Why did Lions’ Dan Campbell fill out his staff with so many ex-players?

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

There’s something unusual about the staff Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell is putting together.

Before he decided to go into coaching, Campbell had a decade-long NFL career, appearing in 114 games for three teams. And after he joined the Lions last month, the first hire he made was naming Aaron Glenn defensive coordinator. A former first-round draft pick, Glenn earned All-Pro honors three times during his 15-year career before retiring in 2009. 

Since then, Campbell has added several other former players to his budding staff.

Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn played six seasons as a backup running back and top special teams contributor. Running-backs coach and assistant head coach Duce Staley spent 10 seasons with the Steelers and Eagles. And quarterback coach Mark Brunnel played 17 seasons, including three Pro Bowl campaigns as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. 

Additionally, Hank Fraley, a 10-year veteran, was among the small number of coaches Campbell retained from the previous staff. 

Those six coaches collectively appeared in 851 games during their careers. And while there’s no easily searchable records to paint of a complete picture of the context, you’d be hard-pressed to find a similarly experienced staff in recent NFL history. 

And with three position coach jobs still to fill, and Hines Ward reportedly in the mix to lead Detroit’s receivers, even more playing experience could be added to the staff in the near future. 

According to Campbell, the recurring appearance of that trait has been coincidental. 

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“I didn’t write I’m just getting ex-players or find as ex-players as you can,” Campbell told the Detroit News. “I really didn’t go in with that process. I honestly did not think that way. In my head, I said, ‘Where do I find these outstanding men of character, first?’ No different than what (team owner) Sheila (Ford Hamp) did. She kind of set the tone. I’m like, how do I carry on what she wants” I wanted to find the best people I can find, high in character, that are outstanding coaches, right?”

What Campbell did acknowledge is there is an inherent drive with those coaches. Not only did they show the competitiveness to stick in the NFL for as long as they did as players, but also the willingness to work their way back up from the bottom after transitioning into coaching. 

“(Glenn) was getting coffees for guys,” Campbell said. “‘Go get coffee. Go pick up this guy at the airport. Do this paperwork.’ He had to start all over. A Lynn had to start all over. Duce had to start all over. So all these guys, to me, when you have a wealth of experience, you played the position, you’re an outstanding person, you’re an outstanding coach, but then you had to start all over, you have the grit and desire and hunger to learn and grow and do all these things. I don’t know how you miss on guys like that.”

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Among the assistants he’s hired, Campbell had a prior relationship with several. Most obviously, he worked with Glenn the past several seasons in New Orleans. With Lynn and Brunnel, there was brief overlap from Campbell’s playing days.

Others, like Staley and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant — who started at the University of Wisconsin, but never played in the NFL — are new connections for Campbell. 

It doesn’t matter where they’re coming from, the goal is to piece together the best staff possible. Campbell’s expectation for excellence is two-fold — first, character, second, coaching acumen. Being average in either facet is an immediate disqualifier. 

“I swore up and down that I was not going to, if I got in this seat again, I refused, even if he’s an outstanding person, which I know plenty of them, an outstanding person who coaches, but he’s an average coach, I’m not doing it,” Campbell said. That’s how you create average players. These were going to be top-notch people who were top-notch coaches, across the board.

“These guys, they’re going to know how to develop talent and they’re outstanding human beings,” Campbell added. “I have not brought in one guy that I’ve said, ‘Outstanding coach, he’s OK as a guy.’ That’s not happened one time. It’s gotta be both, man.”


Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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