Ron Hughes joins Steelers quest for ring

The Steelers surprised most everyone by not renewing the contract of director of college scouting Bill Baker in the week following last month's draft. But if you know anything about the Steelers, the decision to let Baker go and hire Ron Hughes in his place is not that big of a stretch.

Hughes had several things working in his favor. He is a Pittsburgh-area native. He has connections to North Catholic High School. And he was the man who gave director of football operations Kevin Colbert his start in the NFL.

When you add those things up into an equation with the fact that Hughes is very good at what he does, the move to replace Baker with him is quite a natural fit.

Hughes, who worked for the Detroit Lions for 18 years - the last 10 of which he spent as the team's player personnel chief -, was fired after the 2001 season when Matt Millen took over as the team's general manager.

That spring, he received a call from Colbert, who had played football for him at North Catholic and later worked for him with the Lions. Colbert had been hired by the Steelers the year before to replace Tom Donahoe, who had lost a highly publicized battle with head coach Bill Cowher over the control of the team.

He jumped at the opportunity to add his mentor to the team's scouting staff, even if it was on an unpaid basis.

"When I left Detroit, I was still under contract for several years," said Hughes, who began his career in the NFL working as a BLESTO scout.

"So Kevin asked me if I wanted help out here. They don't like to use the term consultant. But I've always liked this organization. I started here originally. The ownership is organized; they know what they want to do. Coach Cowher, I understand him and I have a tremendous respect for what he does and how he gets it done. That's all I have to give. I love being here. I think the guy has a chance and I'd love to be part of a Super Bowl organization. That's the essence of what I do.

"The ring would be nice, but I just want to win it. There's nothing else. I have a couple of granddaughters and my daughter is pregnant right now and is due very soon. At this stage in my life, there's not a lot else I want to do."

It's the one thing he couldn't accomplish in Detroit that haunts him.

While Hughes was in charge of the Lions' personnel department, the team enjoyed perhaps the greatest long-term successful run in team history, making the playoffs in six of 10 seasons.

During that time, Hughes oversaw drafts that brought in Herman Moore, Robert Porcher, Luther Ellis, Jason Hanson, David Sloan and Stephen Boyd. All played in at least one Pro Bowl.

Add in players such as current Steelers' center Jeff Hartings and quarterback Charlie Batch, Kansas City wide receiver Johnnie Morton and San Diego corner Ryan McNeil and you have the nucleus for a pretty good team. And that doesn't even take into account cornerback Bryant Westbrook and wide receiver Germaine Crowell, whose once-promising careers have been sidetracked by injuries.

"I'm proud of what we did in Detroit. Did we win the Super Bowl? No," Hughes said. "But the NFC Central was the toughest division in football during the '90s. If you go back and look, the number of teams that went to the playoffs, the NFC Central had the most. And the NFC Central had the most wins over that 10-year span. That's not just three or four years, that's 10 years. Every year for 10 years, they sent two teams to the playoffs. Four times they sent three and two times they sent four. No other division has ever done that. It was very hard to win there."

One thing Hughes does understand is that it will be difficult for the Steelers to keep things rolling if they do not draft well. He realizes that falls on him and his scouting staff.

"It's so difficult when you're drafting in the lower part of the round every year, people just don't understand that," Hughes said. "When you're drafting in the lower third, it's hard, because there aren't 20 game breakers available."

His task now, if the Steelers continue to win as they have for most of Cowher's tenure here, will be to find the diamonds in the rough. Having worked for a man he considers very similar to Cowher in former Lions head coach Bobby Ross, he doesn't feel that will be a problem.

"Bobby Ross is a lot like (Cowher), they are both very demanding," Hughes said. "You set your parameters up and I'll work within that. I'm the brake. I'll tell you, 'No, maybe we shouldn't do that or maybe we should take more of a look at it.' That's the job of a personnel director. The coach knows what he wants. You try to advise them.

"You set up certain criteria like character or medical. You have to be careful that the criteria you use. What's bad character? You have to define that. What medical conditions do you want to stay away from? Obviously, if you have a running back with a history of knee problems, that's not a good thing. It's like a diamond cutter with bad eyes. You just want to stay away from those conditions."

Dale Lolley

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