Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions miracle worker
As a tight end, he played through torn labrums and endured 12 surgeries. As a coach, he once asked a player to slap him across the face and. Now, he may be what the Lions have lacked since 1957.
The McGinn Files is a series of profiles looking back at selected players from NFL drafts since 1985. The foundation of the series is Bob McGinn's transcripts of his annual predraft interviews with general managers, personnel directors and scouts over the last 38 years. This is the 35th installment of the series, which began in 2019 at The Athletic.
It’s a scene, an altogether too unfamiliar scene at Ford Field over the years as sellout crowds stand and celebrate touchdowns by belting out the fight song of their Detroit Lions. For once, the second line — “A charging team that will not yield” — is appropriate.
“Gridiron Heroes” was written in 1934 to mark the Motor City’s return to the NFL (the Detroit Panthers came just before, in 1925- ‘26) following the purchase of the financially-strapped Portsmouth Spartans. The Lions, as they were christened, annexed one championship in 1935 and then three more in the 1950s at the expense of the great Paul Brown and his dynastic Cleveland Browns. Buddy Parker, their canny coach for the 1952 and ’53 titles, chose the booster club’s August banquet in 1957 to quit… shockingly, at the podium, on the spot.
George Wilson, an aide to Parker, took over and secured the ’57 championship, but 65 years later Detroit still waits for another. The Lions hosted a Super Bowl at Ford Field; otherwise, the so-called Super Bowl-era has proceeded without their participation.
Jerry Green covered that ’57 championship game at Briggs Stadium for The Associated Press. From 1963-‘2004, his full-time tenure as the Lions beat man/sports columnist at The Detroit News, Green wrote pro football with an expertise that placed him far ahead of his generation. Even now, at age 94, his work continues to grace The News’ sports pages when the spirit moves.
In Green’s book, Parker was the Lions’ best coach he has witnessed. Of the coaches since Parker (excluding the three interim pilots), he tabs Wayne Fontes “probably” No. 2.
The 17th post-Parker coach, Dan Campbell, intrigues Green, who hasn’t met him but watches and reads with discerning eye.
“I’ve become very cynical about the Lions, the whole franchise,” Green said last week. “I used to refer to the Lions as Bill Ford’s broken toy, which they were. Campbell’s just a different sort of character. He’s as far removed as anybody you could think of from Vince Lombardi. You know, the thing about biting off knees. He impresses me as a wild man. He makes a lot of decisions that are dangerous. He mismanaged the first Minnesota game, and it cost him. But he certainly has his team playing well here.
“He has invigorated the Lions. I admire his deviation from the normal NFL coaching style: his willingness to try to trick defenses with fake punts, tackle-eligible passes, etc. The Lions’ victory over Minnesota (Sunday) was, to me, their finest performance in years.”
For now, at least, the Lions are about the hottest team in the NFL. Winners of five of their last six games after a 1-6 start, the 46-year-old Campbell would be a distinct possibility for NFL coach of the year if the Lions were to win the rest of their games and gain an improbable NFC wild-card playoff berth.
As general manager of the New York Giants, it was Ernie Accorsi who selected Campbell, a tight end, in the third round of the 1999 draft. As he studies Campbell from retirement in Hershey, Pa., he recalled one of his conversations with Penn State coach Joe Paterno during his stint as a publicist for the Nittany Lions.
“We’d get only one game on Sunday, and it was the Steelers,” said Accorsi. “It was 1969, a different era. They were 1-13 in Chuck Noll’s first year. I remember by the second half of the season they were a pain in the neck to play. I said to Paterno, ‘The Steelers aren’t that bad.’ He said, ‘No, they’re getting better because they’ve got a great coach.’ And that is what the Lions are doing.
“The Lions have been a son of a gun to play, really starting last year. This year, they’ve been tough to beat. Losing close games can be deceiving. What they’ve done is follow up that series of losing close games by winning.”
Accorsi and Bill Parcells, who coached Campbell for three seasons in Dallas, say the manner in which the Lions are performing mirrors how Campbell played the game.
“He was the type of football player that he is as a coach,” Accorsi said. “Just a tough son of a gun. I didn’t know Dan very well, didn’t know his personality. I didn’t know much about him as an (assistant) coach. But I knew what he was as a player. I knew they (the Lions) were going to be a physically tough football team and a mentally tough football team when he took over as head coach.
“And that’s exactly the way his team is playing.”