Dan Campbell's early Dolphins tenure marked by fervent style
Wednesday, Oct 28, 2015
By Jeff Darlington | Published Oct. 28, 2015
The pickup truck with a fifth-wheel hitch and a 40-foot trailer rolled into a college town five years ago, a solo driver behind the wheel on a road trip in search of his life's next phase. Dan Campbell was now three hours from his family and his home.
He'd driven there on a bit of a whim, the result of a quick phone call with Mike Sherman, then the head coach at Texas A&M, Campbell's alma mater.
"Coach, would you mind if I came down there, maybe watched how you guys work and got a taste of what you do?" Campbell recalls asking Sherman in the spring of 2010.
Sherman obliged. And so, just months after Campbell told his wife he wasn't interested in becoming a coach, the badass dude with a cheek full of chaw strolled into College Station, Texas, embarking on a ride that would lead him down one wild road.
"I just parked it down there at an RV park a couple of miles from campus, and that's where I stayed," Campbell said during an interview this week with NFL.com. "So I'd unhook my truck, drive to practice, then back to the trailer for some sleep."
Every story you hear about Campbell is like this. The Miami Dolphins' interim head coach is a cross between an everyman and a superhero. Each time somebody tells you he's just one of the guys, that testimony invariably precedes a story that validates his fast-growing legend.
If Bill Belichick is General Patton, then Dan Campbell is William Wallace.
"I would run through anything for Coach Campbell," linebacker Chris McCain said this week. "A brick wall. A cement wall. Anything."
You think this is media-driven hype? You think, as the Dolphins prepare to play the Patriots in a suddenly interesting game on "Thursday Night Football," the public is unjustifiably turning Campbell into something he is not?
That's fine. Just don't tell his players.
Once Campbell became the interim coach, center Mike Pouncey and several teammates decided to do a little more digging on him. They wanted to learn more about a man they knew mostly as a cool, passionate assistant coach. So they took to Google.
"When you're trying to figure out your head coach, you want to know everything about him," Pouncey said. "So we're watching videos of his playing days, and this guy was an animal. Big as hell. Long hair. Yeah, we've learned a lot about Campbell recently.
"The more you learn ... the more you love him."
Former Dolphins guard Richie Incognito calls Campbell "My dude." Ex-Miami tight end Anthony Fasano says Campbell is the ultimate "guy's guy." Former coach Tony Sparano, who gave Campbell his first NFL coaching job, said he's "always loved the guy for his toughness and love for football."
Everyone who spent time around Campbell as a player remembers, despite the fact that he played tight end, how he wanted to be treated more like an offensive lineman. He was a gritty guy who loved to block. He didn't care about his own stats -- only wins and losses.
So when Campbell phoned Sparano after three weeks at Texas A&M's spring practices, the then-Dolphins head coach brought Campbell onto his staff as an assistant coach. "And I never let him go home," Sparano said Wednesday. "I guess that was a good decision."
There is no question that Campbell's future as a head coach is anything but solidified. He has literally been in charge of two wins against a couple of bad teams from a terrible division.
But beyond the way Miami defeated Houston on Sunday (the Dolphins had their largest first-half lead since 1991 at 41-0), beyond everything you see during the games, beyond the passionate speeches from Campbell, there is a far more important -- and understated -- reason to believe this guy deserves a shot.
A former NFL tight end who spent 11 seasons with the Giants, Cowboys, Lions and Saints, Campbell clearly connects with his players in a way that few others do. He has a vibe about him, an energy that has been unmistakable since his early days as a player.
"He was the best at being exactly what the moment called for," said Ryan Fowler, a former Cowboys linebacker who played with Campbell in the mid-2000s. "Bloody and sweaty, yelling and snorting in the weight room, encouraging to the discouraged, helpful to the lost, and wild and fun at parties. He was judicious and reckless. Fair and merciless.
"He was just right ... all the time."
So far, that's exactly how he has served in his role as interim head coach. And the more comfortable he looks in this position, the more we'll all be left to wonder if the Dolphins just stumbled into the perfect person to take permanent hold of the team's top job.
Consider some of the changes he's already made. For one, when Campbell took over for the fired Joe Philbin earlier this month, he immediately stripped all of the walls in the team's auditorium of the inspirational messages designed to motivate players.
"Everybody in sports sees coaches using those signs," Campbell said. "The problem is, after a while, after two or three weeks, the same sign is still sitting there. And it doesn't mean anything anymore. Because you're just used to seeing it.
"The impact is gone. It's lost."
How does Campbell know that? Because he has sat in those meeting rooms as a player.
It's the same reason he reorganized the locker room during the Week 5 bye to put all position groups together. Offensive linemen are with other offensive linemen. Linebackers are with other linebackers.
"We notice everything," Pouncey said. "We know what he's doing, and we appreciate it. When you're out there on the field, you're with your guys. So when we're here, it's another chance to talk about football. It builds chemistry within each unit."
Practices are different, too. No longer do the Dolphins conduct long, methodical practices that are slow-moving and meticulous. Hell, Campbell is an avid Metallica fan. Do you really think he does anything slow-moving and meticulous?
"What I can say for him, we're doing stuff fast-paced," cornerback Brent Grimes said. "It's not a marathon session. He gets his stuff in. He goes fast. We're going to be intense. It's fast-paced. But it's also a fast practice."
Said long snapper John Denney, the longest-tenured Dolphin in his 11th Miami season: "It's a completely different culture in here."
Look, it's one thing to be liked by your players; it is another to be respected. It is one thing to act like the total opposite of the coach you're replacing, and it is another to simply strive to be your own man. Perhaps these are very gray areas when it comes to assessing Campbell's early days as interim head coach, but it is difficult to deny that there seems to be something different about this person.
"I feel like I've been blessed with the ability to read people somewhat, understand what makes them tick, what helps them, what hurts them," Campbell said. "I've been fortunate that way. I love to help. I want to help. I love this game, and I love being around these guys. It's great. It's fulfilling.
"I want to pull out the most production from each and every guy. That's my job. I want those players to know that I'm coaching for them. That inspires me. That drives me. That makes me want to give more."
It is amazing, isn't it? That this man once thought he didn't want to be a coach?
"As a matter of fact, I told my wife I couldn't imagine ever being a coach," Campbell said. "I didn't know how the coaches did it. I could remember coming into work on Wednesday or Thursday morning, coaches would be coming out of their office, hair messed up, having slept in their office all night or the meeting room."
As Campbell sat in the tight ends meeting room Tuesday, during the interview for this article, he leaned over with his elbows on his knees and his massive shoulders perched outright before him. He looked a little tired. That's to be expected as he prepares for the biggest game of his coaching life on a short week.
He is grinding now, and he is loving it. And no doubt, his early results have Dolphins fans loving it, too.
Last Sunday, before Campbell coached the Dolphins to a 44-26 win in his home debut as interim coach, he sought out Hall of Fame coach Don Shula on the sidelines. Campbell said he asked Shula a simple question: "Got any advice?"
"You know what you're doing," Shula told him. "Just keep them going."
Yes, Campbell has won over the crowd. He has won over the players. He has won over the team's legendary former coach. But can he continue to win where it matters most? Can he continue to prove that this is where he belongs, extracting the potential out of players?
"I remember at the end of my playing career, after I wasn't sure if coaching was the right choice, thinking, 'You've got your whole life ahead of you. What are you going to do with it? What do you love? And it was football.' "
And so Campbell got into his pickup truck with his fifth-wheel hitch and his 40-foot trailer, and he started his drive. Where will it take him? Who knows?
But this ride is going to be fun.