Father’s pursuit of perfection drives Lions’ ‘superstar’ Dave Fipp to be special at job

Detroit News

Allen Park — It won’t surprise anyone to hear the winless Detroit Lions are near the bottom of the league in both scoring and points allowed. But while the offense and defense have struggled to find their footing in this first year of a rebuild, the special teams have managed to be among the league’s best.

Jack Fox, fresh off setting franchise records for gross and net punting a year ago, is posting even better numbers this year. Kicker Austin Seibert, a September waiver claim, has made 10 consecutive field goals after missing his first in a Lions uniform. The coverage units also have been stellar.

And we won’t be quick to forget Sunday’s game against the Rams, when the Lions threatened to upset the Super Bowl contender on the road after successfully executing a surprise onside kick and two fake punts.

According to metrics tracked by analytics site Football Outsiders, only the Baltimore Ravens have been better on special teams in 2021. So for all of Detroit’s struggles this season, coordinator Dave Fipp’s group is hitting on all cylinders.

“I think Fipp is a superstar,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “I’ve known Fipp for a while. We coached (together) briefly, actually, he was the assistant special teams coach when I was in Miami.

“…I just remember I was like, ‘This guy is going to be an outstanding coach,'” Campbell said. “He gets his shot in Philly and I think he’s, just from afar, he was always one of the best special teams coaches. So, to be able to get him, the timing was right and you see what he does. I think it’s probably been our most consistent unit out of the three phases. We’ve got a pretty good core group of guys, but he’s been great. I just think he’s an outstanding teacher and he’s high energy and I think you have to be both to be a good special teams coach.”

If football is a game of inches, consistency on special teams is about precision. From snap to hold to kick, everything has to be just right to properly execute a 50-yard field goal, every man must be blocked to spring a long kickoff or punt return and every lane filled to prevent your opponents from returning one against you.

Fipp is a stickler for the details. It’s a trait that comes naturally because it was one imparted on him at a young age by his father, Bernie Fipp.

A decorated Navy pilot in the Vietnam war, Bernie was a man with many stories. He even published a memoir about his military experiences, “Triple Sticks,” named after stateroom 111 he shared with three other pilots aboard the USS Intrepid. But there was one story he told his children more often than others, one that always resonated with Dave.

As a young pilot in training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, Bernie was in flight when his training officer radioed a request Bernie level out at 3,000 feet. He responded he was at 3,000 feet. A short time later, a second request came to level out at 3,000 feet and Bernie again responded he was at 3,000 feet. This time, the training officer responded, ‘No, you’re at 3,100 feet. Please level out at 3,000.’

Surprised by what seemed like an inconsequential difference, Fipp followed the order. Once he landed, the training officer pulled him aside.

“Fipp, I’ll tell you something,” the training officer said. “When I told you to level out at 3,000 and you were at 3,100, if you accept that, you’re going to accept it the rest of your life. It’s up to you, whatever your personal standards are.”

That started Bernie down the road to becoming a perfectionist. As Dave explains it, “Everything had to be in line and in order, all the time.” Maybe that explains why he took his three sons to get their hair cut every other Friday throughout their childhood.  But the lesson from the training story has stuck with Dave and became a part of his teaching as a coach.

“I share that story with players all the time,” Dave said. “‘Hey, man, what are your standards?’ Ultimately, it comes down to that, how well each guy wants to play. Is alignment that important or can we just be close?”

Regrets, rewards

Instead of being drafted, Bernie decided to control his own fate, voluntarily joining the Coast Guard in 1963 before transferring to the Navy in 1965. After earning his “Wings of Gold” a year later, he flew attack missions in a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk across Vietnam for three years off the USS Intrepid.

In 2010, Bernie published, “Triple Sticks,” a memoir that recounted he and his roommates experiences in the war. And in 2015, he returned with his family to the Intrepid, now serving as a museum in New York City, where he was interviewed as part of a permanent display of his stateroom featured in his book.

“There was always a piece of him that really missed that military experience, truly flying and being in the aircraft,” Dave said. “You could tell how much he loved it. So the most significant thing about being there with the whole family was seeing him be back and a little bit a part of it again. I think to see the appreciation that all those people had for what he had done — they were really interested in him and his stories. They were writing down every note and asking a lot of questions, so just to see him have that experience was incredible.”

