Driven Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell determined ‘to get our ass in the playoffs’

Detroit Free Press

Dan Campbell was pissed, and getting angrier by the possession.

His Glen Rose High School basketball team was down double-digits in the fourth quarter of a game against Boyd, and anyone who knew Campbell knew how much he hated losing.

A sophomore playing varsity at the time, Campbell decided to go rogue. He stopped covering the Boyd player he was responsible for, a cocky power forward who was piling up points and rebounds at Campbell’s expense, and started chasing the ball around the court.

A shot went up. Campbell’s man went over his back to grab a rebound. And when officials did not call a foul, Campbell lost his cool.

As the first-year Detroit Lions coach recounted the story in the conference room adjacent to his office after practice one day last week, he leaped from his chair to demonstrate a sweeping leg kick and re-enact what happened next.

“I just ran as fast as I could,” Campbell said. “I saw him and I just — whap. I kicked his leg out from under him, which is a technical. And of course, Coach is like, ‘Get out of the game. You’re done.’”

The memory brings a hearty chuckle now from the NFL’s most down-to-earth coach, but back then, Campbell was in a more dour mood.

“I’m like, ‘Man, all right, I can’t do that,’” Campbell said. “And I remember, I’m mad. I sit down and I remember I kind of looked up in the stands and I just see my mom and dad shaking their head like, ‘You piece of crap.’ Like, ‘Seriously? Just what a disgrace.’”

Campbell’s mother, Betty — a teacher and homemaker — was too disappointed to say much of anything when Campbell returned to the family’s middle-of-nowhere Texas home after the game. His father, Larry — a rancher and ex-Marine — wasn’t.

“He just came in there and basically told me what I looked like and, ‘You act like a little kid,’ and, ‘You’re a baby,’” Campbell said. “Things that I already knew was coming, but I did it and sat down and within 10 seconds I was like, ‘I can’t wait to hear from Dad.’ And had I been about three years younger he would have used his belt on me probably, cause I deserved it back then. But no, he — look, he just basically told me what I already knew, which was hard to swallow.”

About 30 years later, as he sets course on a journey to revive the most moribund franchise in modern NFL history, Campbell looks back on that night as a collection of valuable lessons learned.

He still is ultra-competitive, turning almost everything he and his players do into a contest. He still despises losing, but has found ways to better handle his defeats: a patience that could be tested this fall with the Lions in Year 1 of a rebuild. He is blunt and honest and truthful, in a folksy way, like his coach and father were that night.

And after being relegated to the bench for the most important waning minutes of that game, he is determined to never let his team down again.

Texas roots

The younger of Betty and Larry’s two sons, Campbell grew up in the limestone hills of central Texas.

His dad tended two cattle ranches, a family ranch that covered 2,000 or so acres between the small towns of Morgan and Walnut Springs — about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth — and another 2,600-acre ranch a few miles away.

Morgan, population 462, has one flashing caution light in town; Walnut Springs, slightly larger with a population of 828, does not have any.

Campbell helped his father tend ranch from almost the time he could walk. When Campbell was a toddler, Larry would stand him on the seat of an old five-speed pickup truck, set to the lowest gear, and tell him to hold the steering wheel straight while he fed cattle from the back of the truck.

“I think one of the saddest days I had is when I had to send him off to school,” Larry said. “I lost one of my better hands.”

In rural Texas, where kids are never bored but there’s never anything to do, Campbell filled his days with fishing, hunting, family and sports.

He played basketball on a dirt court and a rim with no net at his grandparents’ house, or in his driveway with a backboard attached to an old telephone pole his father drove into the ground.

He played football, like every boy in Texas, running routes against his older brother, Darel, while his father threw him passes among the shrubs and trees in the family’s backyard.

He high-jumped, like his cousin, Lance Dolezel (who earned a track scholarship to Baylor) and raced his friends, Clifford and Carlos, every day at school. On the days he didn’t win, he came home in a decidedly foul mood.

And he played ping-pong and horseshoes and cornhole and dominoes and whatever other games came to mind.

“He loved to be outside, loved to be working like that, and if he had free time, he had a ball in his hands and he was out throwing the ball up and running under it, catching, or shooting baskets or whatever,” Larry Campbell said. “If it was a rainy day, he’d drive his mother nuts ’cause he was in the house doing the same thing. He’s just always been competitive. He’d create his own games with a ball. That’s just his nature.”

Campbell, the second-youngest of more than 20 cousins who got together for holidays throughout the year, had to be competitive to keep up.

