Dan Campbell may be ‘the only guy that can resurrect’ the Detroit Lions. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The speech still sends shivers up Dat Nguyen’s spine.

Nguyen was a junior at Texas A&M in 1997 when the Aggies were manhandled by a powerhouse Nebraska team, 54-15, in the Big 12 championship game.

Nebraska, with Scott Frost at quarterback and a host of future NFL players on its defensive line, was one of the best teams in the country that season. The Cornhuskers shared the national championship with Michigan and dispatched just about everyone else on their schedule with similar ease.

But A&M’s performance was so infuriating — the Aggies had 13 yards rushing and did not score a touchdown until the fourth quarter — that after the game, a young tight end named Dan Campbell stood in the middle of the locker room and vowed to never be a part of a day like that again.

“After that game, Dan Campbell went in the locker room and said, ‘Seniors, thank you for what you do, but juniors, we’re not going to get our ass disgraced again like this on national TV,’ ” Nguyen recalled. “ ‘We’re going to make a pact, and if you’re not on the boat, get off the boat, get out of here. We don’t want to see you in the locker room or in the weight room when we get back to College Station.’ ”

The Aggies lost to UCLA in the Cotton Bowl a few weeks later, and days after that game, at Campbell’s behest, started months of player-organized offseason workouts that eventually brought the school its first and only Big 12 championship.

“I tell the story all the time about how that year was so different from the year before,” Nguyen said. “And it started with the locker room and started with your new head coach there in Detroit.”

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Campbell, 44, was named 28th head coach of the Detroit Lions on Wednesday, completing an unassuming ascent from small school Texas football star to passionate leader that put him in the orbit of some of the NFL’s most respected football minds.

The Lions interviewed at least six candidates for the job and showed serious interest in two sitting college coaches, but zeroed in on Campbell for his temperament, enthusiasm and leadership ability.

He gave everyone a glimpse of those traits in a fiery 90-minute introductory news conference Thursday, when he made headlines for saying he wanted a team that would bite off its opponents’ kneecaps, but also shared insight on why he has been able to influence so many people from so many different walks of life.

“It’s been hard for me, especially when I was younger, to be someone that said, ‘Well, I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’m going to stand up and lead,’ ” Campbell said. “I was never that way. It was always — something would come up and things would bubble inside of me. They would bubble. I could feel the heat on the back of my neck, and it’s, ‘Say something, say something, say something.’ I think that’s where it began. When I felt something, I said something.

“I’m a pretty genuine guy, and it’s hard for me to have fake emotion or be something that I’m not. I think my leadership comes from that.”

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‘A sponge’

The Miami Dolphins were a franchise adrift in 2015, much like the Lions are now, when they turned to Campbell seeking direction.

One of the NFL’s best stories a few years earlier, when they won 11 games on the heels of a 1-15 season, the Dolphins had languished under head coaches Tony Sparano and Joe Philbin, piling up mediocre records and enduring a bullying scandal in 2013 that nearly tore the team apart.

Philbin was fired four games into the 2015 season, after a loss to the New York Jets in London. Hours after the team returned stateside, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross named Campbell interim head coach.

“I think conventional wisdom was that we were going to hire the special teams coach, cause oftentimes in those situations, you hire a special teams coordinator, and Mr. Ross and I were open-minded about it and we both felt like Dan was the right guy for us,” said Mike Tannenbaum, Miami’s executive vice president of football operations at the time and now an analyst at ESPN. 

“From Day 1, Dan has a unique ability to connect with players and really it resonates with them in a way that’s inspiring, but also in a way that you can tell there’s no B.S. And if you do what’s asked, there’ll be no problems. But he is what you see, a very authentic, natural leader, and I think he will do well in Detroit.”

The Dolphins won their first two games under Campbell and five of seven overall, and Campbell’s approach had a galvanizing effect in the locker room.

He ran a modified Oklahoma drill in his first practice. He fired defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle in one of his first acts as head coach. And he brought a more physical, competitive vibe to the team.