Despite how much he loved his own experiences in the military, Bernie steered his four children away from enlisting. He encouraged them to play sports, something he had regretted not doing when he was in high school.

Dave was a gifted athlete, playing for his high school football team, while also setting the school record in pole vault for the track squad. From there he went on to the University of Arizona, where he played football as a walk-on and ended up starting two years at safety.

Bernie was a regular presence at Dave’s high school games and regularly made the trip from his home in San Diego to Arizona, to watch his son play for the Wildcats.

After graduating in 1997, Dave immediately went into coaching, working with the defensive backs and special teams at Holy Cross in 1998. In the following years, he had stints at Arizona, Cal Poly, Nevada and San Jose State before getting his first crack at the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers in 2008 as a special teams assistant.

But before entering the working world, Dave thought long and hard about following in his father’s footsteps and joining the military.

“It was always something that was really intriguing for me,” Dave said. “I would say, personally, it’s the one regret that I have. I don’t believe in living life with regrets, but I would say, in hindsight, I really wish I would have done that.

“At that point, I was so focused on getting started, I want to go coach, I want to start my career, I want to work my way up the ladder,” he continued. “So I went into coaching right away, but I would say that I often think back on that decision and wish I would have done it differently.”

In coaching, Dave has had his share of successes. Leading the special teams for the Eagles the past eight seasons, his units regularly finished in the top half of the NFL, ranking No. 1 in 2014 and No. 2 in 2016, according to Football Outsiders.

And in 2018, Dave achieved the pinnacle of the professional, winning a Super Bowl with the Eagles, 41-33 over the New England Patriots.

For Dad

Bernie watched that game from his home in San Diego, his immune system compromised by the chemotherapy he was undergoing for esophageal cancer. He didn’t hide his diagnosis from his children, but he also wasn’t one to complain about the day-to-day complications that came with it.

Dave used his father’s battle as motivation leading up to the Super Bowl.

“I felt like the best thing I could do for him was win the Super Bowl,” Dave said. “And at that time, I wasn’t really thinking he was going to pass away. I was thinking he was going to make it through. The fact that he got to see us win the Super Bowl, it made me feel like he could say his son had done a little something and he was a successful parent.”

Unfortunately, a little more than a month after the victory, Bernie took a turn for the worse. Without delay, Dave hopped a flight to spend some time with the man he admired more than anyone in the world.

A few days later, Bernie passed away. He was 77.

“I would say I feel blessed about all that,” Dave said. “I know when people lose somebody, they don’t have an opportunity to say goodbye. As hard as it is for me, I feel extremely thankful for everything we had together, the time, how it ended and everything. It couldn’t have been better.”

Dave is an unabashedly emotional man, and this week, he’ll be surrounded with emotional triggers when the Lions host his former team, the Eagles. On top of that, it’s “Salute to Service” week at Ford Field, part of the NFL’s year-round effort to honor the nation’s service members, veterans, and their families.

But even during a normal game day, Dave often gets choked up during the national anthem, his thoughts drifting from his relationship with his father to the thousands of men and women currently serving this country.

“I have such a deep appreciation for the military and all those guys’ service and sacrifices,” Dave said. “I can’t say I know what it’s like to go through that, but I feel like I try to understand it the best I can.

“I just get very emotional with that and I’m usually thinking about the military, how fortunate I am to be where I am while there’s probably some young guy sacrificing himself for all of us.”

Unfortunately, Dave might have to miss the contest altogether. On Tuesday, he tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, even though he had been vaccinated. He’ll need to test negative on consecutive days before he can rejoin the team and, as of Thursday, he was still testing positive.

Whether he’s at Ford Field or not, Dave will be helping his players prepare, virtually. No virus can reduce the significance of this game, this week.

And while he never got the chance to serve himself, Dave did follow in his father’s footsteps another way, earning his pilot’s license and instrument certification the past couple of years. The timing means he never got the fortune of flying with his father, but he hopes to experience the next best thing.

“I wish I would have had the opportunity to do that,” Dave said. “I actually reached out to a gentleman from his squadron that he used to talk about, because he had his own plane that he would fly. I reached out to him and said, ‘One of these days I’d really like to go flying with you, because it would be the closest I could get to flying with him.'”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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