Trustee chair: Steelers GM Kevin Colbert tried to save Robert Morris hockey, and Penguins are willing to help

Jun. 2—Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was among those who "emotionally" appealed to keep the Robert Morris University hockey teams alive, but his pitch ultimately fell on deaf ears. Now the Pittsburgh Penguins are willing to help resuscitate the programs.

If that's at all still possible.

Those are just two details emerging from a 45-minute telephone call with RMU board of trustees chair Morgan O'Brien.

It was a conversation that made one thing ironically clear. The original Robert Morris is the man credited with financing the American Revolution. Yet the university that bears his name can't figure out how to fund a pair of college hockey teams.

Even when some of Pittsburgh's most prominent sports executives are lending support.

Speaking with "Breakfast with Benz" Tuesday evening, O'Brien gave his version of events during a virtual board meeting the night the members decided to eliminate the programs. A meeting he says lasted two days between May 20-21.

According to O'Brien, university President Chris Howard spoke at the annual strategic planning meeting of the board, which goes through all the different aspects of the school's business plan for the upcoming year.

Howard put forth his plan to the board, which included the elimination of hockey, then left the room. According to Robert Morris' website, 37 people are listed on the board. O'Brien believes roughly 30 were on the call. And he gave an opportunity for everyone to speak. He estimates "80-90%" of the board members supported Howard's plan.

University bylaws say a formal vote was not required because O'Brien claims "a consensus" was reached. The board didn't have to "approve" Howard's plan that night per se, but the near unanimity was a sign of support from the trustees for the plan.

Regardless, based on what O'Brien said, had a formal vote been taken, Howard's plan would have been supported by a "vast majority."

"If it was close, I would've taken a tally," O'Brien said.

O'Brien's account mirrors that of Howard, who spoke during virtual media availability Tuesday, when he referred to the count as a "straw poll."

After the straws were drawn, it was the RMU hockey teams that were left with the short end of the stick.

One of those board members who argued against the elimination of the teams was Colbert — a 10-year board member and RMU graduate. News broke over Memorial Day weekend that Colbert resigned his post after the decision.

I asked O'Brien if Colbert did so immediately upon seeing the results of the straw poll.

"I don't want to comment on Kevin," O'Brien said. "You should talk to Kevin about that. He's too good of a friend of mine to put words in his mouth."

TribLive reached out to Colbert through the Steelers for comment over the holiday weekend and has yet to hear back. But O'Brien did say Colbert used his allotted time during the meeting to lobby for retaining the RMU hockey squads.

"To this day, I'm sure he thinks it was the right thing," O'Brien said. "He's such a good person. He holds a lot of people's respect."

The biggest complaint from players on the rosters and supporters of the programs is that the timing of RMU's announcement has given them no time to fundraise for themselves to keep the programs alive. There was no warning or opportunity to push for donations.

At this point on the calendar — more than two months after their seasons have ended — if the school has already said the teams are dead, current players need to look at transferring to find new places to play. Coaches need to find new jobs.

Those on the team can't wait through a protracted process of donors potentially buying the Island Sports Center and making plans to improve it, let alone the school establishing whatever the parameters would be to endow the program.

One of the main concerns expressed by those associated with both programs is that Howard is constantly putting forth a wide set of numbers for what needs to be raised to make the program solvent. At various times, he has said $10 million to keep the program going, $20 million to endow it and anywhere between $5 million and $30 million for building renovation, construction and/or lease of space.

That's not a really specific number to write for a goal on a charity car wash sign in the parking lot at the Island Sports Center, is it?

Now enter another high-ranking Pittsburgh sports executive, Penguins President and CEO David Morehouse.

The Penguins have long been in conversations with Robert Morris about being part of an expansion of the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. It's a plan that would've required the Colonials to build their own locker room with access to a new third sheet of ice in Cranberry. But the bill could've been paid down over time. And the ice time costs could've been roughly offset by the slots opened up at the Island Sports Center with the Colonials vacating all those practice times and game nights.

Four people in the athletic department have informed me that Athletic Director Chris King and men's coach Derek Schooley were looking at artistic renderings as recently as the Frozen Four in April.

Morehouse told the Trib on Wednesday that the Penguins were never aware the Colonials program was on the brink of insolvency.

"We are very disappointed that the only Division 1 program in Pittsburgh has eliminated men's and women's hockey," Morehouse said. "We are especially concerned about the student-athletes that are impacted and where they can go from here. We've always had a great relationship with RMU. We've hosted the Frozen Four twice in the last 10 years. We've worked extensively with them on the feasibility of elevating their program. We think it is important to have Division I hockey in Pittsburgh. We were surprised when they eliminated Division I hockey."

O'Brien claims that he and Morehouse are close, a sentiment Morehouse echoed Wednesday. When O'Brien was at People's Natural Gas as the president and CEO (he's now with WATT Fuel Cell Corporation), he was one of the people who wanted to partner with the Penguins. He pushed to get that giant People's flame outside of the Fifth Avenue entrance of PPG Paints Arena.

O'Brien says Morehouse called him Tuesday morning to check about the state of affairs with the programs.

"What he told me is that if something came to life, he would want to help us see if this could work. He wants to be helpful if something is real here," O'Brien said. "He knows that if ever we need their help, we could call on him."

Now would be a good time for O'Brien and Howard to call Morehouse. To recap, you allegedly "need $5 million to $30 million" in building renovations. Plus "$10 million to $20 million" in cash for operating funds and endowments of the program.

You've got the general manager of the Steelers and the president of the Penguins trying to keep the teams alive. You've also got Murry Gunty of Black Bear Sports Group — which specializes in buying and refurbishing rinks — offering to get involved.

Maybe if you — what's the phrase I'm looking for here? — "took a straw poll" of most people involved in sports in Pittsburgh, they'd tell you that's a pretty good start toward saving your programs.

But the "consensus" is, you're running out of time.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.