“Dan brought in a new sense of urgency, a new, almost like a wake-up call that, ‘All right, we got to get our crap together,’ ” said Jake Stoneburner, a tight end on the 2015 Dolphins. “I think he was dealt a pretty hard hand with all of that, but that being said, we fought until the end. I know we beat New England their last game of the year.

“After that game, we were like, ‘Dude, why is Dan Campbell not going to be the head coach of the Dolphins?’ Like, ‘Who are we going to bring in here?’ We brought in Adam Gase, so I’m not going to say anything more on that, but I think they wanted something sexier and the team was willing to fight for Dan. He beat to a different drum. A lot of those guys were rough and tough anyways, and that’s how Dan played and coached.”

Tannenbaum said Campbell “did an incredible job” in his 12 games as interim coach and “a great job through the interview process.”

Asked why the Dolphins did not hire him over Gase, Tannenbaum said, “That’s an answer over a beer. Or two.”

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As disappointed as Campbell was to not get the Dolphins job full-time, that setback sent him on the road to Detroit.

He wrote down “a whole list of things” he wished he’d done better as interim coach, and soon after, got a chance to join Sean Payton’s staff as assistant head coach with the New Orleans Saints.

Payton, who coached Campbell in three stops as a player with the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Saints, told Campbell, a career tight ends coach before his promotion in Miami, that he would fill in everything he needed to know about being a head coach, from game management to scheduling to working with the front office.

“I trusted him, and I’ve always trusted him, and he took me under his wing and I was a sponge,” Campbell said. “That’s what I was. I was a sponge. I did exactly what he needed me to do, asked me to do. If I felt like there was some fires I needed to put out before they got to him, I would do that. I felt like that was one of my jobs, but he allowed me to grow. And that’s one of the best compliments a coach can ever give to another coach, he allowed me to grow into the role I’m about to take on right now.”

‘He would finish you’

Campbell was a sponge as a player, too, soaking up knowledge he learned from Payton, Sparano, Bill Parcells, Mike Pope, his old tight ends coach with the Giants, and former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum.

Campbell said in a podcast in June that he took copious notes during his three seasons with Parcells, and still has notepads full of sayings and philosophies from the Hall of Fame coach.

Parcells said he recalls having a conversation with Campbell about being a coach towards the end of Campbell’s playing career, though the details are fuzzy. Mostly, he remembers Campbell as a tough-as-nails player who came to Dallas in 2003 while the team was undergoing a locker room makeover.

“I have a very high regard for him personally,” Parcells said. “He’s just a tough, hard-working guy. He just worked. He’s tough and that’s it. Anybody would like to have a player like him on the team.”

A third-round pick by the Giants after leading Texas A&M to that Big 12 championship, Campbell spent four seasons in New York and three more in Dallas before joining the Lions in 2006.

Injuries limited him to 19 games over three seasons in Detroit. But Campbell, a Metallica fan who drinks coffee by the gallon and has been known to have a Yeti in his hand and a dip in his cheek, was around long enough to leave a lasting impact on several of his Lions teammates.

Dan Orlovsky, the former Lions quarterback who now works for ESPN, still laughs about Campbell’s “robot arm,” the hulking brace he wore while playing through a torn triceps.

Casey FitzSimmons, who was in the tight end room for all three of Campbell’s seasons in Detroit, said those years were “probably the most important years of my life as far as what I got to take away from him, and what he showed me how to stay in that building and how to stay on a roster.”

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And former Lions center Dominic Raiola said Campbell had “an aura of leadership” around him as he strolled through the locker room “like J.R. from Dallas” with a noticeable Texas drawl.

“The guy loved football,” Raiola said. “You know the guys that are always in the weight room, that care about taking care of their bodies, that took the time to learn the plays, the ins and outs of (Mike) Martz’s offense. I mean, that wasn’t an easy offense to get with, and Dan, he did everything, though. He played a position that a lot of guys just want to catch balls. Well, this guy blocked. He would put your (private parts) in the dirt. He would finish you. He blocked, he caught balls, and he celebrated his teammates. So those are all meaningful things.”

