Detroit Lions’ Dan Campbell got the coaching bug from helping out at a youth football camp

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Dan Campbell was like a lot of NFL players in that he swore he would never be an NFL coach, not after he saw all the hours the coaches he played for put in.

“I know when I was with the Giants, I’m coming in and it’s 6:30 in the morning and coaches got bedhead coming out of their office from sleeping there,” Campbell said Wednesday during an appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “I’m like, ‘Be a coach? I would never be a coach. It’s ridiculous.’”

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But all that changed one day earlier in his career when Campbell worked a football camp hosted by one of his New York Giants teammates.

Campbell, whom the Detroit Lions hired in January as head coach, said he was somewhere in Pennsylvania, around the year 2000, when he caught the coaching bug for the first time.

“These were all teenagers,” Campbell said. “They have tight ends and then they have kind of these outside linebackers, and this tight end, man, he was your classic no-talent, he had no business being out there. But he’s going to give everything he’s got. And the kid across from him is about a foot taller and he’s got about a foot of length on him with his arms. He runs like the wind. He’s strong, he’s aggressive, he’s explosive, and so their coach over there just told him, these one-on-ones, just get over there and pin the guy, don’t even let him off the line. Basically, you’re doing one-on-one route running, so he never even had to cover cause he’d just stick this kid at the line.”

After he watched the athletic linebacker win a couple one-on-ones against the less athletic tight end, Campbell said he stepped in to offer some instruction.

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“I just pulled the kid aside, I said, listen, next time this happens, he’s going to line up over you, and I said he’s going to stick you with his outside hand,” Campbell said. “I said he’s going to stick you right in the chest and grab ahold of you. He knows what he’s going to do and he knows exactly what you’re going to do, so here’s what I want you to do: I want you to step as hard as you can with your outside foot and I want you to throw your head and shoulders to the outside with that foot so violently that you almost knock your fricking head off your shoulders, get whiplash.

“I want you to do that so hard because what’ll happen is he’s going to move that way and he’s going to miss when he tries to punch you, he’s not going to be ready for it. And then I want you to dip back inside, rip right under him into your route and get to the top of the route, 10 yards, and I want you to break down, I want you to snap your head to the inside, just like I told you on the outside, so hard that it almost gives you whiplash. He’s going to be trying to run to catch up. He’s going to bite on that move, and he’ll start running (inside) while you’re breaking out. And I’ll be damned, that kid did exactly, exactly to a T what I said.”

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When the tight end won the rep, Campbell said his eyes lit up with an expression with he’ll never forget.

“He crushed the kid,” Campbell said. “I mean, he crushed him. And the look on the kid’s face, I’ll never forget it, man, to this day. The look on the kid’s face, you can’t replace it. it was one of the greatest feelings ever and I felt so good for him, and he was like, I can do this. I can do it. I got something now I can work with.”

Campbell got into coaching immediately after he his playing career ended following the 2009 season. 

He spent part of the spring of 2010 volunteering at his alma matter, Texas A&M, joined the Miami Dolphins as a coaching intern that fall, got his first full-time coaching gig the following year and has been in the profession ever since.

Campbell went 5-7 as interim head coach with the Dolphins in 2015 and spent the past five seasons as assistant head coach with the New Orleans Saints.

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He told McAfee, a former NFL punter, that he learned valuable lessons about managing his time and communication during his stint as interim head coach, and he said working for Sean Payton in New Orleans helped teach him to utilize his players’ strengths and be more aggressive as a coach.

“I would say until I got to Sean as a coach, I would tell you I was more conservative, more of a conservative type thinker as it goes to this game,” Campbell said. “Much more traditional, you run the ball, you kind of, I don’t want to say milk the clock, but yet ball control. And man, it’s third down, you’re trying to get the first. It’s fourth-and-2, we’re punting and all those things, and you’re trying to be smart and you’re allowing the opponent to beat themselves.

“And look, that’s still a part of who I am, but I’ll tell you this, man: Your eyes get opened to, Sean now was on the other spectrum. He was very aggressive. But man, if there’s anything I did learn, too, from him, from that side of it is, look, if you want to throw some defenses off, there’s a time to be aggressive, man, and use your special teams and use the offense and try to get these defenses on their heels. So I would tell you I became, I’m a little bit more of an aggressive thinker just overall being with Sean.”

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

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