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The Dan Campbell Experience Comes to Detroit

The new Lions coach knows you can’t bite opponents’ kneecaps, as he so enthusiastically declared in his introductory press conference. But he has big plans for a franchise that hasn’t had much to root for.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dan Campbell’s biggest fear is that he will feel he has to act a way he does not want to. That one day, in a bid for respect or approval, he won’t be the truest version of himself for even one second and he will sit down and write some long, thought-out speech. He will sometimes “calm down” if he needs to get a point across to his team, he explains, and list bullet points, for instance. “But man, I hate that. I hate that.”

“I want to be able to talk with what’s in my heart and on my mind because that’s who I am. It’s just everything that’s the essence of who I am,” he says. Campbell then changes the subject mid-sentence. He does that a lot, but it’s always welcome because, well, he’s Dan Campbell, and he’s rolling. He explains that when the latest coaching cycle started last winter and he was an assistant in New Orleans, he told his agent to get him in front of Lions brass for their head-coaching vacancy. “There’s this small handful of teams that I’m like, ‘I belong here,’” Campbell says. “This was at the top of the list because I’ve been here and I remember as a player thinking, ‘God, if you could ever win in Detroit? Oh my God.’”

He explains that Detroit reminds him of Texas, where he grew up, but just with different accents. A place built around family and hard work. He starts to get emotional and clears his throat. “Everything about this place,” Campbell says of Detroit, “the bubble burst, housing, it hit everywhere, but it hit here, and then the auto industry, man, takes a hit and the Lions have sucked for 30 years and they’re always the joke, year in and year out. ‘Oh, the Lions’ and this narrative,” he says, in a mock voice of how people talk about the team. He continues: “I just feel like this place fit me, man. It really did. Like I belonged. That I literally fit like a glove in Detroit. They love the Lions, they love football, and this place called out to me. It was like, ‘You know what? You need to let these guys know what you’re about, that you understand their own pain.’”

The Lions hired Campbell, 45, in January, and seven months later, I’m in his office at the team’s suburban Detroit facility getting what many Lions players and coaches have already seen: the Dan Campbell experience. He apologizes profusely for being late (he arrived at 1:01 for a 1 p.m. meeting). He stands up from the desk and walks around the room to act out an explanation of how a time traveler would describe smartphones to people in the past. “They’d be like, ‘You won’t believe where I was. Everyone has these little rectangular devices and they just wander around—their fingers are doing something. They are wandering and they don’t even know where they are going. They live through this device.’”

Campbell thinks smartphones are the worst thing that has happened to coaching because he believes that players across sports have lost the ability to communicate with their colleagues in the locker room. “It’s a big emphasis. It’s a lost art, man, to be able to say, ‘Listen, you’ve got an issue, or something’s going on, come up and look at me and tell me exactly what’s on your mind. If something bothers you, come up and tell me. Just tell me. Don’t text your agent. Don’t have your agent call [Lions general manager] Brad [Holmes] so Brad calls me. Just come up and say it.’ We are trying to breed that culture.”

Campbell’s solution to any potential communication problems is to say exactly what he means at all times, which is what he’s done in a coaching career that includes five seasons as an assistant in New Orleans, a six-year stint on the Miami Dolphins staff, and a decade-long NFL playing career as a blocking tight end. He is a sort of bizarro-world, jacked Ted Lasso. His players and coworkers adore him and he’s been meme’d by the national media. He cares about the first part far more than the latter. He became a viral sensation for getting a little too passionate during his introductory press conference when he proclaimed that the Lions were going to bite opponents’ kneecaps while playing a physical brand of football. His comments, he explains, like everything else he does, were about cutting through to his constituency by saying exactly how he felt.

“No, I know you can’t freakin’ bite kneecaps and crack kneecaps, and those are 15-yard penalties—which by the way, I’ve gotten letters on that—but it just called to me,” Campbell says. “The last thing on my mind was, ‘I wonder how the national media is going to react.’ I was talking to our players and our fans. And that’s all I care about.”

Dan Campbell is a man who is comfortable in his own skin. Coaching, like politics, is local. And the kneecap comment played completely differently to Campbell’s intended audience. “What I got from it was genuine,” says Lions offensive lineman Taylor Decker. “‘I want to see camaraderie in the locker room. I want to see a bunch of bad motherfuckers out there. Just be the Detroit Lions and we’re gonna go out there and hit people in the mouth.’ You can hear coach-speak [from other coaches]. Look at the guy, he’s fucking 3 percent body fat. He’s got great energy. He wants everyone to learn, compete, and have a chance.”