The cousins, including Dolezel and his brother Clint, a former Arena Football League star with the Grand Rapids Rampage, held raucous “Turkey Bowl” games every Thanksgiving. The games typically started out as two-hand touch, turned into tackle within a few plays, and ended with hurt feelings and occasionally a bloody nose.

“It wasn’t just your everyday, nice field where you went up to the high school field and got there and played your ‘Turkey Bowl,’” said Clint Dolezel, now head coach of the Frisco Fighters of the Indoor Football League. “No, we were out there in mesquite trees and rocks and thorns and stickers out there playing, so we were just brought up a little harsher than most.

“It was normal for us. It’s kind of what you did. Where you grew up is what you were. If we ever got to go eat out once a month, we thought it was the best thing ever, going to eat pizza. Now, you eat every meal out and it’s just totally different. And I’m sure it was less for him living out where he lived. If they got to eat out, it was probably once every three months. It makes you a different person. Makes you appreciate more.”

Campbell looked up to his cousins and older brother, who gave him a tough-love football lesson one day. When Darel got his pads for his middle school team, he outfitted Dan, four years younger, in a play Dallas Cowboys helmet and the two went out in the front yard for a game of one-on-one.

Darel, in full uniform, threw Dan the ball to kickoff, then leveled his brother with a perfect form tackle that left Dan crying on the ground.

Campbell didn’t win much at first, in football or anything else the cousins played. But he fell in love with the competition, an affection he still has today.

“It was just a part of us,” Campbell said. “I mean, it was like, to think we would have ever had a family get-together without some type of competition, you’re crazy. That never existed. ‘Cause unfortunately, I know things have happened and family members come and go, but we played 42 (dominoes) even if someone passes in the family. Like, it’s part of what we do.”

A coach in the making

Campbell’s football talents were evident from an early age, and so, his high school and college friends say, was his calling to be a head coach.

At 12 or 13, Dan told his father he planned to play college football, so rather than enroll at nearby Meridian High School, which played six-man football because of its size, the Campbells sent him to Glen Rose.

At Glen Rose, Campbell was a star in football, basketball and track. A head taller than most of his friends, he could dunk a volleyball in eighth grade. He played tight end in football, but moved temporarily to running back as a junior because the Tigers wanted to get the ball in his hands more and only threw about 10 passes a game.

“I hated going against him in practice,” said Scott Gent, a classmate of Campbell’s at Glen Rose. “They’d always put me on the mock-up team, on the other side on defense. The dude would plow you over. It’s just like, you might as well stand out there with a red cape and say, ‘Here, Toro, Toro,’ let him come at you cause that son of a bitch was coming whether you wanted him to or not.”

As ferocious as he was on the field, Campbell had a fun, endearing side off it.

He and his friends hung out in the town square, playing hide-and-seek and bumper tag in their cars. Campbell drove a beat-up 1970s model Volvo, then traded up to a newer-but-still-old 1980s-model Chevy truck. Matt Whitefield, Campbell’s high school quarterback, said Campbell drove the truck “for at least a year” after he signed his first NFL contract.

“He’s not the flashy type,” Whitefield said. “He was the kind that said, ‘Hey, this truck gets me where I need to go, why do I need this other car or this fancy thing or whatever?’ So I know he had that truck for a long time, and he was just proud to have it.”

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Campbell took his friends three-wheeling on the family ranch — one friend crashed a borrowed three-wheeler into a stock pond — and spent hours with them at fishing holes.

“If you caught one, he was going to catch three, period,” Whitefield said. “If he had to stay out there all day long, he was going to catch more than you did. Or at least a bigger one than you did.”

Campbell spent hours in the Glen Rose weight room, doing sets of 15 when others stopped at 10, and win or lose, he was the conscience in everyone’s ear in the locker room.

When Gent missed a field goal in the first quarter of a playoff game their sophomore year, Campbell spent the rest of the game telling him to stay focused because more opportunities were coming. Sure enough, Gent made two kicks later in the game.

“You didn’t realize he’d be a coach, but after now him being where he went after he stopped playing so much, you could see it,” Gent said. “’Cause even then, like I said, he towered over the coaches whenever game time came. He was the talker.”

Campbell, who played collegiately at Texas A&M then 11 NFL seasons with four different teams, including the Lions, got his first coaching gig in high school — as coach of his grade’s girls powderpuff team.

Whitefield said Campbell took the game and the practices leading up to it seriously, instructing the girls on the finer points of route-running and threatening to withhold playing time if they didn’t do things the right way.

