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It’s the Fall of 2015 and a Miami Dolphins executive is on the other end of this call explaining how Dan Campbell isn’t ready to be an NFL head coach but he’s going to be the team’s interim coach anyway because what Campbell has cannot be taught or learned.
“He is a natural-born leader and people follow him and want to succeed for him,” the executive said. “And we need that more than anything right now. He’s a year, probably two, and maybe three away from having all the nuances of coaching and the Xs and Os down.
“We’ll get him help on the sideline managing the game and support him in the other areas he needs. But he will raise the level of urgency and competitiveness for this team. NFL teams need that. We definitely need that right now.”
Dan Campbell Energy Is Contagious
The next day, Campbell’s first as head coach, he had players in full pads for the first time in weeks. And he ordered everyone to the middle of the field where players engaged in one-on-one full contact hitting drills.
The media erroneously reported Oklahoma drills had come to Miami, which wasn’t true. But what had come to a team that often started slow and finished soft was a fire and physical nature that Campbell set as the standard.
“When he took the job the energy in the building went up 300 percent,” then Dolphins chief of security Stuart Weinstein recalled this week. “He’s a fiery guy. He was working with the tight ends before he became interim. Back then each of the assistants would make a presentation to the players at different times in camp.
“I remember one year, Dan’s presentation was on blocking and, oh my God, you wanted to get up out of your chair and block somebody. He’s one of those guys.”
Dan Campbell’s First Head Coach Experience
That was nearly a decade ago. Campbell converted a team mired in the doldrums to one that marched to an energetic and unceasing drumbeat.
He made players compete and demanded that assistants deliver. It wasn’t long before he fired the offensive coordinator for not running the football as he promised, and promoted Zak Taylor, now the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, to the role.
Before that he’d already fired the defensive coordinator who players didn’t respect. Campbell promoted Lou Anarumo, now the Cincinnati defensive coordinator, and suddenly the defense improved.
Campbell worked his players in practice until they hated him and then joked with them in meetings.
One week, before a Monday Night game, he convinced ESPN to interview all the team’s rookies and ask ridiculous questions to make them uncomfortable. Then he played the tape in front of the entire team for laughs.
Campbell got the listless 2015 Dolphins that started 1-3 to finish 6-10. And, no, he didn’t get the job full-time after interviewing for it.
The Detroit Lions Journey Begins
But five years in New Orleans under Sean Payton molded him. When the Lions called Payton and asked about Campbell, the Saints coach spoke for 32 minutes straight about his assistant head coach before the Lions could ask a second question.
Campbell landed the Detroit Lions job in 2021.
Campbell isn’t as raw as he was eight years ago. The coach who leads Detroit against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL’s premiere game Thursday night is refined by comparison.
But refined is not restrained.
Detroit Dan showed his mindset immediately upon landing the Lions job in January of 2021.
“Here’s what I do know, is that this team is going to take on the identity of this city,” Campbell said at his introductory news conference. “And, this city’s been down, and it found a way to get up. It’s found a way to overcome adversity. So, this team’s going to be built on we’re going to kick you in the teeth, all right?
“And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. When you knock us down, we’re going to get up. And, on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”
Campbell Pulls Lions Out Of ‘Dark Place’
Campbell made reviving Detroit a journey. And he wanted to bring everyone along for the ride. That meant transforming his team from cowardly Lions to kings of the NFC North jungle. It also meant getting fans involved.
“We’re going to bring the firewood,” Campbell told a crowd at Ford Field his first offseason in Detroit. “And we’re going to light the flame. You’ll douse it with gasoline and that’s what we need from you.”
Campbell, 47, is wiser than that day he stormed out of South Florida, unhappy he didn’t land the Dolphins’ full-time job. But his core hasn’t changed.
In Detroit he has laughed with his team. He’s cried with his team. He’s pushed players and hugged players.
The Lions have lost — a lot — under Campbell. They were 3-13-1 his first season and started that year with 10 losses and one tie the first 11 games.
But last year the Lions finished with eight victories in their final 10 games.
“He has an elite ability to pull the team out of a dark place,” general manager Brad Holmes has said of his head coach.
Detroit Lions Now A Division Contender
Campbell’s reputation, most of it earned, some of it steeped in myth and social media memes, has grown as his team has grown.
So now we’re hearing Campbell asked the NFL for permission to keep an actual lion on the sideline of home games. Well, Campbell says he was joking about that.
Campbell was seen on Hard Knocks two years ago doing push ups with his players. Sometimes better than his players.
The show portrayed him as a caffeine junky.
“That is real,” Campbell said.
Caricature Campbell bench presses massive weights. Actual Campbell has lifted the Lions to division contenders.
And he’s done it being as true to himself as he can.
“Look, we won’t sacrifice our identity for anything, and I think we’re a pretty resilient group,” Campbell said. “I think that’s where I believe it all starts because for us, and for anybody that’s been around this game … we’re going to hit some hard times and it’s [about] the teams that can come out of that the other way and that can come out the other end unscathed.
“And I think that’s what this roster’s built for because every team goes through it and we’re going to have, I believe, we’ll have our ups, but when we hit some rough spots, this team is built to handle it and will come out better.”
A team molded in the image of its head coach.