‘That’s bad ass’

For Campbell and the organization, those three years together in the 2000s were meaningful, too — and a big reason why they reunited on a six-year contract last week.

Campbell said he wanted the Lions job “bad” because of the affinity he gained for the franchise and area during his time in Detroit as a player. And as he spoke passionately about the city and fan base and type of team he hopes to build, it was easy to see why Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp, president Rod Wood and adviser Chris Spielman fell hard for him in the selection process.

Dan Campbell: Kneecaps speech ‘was for our players and for our community’ ]

“He sent us a book ahead of time with just some of his ideas and philosophies and if he were to become the head coach, what he would do,” Hamp said. “And literally, I read his statement on culture and leadership and it was like he read our minds. ‘Really? Did someone tell him what to say before?’ He was amazing.”

Stoneburner, who played for Campbell in Miami and briefly in New Orleans, said Campbell’s imposing stature — he is a hulking 6 feet 5 — and background as a former NFL player strengthened the bond between him and the locker room. Like Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, an ex-NFL linebacker of similar stature, Campbell has been known to take part in blocking drills with players.

“When guys played that long in the NFL, they can hold their head and their chest a certain way because that’s bad ass,” Stoneburner said.

Nguyen, who played with Campbell at A&M and for all three of his seasons in Dallas, and was an assistant with the Aggies when Campbell spent time at his alma mater in the spring of 2010 when he was considering getting into coaching, said Campbell has a unique ability to connect with people of all backgrounds because of every man relatability.

Stoneburner, who grew up in suburban Columbus, Ohio, a world away from the rural Texas upbringing Campbell had, said he felt that as a player.

“There’s a lot of times in the NFL you … feel like just another asset,” Stoneburner said. “With him, you felt like he was truly invested in me, Jake Stoneburner the football player and the human, not necessarily just go out there and make plays. That was pretty awesome.”

While Campbell checked off most of what the Lions were looking for after former head coach Matt Patricia spent the better part of his three seasons in Detroit sowing locker room distrust, he and others are well aware of the challenges he faces.

There is a new general manager to connect with in Brad Holmes, a marriage arranged by the organization with someone he had never met until this week.

There is a roster of a 5-11 team in need of major overhaul, especially defensively, a chore that will get even more challenging if quarterback Matthew Stafford decides he does not want to stick around for the rebuild.

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There is a staff to assemble, and his hires at both coordinator spots — Aaron Glenn has agreed to run the defense, and the Lions have interviewed at least four candidates for the offensive coordinator position — will be key given he has no previous play calling experience at any level.

And there is everything else that comes with the job.

In that regard, at least, Tannenbaum thinks Campbell’s 12-game stint as interim coach in Miami was great training ground, and he compared it to when his former client from his agent days, Steve Kerr, was hired as Golden State Warriors coach.

“As soon as he signed, he goes, ‘Mike, I want to go to the summer league and make mistakes. I want to get used to the rotation, I want to get used to calling timeouts. I want to get used to dealing with the officiating,’” Tannenbaum said. “And I think Dan’s 12 games in Miami is sort of like a similar thesis meaning that, Dan got a chance to cut his teeth and learn about telling players what they don’t want to hear, or making a change at the coordinator, or understanding concussion protocol, or the million things you got to deal with as a head coach.”

Ultimately, that is where the Lions feel Campbell’s natural leadership ability will win out.

“Leadership is a word that gets thrown around way too much and Dan’s a true leader,” said FitzSimmons. “He’s a guy that goes and does everything (the same), behind closed doors, out in the open. He’s never outspoken about stuff. He holds guys accountable in his way, by not going to the media and calling them out. He’s a true professional. When I saw that he was in the running, I was hoping and praying that he got the job because in my opinion, I think he’s the only guy that can resurrect the Lions.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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