“He treated the girls like he would treat any of his teammates,” Whitefield said. “He expected the best and wouldn’t take nothing less. It was football, and the girls didn’t even know how to play football, but he didn’t see it that way. You get out there and you learn. If the ball’s thrown to you, you catch it, period.”

Whatever it takes to win

As an NFL coach, Campbell counts Hall of Famer Bill Parcells and the New Orleans Saints’ Sean Payton among his mentors, and has borrowed from both to get his program up and running in Detroit. Still, those who know Campbell best say he remains very much himself.

The physical brand of football he prefers aligns with how he played the game as a blocking tight end.

“If he could have put on another 20 pounds, 30 pounds, he would have been one of the best offensive tackles ever to play, I guarantee you that,” Clint Dolezel said.

The quirks that have endeared him to fans in Detroit and made him occasional talk-show fodder nationally — like the “kneecaps” speech at his introductory news conference — feel familiar to people back home in Texas.

“Passionate is definitely a good word for him,” Whitefield said. “He’s passionate about everything, even beyond football. His relationships, his family. He was passionate about it all.”

And the Lions’ young roster, with just four players in their 30s, and an ex-player-filled coaching staff are built in Campbell’s likeness.

As interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins for the final 12 games of the 2015 season, Campbell put his players and coaches in competitive situations that sometimes had nothing to do with football, a tradition he has continued in Detroit.

Some were clumsily done. In Miami, he had a Thanksgiving pie-eating contest in the middle of one practice, between a practice squad offensive lineman and practice squad defensive lineman, immediately after a nine-on-seven drill.

“The D-lineman won,” Campbell said. “But I thought he was going to die on us. He started gasping for air and he needed something to drink. We got him water, but I was like, I will never do that one again.”

Others have been well executed, like the closest-to-the-pin competition (won by quarterback David Blough) the Lions held after cuts last week.

All had a point.

“Because of the way I grew up, I remember, it didn’t matter what it was that was coming up, when I knew we were about to get into something, from cards to horseshoes to ping-pong, shoot, one time we did like a leg-wrestling contest, it’s like, man, it’s fun, but you want to win,” Campbell said. “It’s something different, but it brings out the competitive juices, I felt like. Like if you’re a competitor, it doesn’t matter what it is, you want a piece of it. Like you really want a piece. And so I think it’s just, I think it changes things up a little bit, but it also just, I think you find out the guys who really want to win, they’ll do whatever it takes.

“Those are the guys I want. Those are the people that I want around me.”

This year’s Lions might be the NFL version of a young Campbell, trying to keep up with their bigger, older, better cousins and brother, then blossoming from the competition a year or two down the road.

Just don’t tell that to Campbell.

“I’m not accepting the fact that we’re going to have a tough year. I don’t believe that and I don’t want to believe that,” he said. “Look, I’m not naïve. I know we’re young, but at the same time I just can’t put myself there to, ‘Man, we’re going to struggle this year.’ I don’t see that. I just can’t.”

In fact, Campbell’s 23 years of NFL experience have taught him the opposite, that the Lions can win now despite their depth issues and roster shortcomings.

“As a player and a coach, I’ve been on plenty of teams that had no business winning on paper,” Campbell said. “Like, no business. And wow, we won 10 games, got into the playoffs. Won 11 games, you get into the playoffs. And so you see it really every year, anything can happen.”

Campbell was on one of those teams in 2003, in his first year with Parcells and the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys were coming off three straight 5-11 seasons, but caught fire early in the year and finished 10-6 to make the playoffs. They had the league’s second-best scoring defense that season, and ran the ball effectively at nearly 125 yards per game.

“That group of guys was a pretty gritty group,” Campbell said. “We played really good defensive football and we found a way to run it, but we couldn’t really throw it and, listen, if we did one or two things wrong we were going to lose the game. But we were just enough to where we played smart football and ground it out and time of possession. And inevitably, some of our opponents who were a lot better than us talent-wise would end up costing themselves at the end of the game. Just because we did it right.”

For the Lions, who last won a playoff game 30 years ago, that is the blueprint Campbell wants them to follow this fall. Not running the football 50 times a game, necessarily, but doing everything right.

“Our margin for error is (this),” he said, holding his thumb and index finger a smidge apart.

For the competitor in Campbell, that’s just margin enough.

“I hate going by record, but I know this: I want to find a way for us to get to the playoffs,” he said. “I want to find a way, man. And whatever that takes, whatever we got to do, but I have high standards. I just do. And that’s who I am, and if we don’t — if you don’t think that way, then, well, you’re already probably not going to get there. So I think that’s the goal is find a way to get our ass in the playoffs.”

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

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