Dan Campbell’s first needed to address a squishy soft team. So, his first Miami Dolphins practice in 2015 pitted players in violent one-on-one matchups while the rest of the team surrounded them yelling.
His second practice began with a similar salute to the super-intensity that’s become his signature: He put all the rookies in the middle of a ring of veterans.
“Practice starts when you fight your way out,” he told the rookies.
All of which might’ve made him sound like just another motivational speaker if players didn’t love the change. They left that second day’s drill laughing and breathless, sort of like Campbell himself when he first interviewed with coach Tony Sparano for an assistants’ job in 2011.
Campbell had to stop halfway through the interview, the late Sparano once said. He threw his body around so completely in offering examples of drills or techniques he was sweating and breathless and paused halfway through it.
“You got the job,” Sparano told him.
Does this help any this NFL Championship Sunday? Does it explain how all these years later Campbell turned a sad-sack Detroit Lions franchise into one that’s a win over San Francisco from the Super Bowl?
“Here, man, it’s harsh winters, auto industry, blue collar,” Campbell said this past week of Detroit. “And I just think that’s what we’re about.”
It’s so much of what his background isn’t, though. When Campbell took over for Joe Philbin four games into the 2015 season, I asked to talk to him for a moment. That moment turned into 15 minutes of him talking of his football philosophy (“We need to be tougher”), then 30 minutes talking of his personality (“I’ve always liked Metallica,” he said) to an upbringing far from NFL fame.
Morgan, Texas had no stoplights, one intersection and four hundred residents.
“That’s the closest town to where I’m from,” he said.
Where’s he actually from?
“The middle of nowhere,” he said.
He woke each morning before school to feed, brand, vaccinate and care for 100 head of cattle on the family ranch. His closest high school only played six-on-six football, so he attended one 30 miles away that was still so small it was a talk-of-the-town event when University of Miami coach Dennis Erickson showed up to recruit Campbell.
“That’s him?” Erickson said, pointing to the big player on the practice field.
On grainy game film, Campbell wore black sleeves. Erickson laughed at seeing this big white kid before him.
“We thought you were black,” he told Campbell.
That’s how far off the grid he grew up.
“There’s some phenomenal people where I’m from, hard workers who’ll give you the shirt off their back,” he said that first day as Dolphins coach. “But for me, growing up, from the time I was a kid until the time I was in high school and able to get a college scholarship, all I could think about was getting out.
“I just wanted to go. Something was always pulling at me.”
It pulled him to Texas A&M, a 11-year NFL career and then to a tight ends assistant with Sparano’s Dolphins in 2011. By 2015, the Dolphins reflected Philbin’s mild personality. By elevating Campbell to interim coach, that issue was addressed.
Campbell won his first two games before finishing 4-7.
“The Oklahoma drill only gets you so far,” a Hall of Fame executive told me walking out after after a dismal loss to the New York Jets.
There’s no second-guess in the Dolphins not hiring him from interim coach. There’s just a distant appreciation of how he’s managed his career. He grew in New Orleans under Sean Payton. He then led a Detroit team with the longest stretch without a playoff win to two playoff wins so far this year.
“We’re going to kick you in the teeth right?” Campbell said in a notorious quote upon being hired in Detroit three years ago. “And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”
It made no sense. Unless you knew Campbell.
“I envisioned,” he said this past week of that quote, “that we would have the chance to compete with the big boys.”
San Francisco is at home and favored by seven points. It’s the better team. But Campbell has built a Detroit team in his image of toughness, substance and belief. He’s competing with the big boys for the simple reason the small-town kid from nowhere is one of the big boys now.