One would assume Rick Campbell was destined to roam the sidelines; after all, his father was at the helm of one of the CFL’s all-time great dynasties. But despite going into his 20th year of coaching in the CFL and being officially sworn in as the 27th head coach in BC Lions history on Tuesday, coach Campbell grew up thinking he’d do something different.
“I always liked it but I actually was going to be a high school teacher,” said Campbell as he reminisced on Tuesday morning.
His earliest memories of being around the gridiron were when his father, Hugh Campbell was coaching at a small college in Spokane, Washington and not yet the architect of an Edmonton Eskimos dynasty that won five straight Grey Cups from 1978-82.
Rick Campbell became a teacher, but the game of football seemed to pick him.
“I actually taught high school and coached football in Spokane for a couple of years before I moved on to the University of Oregon and after that, I kind of got suckered into it and I liked it. I seemed to be pretty good at it so I just stuck with it.”
And long after he decided to follow his father’s career path, perhaps the most impressive thing about the younger Campbell is the fact he has done an excellent job blazing his own coaching trail. A lot of the memories of his windy path to pro football came flooding back on his first day donning Lions colours. He also took a few moments to reflect on the number of times he was in BC Place on the opposite sideline.
“It’s been really neat for me to walk around this building and facility and see all the pictures of the great players and people from the past and pictures of big games and all that stuff. I’ve been in the CFL long enough where I was on the other sideline. When the Lions are rolling and the crowd is loud and all that stuff, man it’s fun to be a part of and that’s what we want to do here.”
Head Coach Rick Campbell
And when we suggested that spending a majority of his childhood just across the border means he is now coaching in his “home” province- Campbell became a Canadian citizen in 2011- he was all for that declaration.
“I know some of you that have lived here might get spoiled by it,” remarked the new head coach.
After 15 seasons paying his CFL dues in various position coaching roles across the league and stints as both a defensive and special teams coordinator, the expansion Ottawa RedBlacks made Campbell their first-ever head coach, a post he held from their inaugural season in 2014 to when he stepped down last month.
Two years after beginning as a 2-16 expansion team, Campbell’s RedBlacks were Grey Cup champions. He would wind up taking them to the big game three times in his six seasons in charge. Ironically, it was his current quarterback, Mike Reilly, who took them down in the 2015 championship game.
Now he inherits a squad that went 5-13 this past season but with the likes of Reilly, Bryan Burnham and a few key veteran pieces on defence, Campbell is excited for the opportunity to win right away.
“Those guys I have a great amount of respect for and I’ve never worked with them directly. I’ve obviously met them and those type of things,” explained Campbell.
“I know how hard they work and I know how important it is to them and I know the Lions are lucky to have guys like that and I know how lucky I am to be on their side. The CFL is just a league, just with the way free agency works, you get a player or two and then all of a sudden great things happen. Even last year, the Lions lost some really tough games, especially early. If you win a couple of those games early and all of a sudden the confidence grows and the record gets better.”
“If you win a couple of those games early, all of a sudden the confidence and the record gets better then all of a sudden, great things can happen. Nothing is the CFL is a long-term rebuild.”
Tasked with finding a new head coach for the second time in as many years, GM Ed Hervey interviewed a number of candidates but ultimately got the guy at the top of his list.
“[Coaches like] Rick Campbell don’t come around too often,” said Hervey.
“Experience and all those things that we talked about and then having a long-standing working relationship, he and I are very cut and dry on our approach to football. This working relationship is one that I feel very confident that I can trust. My belief is that he feels it’s going to be the same way. When we hit the field, it’s about putting the best product on the field. Our commitment is there and I feel good about that.”
Campbell and Hervey won Grey Cups together in 2003 and 2005 while the latter was still playing. When Campbell returned to the Green and Gold as defensive coordinator in 2011 after stints in Calgary and Winnipeg, the current Lions GM had already made a successful transition into scouting. As Hervey outlined, that previous relationship is a big reason the pair have reunited to help this BC Lions squad return to glory. The head coach echoed those statements.
“I think the reason Ed has moved up the way he has and became a GM is because you can ask him to do whatever,” said Campbell.
“I was the special teams coach and asked Ed to go cover a kickoff and he was like ‘I’m in, I’m going.’ I know Geroy back there would do it too, but not all receivers are jumping up and down to cover a kick off. It gives you an insight on Ed that he’s just an ‘all in’ guy that wants to do whatever he can to help the team win. That’s why Ed has gotten to where he has been. He’s smart.”
Both men fully acknowledge that the real work begins now. Neither would be in pro football if they didn’t properly understand that mindset. As the bright lights were shining during his opening press conference, Campbell can be happy at his decision to trade time in the classroom to time on the field and film room.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There are a lot of ups and downs in sports; good years and bad years as far as the record goes but man you get to meet a lot of really great people and interesting people and see North America, that’s for sure.”
LEARNING FROM LEGENDS
By the time the Campbells moved to Edmonton in 1977, Rick was playing football at Harry Ainley High School. He then picked up his Education degree at Washington State. The football world being as small as it is, creates many interesting connections. Rich Stubler, who was defensive coordinator at the University of Oregon and who coached with his father in Edmonton, was the guy who brought Rick in as a graduate assistant from 1996-98. It was at the Eugene campus where Rick would also work under Mike Bellotti, now the Ducks’ all-time leader in coaching victories.
Once he returned north of the border to serve as defensive backs coach for the Eskimos, Campbell had the luxury of learning from another legend in the coaching ranks: Don Matthews. That would have been a great asset for any young coach cutting his teeth in the profession. Campbell credits his head coaching accomplishments to others he learned from before Ottawa.
“I’m really fortunate to have learned from guys, even like Wally Buono,” said Campbell.
“I never coached with him but we’ve had a lot of conversations. Whether it’s guys like him, Don Matthews or John Hufnagel, those guys are all Hall of Famers. You could really learn a lot. Anybody that stays in this business for a long time, it’s for a reason. It’s because they have a lot of knowledge and do a lot of things right. I definitely always remember to draw on the knowledge I’ve learned from those guys.”
As he looks to lead a second franchise to a Grey Cup as head coach, Campbell may soon be considered one of those men.