On one of the days I was in Detroit, Campbell went viral for his Starbucks order. He has called himself an asshole for cutting a popular long snapper. He has talked about his two teacup Yorkies, Thelma and Louise, and what they taught him about football. But these are incidental details. Campbell is different from other coaches because he can’t be anything other than himself. The story of successful head coaches is usually the story of being you. Authenticity is no guarantee of success, obviously, but the opposite is almost a guarantee of failure. Head coaching, like the phenomenon described in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, can lead to lifelong alphas getting to the very top level of their profession and realizing they are not the person they thought they were. Their hands shake, and they start to act differently as the attitude that got them the job disappears. Some coaches get top jobs and forget how they got there. It would be easy for Campbell to try to mimic either of his coaching mentors, Bill Parcells or Sean Payton, but he knows he would fail if he did. First-time coaches often decide to become clones of their bosses and lose themselves. I can make no proclamations about whether Campbell will be successful as a head coach in Detroit. August, when I arrived in Detroit, is not a time for such things, nor is the first year of a long-term rebuild on a roster that lacks a lot of talent. I can only proclaim that Dan Campbell is still Dan Campbell, a phrase that can only be defined by itself.

“Players know a fake when they see a fake,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn says. “And they know Dan is real.”

Campbell says that the coaches he respects most told him to not change a thing, not that he could even if he tried. “It’s a little bit like being a parent for the first time: You get all this advice, and it doesn’t mean crap until you go through it, and you do it your way,” Campbell says.

Here’s what Campbell has to go through: He is a first-time head coach on a team starting over after trading Matthew Stafford, the Lions’ all-time leading passer, to the Los Angeles Rams. They have a new quarterback, Jared Goff, and a roster that, as currently constructed, is not expected to win many games. The franchise last won a playoff game in the 1991 season, when Campbell was 15 years old. The 2021 Lions will almost certainly be quite bad. Campbell’s presence will not be.

“I never, ever, ever, ever, ever wanted to be in the weight room when he was there. He was from a different gene pool than this Northeast, Jewish executive. So if he was in the weight room, I would just go for a walk and call it a day,” says Mike Tannenbaum, an ESPN analyst who was the executive vice president of the Miami Dolphins when the team picked Campbell for interim coach in 2015. “He was humiliating to be around.”

“But I think in this 30-second sound bite society, people think, ‘OK, he’s really tough on players,’ but he has a lot of other pitches he can throw.” Campbell, Tannenbaum says, epitomizes an iron fist in a velvet glove approach. “He is very relatable. I thought that authenticity was very apparent.”

Part James Hetfield, part Ted Lasso, part Sean Payton. Everyone has a Dan Campbell story. “I truly believe he cares about my well-being, cares about my family’s well-being,” Lions tight ends coach Ben Johnson says. “He makes it to where you come into work every day and there’s no fear; it’s all love. And as a coach working for him, man, I don’t want to disappoint him. That would crush me. If I knew that I disappointed him … he wouldn’t have to yell. He wouldn’t have to say anything. Just knowing that I let him down would do it.”

I like to ask players or coaches about the first event in their life that shaped their football philosophy. Campbell responds by talking about his dad, a former Marine. A parent being mentioned in the answer is common. What’s uncommon is that Campbell never actually got to the football part; he just kept talking about his father and his upbringing. Campbell grew up on a cattle ranch a few hours away from Fort Worth. His father believed in discipline, hard work, and creativity. He played football, sure—everyone in Texas does—and was a tenacious center. But that’s beside the point. “Probably before I knew what football was, I think that that kind of shapes who you are, and you learn that you don’t give up. When you realize that the sun’s coming up, and you’re about to put in work until the sun goes down, you learn how to just dig in and go to work and grind. You get comfortable with being uncomfortable and it becomes second nature,” Campbell says. “And I think that helps with this job, certainly, because that’s what it’s all about here. If you can’t grind, you’re not gonna be very good.”

After high school, Campbell joined the football team at Texas A&M. His close friend from college and former NFL player Steve McKinney says Campbell was a literal real-life cowboy without the outfit. McKinney once went to Campbell’s family ranch on spring break and when a calf got loose, he watched as Campbell immediately wrestled it to the ground. “He is a man of action and of business,” he says. “He’s not afraid to get in there and get dirty.”

“The best way to describe it is that he’d just kick your ass on a football field,” says Randy McCown, Campbell’s college quarterback. “You know what? You may get him a time or two but you can bet your butt, if you think you’re going to whoop him, you better have brought a lunch and maybe an afternoon snack because it’s going to take all day.”

“There are two people I have met where people just gravitate towards them. Dan is one, Michael Irvin is the other,” says former Texas A&M and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen. “Those two are very similar in that when they speak, when they are passionate about something, they start spitting when they talk because they are just so passionate. If you meet Dan you feel like you’ve known him for 20 years; Michael is the same way.”

