Dan Campbell grew up a ranch hand on his family’s 1,000-plus-acre farm in Bosque County. He did all the dirty work, loading 100 head of cattle in the chute, working the calves, hauling hay.
It’s where he got his work ethic, which ultimately defined his 11-year NFL career as a blue-collar tight end.
“He was always a go-getter, even when he was just a kid,” said Campbell’s father, Larry, who still lives in Morgan. “He trailed me like a dog. If I stepped back, I’d step on him. Wherever I went, he went. I had him driving before he could [legally] drive. I’d put it in low gear, and he’d steer it, and I’d get in the back and feed the cattle.
“He was always doing something. If he wasn’t working, he was playing ball. He used to drive his momma nuts playing ball in the house.”
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The 53 players on the Miami Dolphins’ active roster now follow Dan Campbell with as much devotion. The Dolphins named Campbell their interim head coach Oct. 5 after firing Joe Philbin, and the former Glen Rose, Texas A&M and Dallas Cowboys fan favorite has won over the locker room.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around,” Dolphins safety Michael Thomas said. “You can just tell he was a passionate player when he played the game. He still feels it. He’s itching. He wishes he could get out there now. When you have a guy like that, you’re willing to play for him. You’re willing to do whatever for him.”
I think he eats nails and protein for breakfast. He’s a buff guy. I think he definitely has another year or two left in him.
Receiver Rishard Matthews on Dolphins coach Dan Campbell
In his initial news conference, Campbell vowed to “change the culture.” His first practice as head coach, which came during the team’s bye week, included full-contact, one-on-one drills erroneously referred to as the “Oklahoma drill.”
Campbell already has reshaped the team in his image.
“He came in and he laid his groundwork down, and said basically he wanted this team to be more competitive whether it was Sunday or whether it was throughout the week,” center Mike Pouncey said. “He’s really given our football team a spark. Guys are out there competing every day, and it’s really making us a better football team on Sundays. So he’s done a great job. We’re just excited he’s our head coach.”
Campbell, 39, has become the youngest head coach in the NFL, four years younger than San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy. Houston Texans punter Shane Lechler was one of Campbell’s roommates in College Station; Cowboys stars Jason Witten and Tony Romo played with Campbell in Dallas; and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was a teammate with the New York Giants.
“I learned a lot from him,” Witten said. “He’s a great leader and has a tremendous amount of passion for the game. You can see his players, the way they play, that they respond to that.
“He was made to be a coach and a lot of his strengths as a player are what we consider strengths as a coach. He’s prepared; he understands defenses and what they’re trying to do. I’m excited for him, the path he’s taken.”
Dolphins coach Dan Campbell grew up in a Morgan, population 490. On Sunday, he coaches in front of 76,100 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
Campbell’s journey began in Morgan, a town with a population of 490, no stoplights, one intersection and a six-man football team. He remembers spending his Friday nights watching high school football, his Sundays watching the Cowboys and the days in between dreaming of becoming an NFL player.
Campbell planned out his future, transferring to Glen Rose, 25 miles away, as a sophomore in hopes of catching the eye of college scouts. He played every sport in high school, and by his senior season when he had more than 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, University of Miami coach Dennis Erickson and Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, among others, were seated in his living room.
Campbell eventually signed with the Aggies, where he majored in agriculture development.
“He just had a charisma about him, and he made the players around him play better,” Slocum recalled. “He had such an intensity, and it meant so much to him, and he was so inspiring himself, that it rubbed off on the team.
“He had all the attributes that, as a coach, you want your players to have. I always knew he would be ready to play. I never had to worry about motivating him. I never had to worry about his toughness. I never had to worry about his effort. He was going to give you all he had all the time.”
The Giants made Campbell a third-round pick, and he played four seasons in New York, three for the Cowboys and three for the Detroit Lions before finishing on injured reserve with the New Orleans Saints in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl.
Campbell’s impact always surpassed his statistics: He made only 27 catches for 314 yards and three touchdowns for the Aggies and finished his 11-year NFL career with 91 receptions for 934 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“He did what he could do better than anybody else could do that job,” said Cowboys tight ends coach Mike Pope, Campbell’s position coach with the Giants. “In this league, when you’re better at a particular job than anybody else, you stay. You make the team; you get to play; and you stay. That’s what he did, because he was dependable. You could count on him. You could give him a job. We needed something nobody else wanted to do, he was first in line. He’d be happy to do it.”
