good stuff.

    I always go back to reading “For cause and Comrade” in college. People fight for their family, people sacrifice for their family. When you treat those connections and relationships as real, and not just lip service (like so many of my bosses used to do) people respect that, they buy in and do more than their job or their share.

    I’m stealing that part about politics, stated so much better than I can do myself.


  • Really, really good stuff Ivan. Absolutely on point.

    As one top NFL agent says, Pittsburgh is the best place to work in the NFL. That means players – including some he has represented – are willing to take hometown discounts or not even bother shopping themselves around – so that they can play in Pittsburgh or stay in Pittsburgh. In a world ruled by a salary cap, that’s yuuuuge.

    I sincerely believe it started with Arthur J. Rooney, who was kind and fiercely loyal. He and Dan built the Steelers into a family, with some folks – like Nunn and Hoak – having careers lasting almost fifty years. There were a bunch of young black guys who came from the segregated South who came to play here – and had never had a relationship with their bosses that encompassed both friendship and respect. Joe Greene still talks movingly of the love he will always have for Art Rooney and Chuck Noll, and says he’d give anything to sit once more in the front room of the Chief’s house on North Lincoln Avenue and smoke one more cigar.

    Guys like Joe and Franco keep the old guys together, and when you become a Steeler, you become part of that fraternity. Other guys – like Hines and Peezy and Pottsie – are part of it.

    It’s about sacrifice. It’s about family. It’s about caring for one another. It’s about following the Chief’s example of giving back to the community. And it’s about being a part of a Nation that shares those values and will always have your back. “We’re not America’s Team,” the Chief told Pete Rozelle. “We’re Pittsburgh’s Team.” Yep. In a lot of ways, all good.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Ivan, I want to start by saying I have never been to Pittsburgh. I became a Steelers fan in the early 70’s because of their colors and the way they played defense. I know…right! By the early 80’s, as difficult as it was to get information from another part of the country, my love of the Steelers grew due to the attitude, beliefs and values of the Chief. I have always espoused the idea that the Steelers were different then most professional franchises. I have always believed that they were more like a family and I have always enjoyed considering myself a part of that family though I have never physically been a part of it. I believe there is a lot to what you have said and I hope some day I can venture up to Pittsburgh and experience that family first hand.

    Thanks for such a great article,
    Dallas, TX
    Go Steelers & Pens!


    • Welcome to the site, Scott. It has always amazed me how many people are fans of the Steelers who have no connection to Pittsburgh. It must be particularly difficult in the land of Jerry’s World. My eldest lived in Dallas for a while, and he was not much of a dresser, but for Sunday game days he bought a particularly natty black shirt and gold tie. As he said, “You can’t wear a jersey to church, but no one can tell you what colors to wear.”


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