Nguyen estimates that if you asked 100 former teammates of Campbell’s from the Aggies’ Big 12 championship-winning team in 1998—their only conference championship in the past 27 years—who they’d want to be in a foxhole with, 95 would say Campbell.

His college friends say the same thing about Campbell’s press conferences: That’s Dan. “It’s the kind of conversation we’d be having in our dorm or apartment. He’s just that guy. He’s not a fake person, he’s not going to be a fake,” McKinney explains.

No. Campbell is not going to be a fake. Next to the practice field, he strolls to a podium inside of a tent on a sweltering August morning. Everything—the heat, the tent, a little light that changes colors on the side of the podium—makes this feel a bit like a football sermon. Have you accepted Detroit Lions football into your life? Campbell, an evangelist for the idea that the low man wins, takes a deep breath and starts telling the assembled reporters about the first time he wore pads during an NFL practice, a story he’d told his team the night before. “I go to the New York Giants. Howard Cross was, I don’t know, a 10-year, 11-year vet. He was a tight end. He was huge and played a long time. But at that time, you just roll out there in pads. I mean, there was no acclimation to go, ‘I’m a rookie.’ And he says, ‘Hey Dan, are you ready?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ He goes, ‘OK, so when this thing goes down, make sure you got my back.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? When this thing goes down?’ I said, ‘What’s going down?’ He’s just like, ‘Have my back. Make sure you got my back.’ It was like first period, team run, and it was like literally the first play and one of our D-linemen just slugs the crap out of our center and it’s all out. It’s an all-out brawl. I’m looking and there’s Howard and I’m like, ‘Somebody is on his back.’ I’m running over there. You’re just trying to get involved, but yet you don’t really want to be in there and fight in the middle of all of it. It’s really changed a lot since then. But it was like every day, first day of camp, ‘Here we go.’”

Campbell switches gears at the end of the story: “That’s not what I’m looking for,” he said. “That was the point of the story. That’s not what I’m looking for, guys.”

You cannot learn all that much from press conferences. They’re not a prerequisite for successful coaches. Thousands of great coaches have given bad press conferences, and bad coaches have given great ones—Bill Belichick doesn’t exactly light up reporters’ notebooks. But Campbell loves talking about his job, which makes him unlike his predecessor, Matt Patricia, who hated talking about his. Patricia doesn’t get brought up all that much at Lions training camp. When I ask several Lions players about what’s different between their former and current head coach, they mostly don’t want to talk about it. There’s no animosity toward Patricia; his absence is just a nonevent. The I-don’t-think-about-you-at-all meme for an NFL locker room. But the differences between him and Campbell are obvious and everywhere. When I last visited Detroit in the summer of 2019, I sat in the back of the media room while Patricia badgered reporters by asking them whether they liked their jobs. At one point in the 2018 season, he scolded a reporter’s posture. It appeared that Patricia put a lot of energy into things that didn’t matter.

I ask Campbell how he diagnosed the 2020 Lions and what needed to be done to improve the 2021 Lions. “Let me say this,” he says. “There’s been a lot of trust issues here. There’s been a lot of miscommunication, that we’re trying to gain their trust. And so with that, man, we’re trying to get them to buy in. It’s as simple as: We got to practice; you’ve got something that’s been bothering you; you don’t know exactly how bad it is, or what’s going on because of maybe issues that have happened in the past. And it’s ‘Listen, come out, warm it up, go through individual [drills], and you got to trust us as coaches are going to take care of you there. We’re not going to put you in a position where you’re going to make this worse. But yet, you’re still practicing.’ And just something as simple as that, which we’ve already implemented in the last couple of days has already gone a long way. But they are learning that ‘Hey, you can push through this, and you can trust us that we will take care of it. You’ll get your work, but you’re also going to get better too.’”

Campbell believes most football players are motivated by pride and he coaches accordingly. “I don’t think they want to be exposed. I think most of these guys don’t want to be embarrassed. They want to do a good job. They don’t want to be beat. They do want to compete. They don’t want the guy across from them to win,” Campbell says. He says he and Lions GM Brad Holmes have tried to find these kinds of players. Campbell likes to test players to see whether they have this quality. “I’ll say things like ‘I can’t believe our third offensive tackle just whipped your ass, that’s unbelievable,’” he says. To illustrate, he points to an example from that day’s practice. “Today we had a halfback at fullback, and I got to say [to a defensive lineman] ‘I can’t believe you just let a halfback block you and you’re 290 pounds.’ Then I go over and tell the halfback how good he was. I’m so glad he kicked his ass. That’s how I do it. I’m kind of a smart-ass with it, but it’s in fun, and I don’t have to be belligerent with it. I don’t have to get in your face and MF. There’s other ways to motivate.”