The situation he’s got there is not an easy thing. Quite frankly, he didn’t have what you would call an extensive amount of experience. ... So far, I would say he’s kind of made the most of it.
Bill Parcells on Dan Campbell
Only eight other NFL head coaches played in the league, and Campbell, at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, stands as one of the few who still looks the part of player … or a WWE wrestler or a lumberjack.
Pouncey said the Dolphins “love it when he gets off the bus first.”
“I think he eats nails and protein for breakfast,” receiver Rishard Matthews said. “He’s a buff guy. I think he definitely has another year or two left in him.”
Campbell answers to “Coach” or “Coach Campbell” now, though.
His second career began after he tore a medial collateral ligament in his knee during training camp with the Saints in 2009.
“That’s when I went, ‘OK, I can’t play anymore, and I’ve got my whole life ahead of me and what are you going to do?’” Campbell told the Star-Telegram. “So it was one of those sit down with the notepad and make a list: What do you know and what do you love? And it was like, ‘Well, ok, what do you know? Well, I know football. That’s the first thing I can say. What do you love? Football.’ So it’s, ‘OK, you can’t play, so how about coach.’ That kind of hit me. I gave it shot.”
Saints coach Sean Payton, former A&M coach Mike Sherman, former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano and Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells all had a hand in putting Campbell on his coaching track.
They helped Campbell get from the “the middle of nowhere,” as he calls home, to the sideline at 76,100-seat Sun Life Stadium and from corralling cattle to motivating millionaires.
Campbell spent one year as an intern with the Dolphins and was in his fifth year as a tight ends coach when general manager Mike Tannenbaum promoted him to interim head coach last month.
“The situation he’s got there is not an easy thing,” Parcells said. “Quite frankly, he didn’t have what you would call an extensive amount of experience. He hadn’t been in that leadership position, so it was a little uncertain on how he was going to handle that. But as it turned out, he’s attempting to handle it well. I think it’s a very, very difficult circumstance that he’s in. So far, I would say he’s kind of made the most of it.
“I watch him on the sideline, and I can see there are times, where his mind is racing. I can identify that. It’s something that the experience of going through it will allow you to understand it better and not have that mental turmoil that every once in a while comes up by virtue of your inexperience. You just have to go through it a little bit. I’m sure the more games he gets under his belt, the more able he’s going to be to recognize these situations, and I think there will be a little less uncertainty. That uncertainty is a natural thing just because you haven’t been through it before.”
We’re going to try and win every football game, because we want him to be our head coach. We feel like he gives us the best chance.
Dolphins center Mike Pouncey on Dan Campbell
The Dolphins, who went 1-3 with Philbin, have posted a 3-2 record since Campbell took the reins. He drew criticism for two decisions that backfired in a 33-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 8.
Campbell’s on-the-job training continues Sunday against one of his former teams, the one he grew up cheering.
“It’s been hard,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of things that I didn’t realize that go along with this job. … Among other things: The seating chart on the plane. What time do we eat? What time are we going to work out? When do we back the schedule off? Is it too much? Are we going to go pads? Just little things that pop up that you really don’t think much of until they happen.
“But at the end of the day, to be able to run the show the way you want it, with the guys you want, and the staff you want, is great. Certainly, I want this job bad.”
Dolphins players make it clear they badly want Campbell as their head coach next season and beyond.
“I’d put him down first, second and third slot honestly,” linebacker Chris McCain said. “He’s turning it around and just bringing a different type of attitude. It’s the attitude we need for the players we have here. We’re capable of his style and changing to his play style and what not. He’s just good for us. It’s a good feel right now.”
The Dolphins know there’s only one way they’ll have a say in Campbell keeping the job.
“We’re going to try and win every football game, because we want him to be our head coach,” Pouncey said. “We feel like he gives us the best chance. He’s been here six years now. He knows this program in and out, and I feel like he’s well deserving of it because of how our team is playing right now.”
Cowboys at Dolphins
Noon Sunday, KDFW/4