Dan Campbell is empathic about the hard times people have had in Detroit, in their lives and as fans of the Lions.
And, the new coach of the long-suffering franchise is fired up for an opportunity to help the NFL team and people in the Motor City.
“We need to bring some hope back into this place,” Campbell said Thursday, a day after he signed a six-year contract with the Lions and general manger Brad Holmes was formally introduced.
Despair, though, is a commonly shared emotion for followers of a franchise with 13 double-digit loss seasons since 2001 and only one playoff victory since winning the NFL title in 1957.
The 44-year-old Campbell is the latest coach to try to change the conversation about the lowly Lions.
The former New Orleans Saints tight ends and assistant head coach has 11 years of experience in the NFL as a coach and 11 as a player with the New York Giants, Dallas, Detroit and New Orleans. In 2015, he was 5-7 as interim coach of the Miami Dolphins after taking over a 1-3 team.
Campbell knows the Lions’ woeful history all too well because he played for the team for three seasons, including in 2008 when he had an injury early in the league’s first 0-16 season.
He’s the first former player to lead the franchise since Hall of Famer and two-time NFL champion Joe Schmidt was Detroit’s coach from 1967-72.
“I wanted this job — bad — because I felt like I know this community, I played here,” Campbell said in a emotionally charged opening statement that lasted about 19 minutes at his virtual news conference. “This place has been kicked, it’s been battered, it’s been bruised.
“I could give you coach-speak all day long. I could give you, `Hey, we’re going to win this many games.′ None of that matters and you guys don’t want to hear it anyway. You’ve had enough of that.”
Campbell went on to say some sensational things as he described how the team will take on Detroit’s identity.
“This city’s been down and it found a way to get up and it has found a way to overcome adversity,” he said. “This team is going to be built on, we’re going to kick you in the teeth. 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.”
The Lions hired Campbell after interviewing Arthur Smith, Robert Saleh, Marvin Lewis, Eric Bieniemy and Darrell Bevell, who closed the season as interim coach. Smith was hired by the Atlanta Falcons while the New York Jets signed Saleh.
“During our general manager interviews, we were asking each candidate to name head coaches that they would consider part of their list if they were to make a choice, ” team president Rod Wood said. “Dan showed up on numerous lists.”
Nearly three months ago, the Lions began searching for a general manger and coach after team owner Sheila Ford Hamp fired Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia. Patricia was 13-29-1 in two-plus seasons as a first-time NFL head coach.
Even though it appeared to be clear that Campbell was the choice well before Holmes was hired, Wood insisted the new general manager was on board with the decision.
“It may have been an odd process, but I think it resulted in an outstanding result,” Wood said.
Detroit did make Holmes one of just four Black general managers in the NFL, but the franchise followed a league-wide trend of hiring white head coaches.
Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which champions diversity in the NFL, called the disparity in opportunities “mind-boggling,” when there are many successful Black coordinators in the NFL.
“You’re looking for the best candidates or the best fit for your organization and I think everyone goes in colorblind — honestly,” Hamp said. “I do think the league, and I think everyone’s aware, can do a better job of creating a pipeline and teaching, developing and working with diverse candidates.”