I mention to Campbell a book I’d read, Masters of the Air, about bomber pilots in World War II in which it is mentioned that eventually, crews’ loyalty to each other trumped all other considerations during the war. Campbell responds by telling me about a time when he was coaching in Miami and worked with a Navy SEAL who’d taught Campbell similar things about his own experience in Afghanistan. Campbell said the SEAL told him he joined the military after 9/11 because of national pride and eventually became motivated almost solely by not letting the guy next to him down over anything else. Campbell thinks football, though it’s far less serious, works a bit like that.

Football players should, he explains, say to themselves, “I don’t want to lose to this guy but I know this: I [really] don’t want to lose and somebody is in Jared Goff’s lap that cost us a game or he gets hit and he’s out for three weeks or whatever. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be that guy who comes across the middle and I decide I’m going to alligator arm a freaking pass and it ends up a pick to the house and we lose the game.”

And so, Campbell and Holmes are drafting, for lack of a better term, football guys. I watched first-round pick Penei Sewell come off the field from his first NFL practice in pads and say that hitting in pads after so long out of them was like having a first drink of water in the desert. When I mention that to Campbell, he unleashes a “That is awesome under his breath.

Campbell also believes, like his coaching mentors Parcells and Payton, that brutal honesty is the only way to improve.

“From [Parcells] to Payton, Payton to me, because Payton was that way, too. Man, it is a culture of accountability, and you know what, if I don’t like something you’re going to know it. I’m going to tell you exactly. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m not going to hide it. Doesn’t mean I have to be belligerent, but I’m not going to swallow it because that’s the only way to get stuff out in the open and correct the issues.”

When Campbell played for the Cowboys, he says Parcells would call him into his office and tell him, “‘Look, I just want you to know that if you have another day like that, I’m going to cut you.’ And you know when he says that he means it. It’s not just to scare you because I saw him do that to another player. He’d tell you straight up: You’ve got to work on this, or you’ve got to do this. He was not trying to hide anything.” The flip side of this, Campbell explains, is that Parcells could call you out at practice and then have a long conversation with you afterward about something completely unrelated to football and hold your attention for hours. “Like a freaking tractor beam in Star Wars,” Campbell says.

Campbell picked up plenty of X’s and O’s advice from both men. “No one knows how to use the talent on the roster like Sean Payton. You’re going to the game, everyone is playing. Every guy’s gonna have a role but it’s going to be a role you do well. You use the best of what’s available and you’ll be doing stuff that you can master and really sink your teeth into.” Campbell says Payton made him more aggressive on offense. He says that his football mind was more rooted in running the ball, special teams, and defense. He still values those things but says Payton taught him to, well, let it rip in decision-making. Like Payton, he is not a “concept” coach—he is more concerned with putting players in the right roles rather than adhering to specific systems. In the past, he felt a hesitation about going for it on fourth down, but now he says, “you look at the defense that’s playing us and they are terrified because they don’t know what we’re doing, so I think ‘Maybe we should be doing this. We’re aggressive, we’re going for it’ and not just going for it, we are going for a shot and putting our guys in our best position to win with our playmakers.”

Johnson, the tight ends coach, has known Campbell for nine years, dating back to their time as Dolphins assistants, and says Campbell is one of best technical coaches he’s been around. He taught Johnson how much of tight end play at the NFL level is based on hands instead of the shoulders, and the importance of sustaining blocks and a player’s ability to get their hands inside a defender’s chest. Unsurprisingly, Campbell often demonstrates these fundamentals by standing up in meetings and giving live demonstrations. In a job interview in Miami, the story goes, Campbell took a chair and demonstrated every block he teaches.

Decker praised Campbell’s open lines of communication. He says Campbell was upfront that while he wouldn’t accept all of his suggestions, he would hear them out. One example: Decker talked up holdover offensive line coach Hank Fraley, who Campbell retained.

Campbell says he’s built a staff of blunt communicators like him who see the game the same way, including multiple former players. He’s put together one of the most diverse staffs in the league, one that includes two Black coordinators in Glenn and Anthony Lynn and a Black assistant head coach in Duce Staley. I asked him about the diversity of the staff. “I said, ‘These are the best dudes’ and then I turn around and look back and [reporters] ask me about diversity and I’m like, ‘OK, that’s awesome,’” he said. “I was just picking guys and saying ‘that’s a hell of a coach.’”

The reviews from his staff members that I talked to are what you’d expect: Johnson tells me Campbell still hasn’t changed in the nine years he’s known him. Glenn says Campbell has “stolen ideas, like we all do” from his coaching mentors but has not stolen their personalities, remaining himself. Defensive assistant Dom Capers raves about his communication skills. The through line in all of this is that there is no second, hidden side of Campbell. He is exactly what you think. He’s a football guy. He’s still trying to, metaphorically speaking, bite kneecaps.

Dan Campbell is still Dan Campbell. And Detroit better be ready for it.

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