Bites, coffee and tears: How Dan Campbell helped guide the Detroit Lions through a rocky season

Eric WoodyardESPN4 Minute Read
During his introductory news conference on Jan. 21, 2021, Lions coach Dan Campbell told reporters his team would 'bite a kneecap off' opponents in order to win games.Detroit Lions via AP

On Jan. 21, 2021, new Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell made headlines for a passionate, intense and sometimes funny hour-long introductory news conference in which he referenced biting off kneecaps and “The Big Lebowski.”

Seven months later, he went viral after revealing his unusual, caffeine-filled morning coffee order – two 20-ounce coffees at Starbucks with an additional two espresso shots.

Then in October, Campbell, after seeing his team drop to 0-5, again displayed his emotion by shedding tears during a postgame media session following a heartbreaking last-second loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

For those viewing the Lions coach from afar, it perhaps wouldn’t be unreasonable to think the team was being led by a mercurial personality, whose temperament would rise and fall with each game's outcome.

But a year after that memorable opening news conference, it's clear Campbell earned the respect of the locker room for his steady leadership, even-keeled approach and optimism in the face of a difficult season.

From that 0-5 start to the 3-13-1 finish, players and coaches say they never saw his demeanor change.

“I think just his steadiness in the midst of how poorly it went early on, especially how steady he was daily and how he showed up as the same person every day and there was no wavering from him,” said Lions quarterback Jared Goff, describing one of Campbell’s most valuable attributes. “That bleeds into the rest of the coaching staff.

“Then, ultimately that bleeds into the players and the leaders on the team. We needed that this year. He was the same guy every day and said the right things, did the right things.”

The Lions’ first victory of the season came in Week 13 against the Vikings, when rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown caught the game-winning touchdown on the final play of the game. After throwing the TD pass, Goff ran straight to Campbell and celebrated with his coach on the sidelines. And after securing the catch, St. Brown said the first person he thought of was Campbell.

“Obviously, after that Vikings win, we were just so happy for him as a head coach to finally get that first win,” St. Brown said. “So, I mean there were so many points in the season where we were like, ‘We love this dude,’ but probably that Vikings game to finally get his first win.”

Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was on the New Orleans Saints coaching staff with Campbell for five seasons prior to joining him in Detroit, but developed a deeper bond with him this season while pushing through adversity.

“When he first hired me, I just recall me and him sitting up in our office. It could be 2 o’clock in the morning and we’re talking, trying to put things together with this player, that player or this scheme, that scheme,” Glenn said. “And, man, the one thing that I could say about him that has never, never wavered is his thought process, his belief system, the way that he goes about handling players, and that’s pretty impressive because you don’t see it a lot, especially when you have the ebb and flows of a season.

“One thing I can say about that man is that he’s never wavered on who he is, what he’s about and what he stands for, and that has taught me a lot about that and I think players, they really do respect that because now they don’t have to come in and say, ‘OK, what mood is he gonna be in today?’ They know exactly where Dan’s gonna be at and that’s something that no doubt will be a part of who I am as a coach moving forward.”

Campbell admitted the job of turning around a franchise that hasn’t experienced a playoff win since 1992 hasn’t been easy. But he has a clear vision for his team.

“I see it like this: I told [principal owner] Sheila [Ford Hamp] this ... and really the team, but we’ve kind of been -- we’re in the Arctic Ocean, but we’re headed to the Caribbean. You can see it, I can see it, it’s not always easy to see,” Campbell said before the Lions finished the regular season with a win over the Green Bay Packers. “There’s a long way to go, but we’re heading there, I do know that.

“That’s what this year has been about, and we’re going to -- everything had to happen that’s happened this year to an extent, it really has,” he said. “You had to go through some of these growing pains and it’s not been easy, but yet anything worth having or anything worth having success at, it takes a lot of work, hard work. It’s not going to just happen. And, it’s also what makes it that much sweeter, that's for sure.”

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