It is Valentine's Day, and 70 men in full equipment are practicing football in Los Angeles. The team is the Express, and fittingly enough, the field is hard by the freeway, eight elevated lanes of unrelenting traffic and noise. In the middle of the field, which smells faintly of exhaust, stands a tall, thin man, hatless, his arms folded across his stomach. He's Hugh Campbell, coach of the USFL's entry from L.A. Campbell looks out of place, as if he'd wandered by mistake into the center of the defensive secondary. His unkempt hair falls straight forward in bangs. His blue sweat suit seems sloppy and oversized. He's squinting. When he moves, it's not with the crisp carriage that one generally associates with a football coach, but with a sort of shuffling slide. As he passes an acquaintance who's standing on the sidelines, Campbell tosses over half a roll of wintergreen Life Savers. "That'll get the enchiladas out of your mouth," he says, referring to a Mexican lunch they shared a couple of hours before, and then shambles off toward another part of the field. There's a hint of a smile on his face. Never more than a hint, though.
This seemingly undistinguished figure is one of the most successful coaches in the game. Before coming to L.A., the 41-year-old Campbell, in only six seasons in the Canadian Football League, had taken the Edmonton Eskimos to six Grey cups, winning the last five—an unprecedented string. During that time he amassed an overall record of 81-22-5 (.773). By comparison, Tom Landry of Dallas and Don Shula of Miami, the top two NFL coaches, are .747 and .661 over the last six seasons.
But more remarkable than what Campbell did is how he did it: with an unorthodox, laid-back style, the guiding principle of which seems to be that football players are people—adults, even. His coaching innovations haven't been in the realm of fancy plays and formations, but in the treatment of his players. He doesn't impose curfews, fines or celibacy the night before a game. He gives no inspirational pregame talks. "To be honest, I don't know how much he knows about football," says Eskimos Wide Receiver Brian Kelly. "His job up here was more orchestrating personalities. We talked about a million different things on the practice field, but I can't remember ever talking to him about football. He was smart enough to hire good assistants, and they did the football talk for him."
"Nobody has figured out how he accomplished what he did," says Cam Cole, a writer for the Edmonton Journal, who covered the Eskimos during the Campbell era. "He did very little coaching at practices, leaving that to his assistants. He stood in the middle of the field with that dazed look, squinting."
March 7, 1983
Some U.S. fans may remember Campbell from his pass-catching days at Washington State. Between 1960 and '62, he set Pac-8 records with 176 receptions for 2,452 yards and 23 touchdowns. His sophomore season remains one of the finest an NCAA receiver has ever had—66 catches, 881 yards and 10 TDs. Those stats are made even more remarkable by the fact that Campbell started the season as a third stringer and didn't play in the Cougars' first game.
He got his first taste of coaching that season when the Cougars' coach, Jim Sutherland, who had nearly cut Campbell the previous spring, began turning to his unexpected star receiver for offensive plays in certain situations. Sutherland would shuttle in a player from the sideline to tell his startled quarterback: "Let Campbell call it." The first time that happened, Campbell, not wanting to seem selfish, suggested a running play. It didn't work. "I didn't send a guy all the way in there because I wanted you to call a running play," Sutherland told Campbell. Thereafter he called passes to himself. Says Campbell now, "I don't know how the assistant coaches stood for it—much less the other players."
Still, the experience left its mark, because Campbell the coach allows his quarterbacks to call their own plays and his receivers to do a bit of free-lancing on their routes. "The head coach's job is to let everybody else show their talents," Campbell says. "If you have great players you have to let them have the freedom to make decisions."
After being dropped by the 49ers, who had drafted him in the fourth round, Campbell went to the CFL, where he starred for six seasons as a receiver for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He was all-league twice, helped his team win the Grey Cup in 1966 and had career totals of 321 catches for 5,425 yards and 70 touchdowns. "I'm not sure I exactly ran a 4.4," Campbell recalls, "but I had competitive speed, which means I could run faster when someone was chasing me than I could against a stopwatch."
In 1970, at 28, Campbell got his first coaching job, at Whitworth College (enrollment then: 1,500), an NAIA Division II school in Spokane that had won only two games in two years. In the next seven seasons Campbell turned the program around, winning two Northwest Conference championships and twice being voted coach of the year in his district. During summers he was invited to several CFL training camps to work as a "guest coach," which eventually led to offers in 1977 from Edmonton and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, dazzling coaching opportunities for a man whose career record at the time was 34-30. He chose Edmonton over Hamilton because it was farther west.
"The key thing about Hugh is that he was hired for the type of person he is rather than the type of coach he is," says Allan Watt, media relations director for the Eskimos. "You know how when he walks he kind of slides and glides? That's exactly the way his personality is. When he walks into the dressing room before the biggest game of the year, when the atmosphere is so thick you can cut it into little boxes, he'll say something like: 'Well, men, the other team showed up so I guess we better go out there.' He actually said that once."
"We never had a pregame talk," says Kelly, who, like Campbell, attended Washington State. " 'The bus leaves at two. Be there.' That was his pregame talk. Even when we were behind 21-0 at halftime two years ago in the Grey Cup I don't remember him saying anything. I think he asked our captain to give a talk. Then Coach Campbell said something like, 'Don't trip going out the door.' "
Asked about his pep talks, that hint of a smile appears on Campbell's face and he says, "I think I give good ones, but according to my players I don't." Then he adds, "Motivation should be more of a constant thing than something you turn on and off."
"There just isn't any of the awe or mystique about him that you associate with other great football coaches," says Watt. "Everybody in Edmonton recognized him, but very few bothered him for autographs. He's just a down-home farm boy at heart. His idea of a big night is to have some chili at home with his wife and go for a bike ride."
"I don't think he's that unique compared with the total population of adult males," Kelly adds, "but he's unique compared with the segment of the population that comprises football coaches. When my wife went into labor we were supposed to leave for a game, but she hadn't delivered. I called to tell Coach Campbell and he said, 'Stay as long as you have to. Don't miss the birth of the baby.'
"A lot of players in the CFL hold jobs on the side, and if a guy, say, couldn't make a practice at two, Coach Campbell would reschedule it for 2:30. He always had his priorities in perspective. The thing I like most about him is that he was a great receiver in his time—he still holds some conference records—but he never once told me how to catch a pass or how to run a pattern, even after I'd blown one. He let me do it my way. It was so weird. I really, really enjoyed that. Most coaches try to run every little aspect of your life. He treated everybody like an adult."
One of the least enjoyable experiences in pro football, players agree, is training camp, when veterans and rookies alike move out of their homes and into a dormitory or motel where they will eat, sleep and think football for three weeks. Campbell doesn't believe in that and allows his players to stay at home if they prefer. "I personally sleep better at home than in a hotel," he says. "Even when we were going to play in the Grey Cup, we'd take the wives along and put them up in a separate hotel where the fans were, so if the wives wanted to party they could do so without disturbing the players. If the wives and husbands wanted to cross over, that was fine, too. I've never had a curfew.
"You put the responsibility on the guy so he makes the decision when to go to bed, and what generally happens is he appreciates the freedom so much he wants to make it work. It never occurred to me before last year's Grey Cup to tell the players to stay off the streets. I'm of the school that thinks the athlete wants to win as much as I do. When I was at Whitworth they told me I didn't have a professional style. They said that I wasn't mean enough. But in Edmonton the players seemed to respond well to that same philosophy—that your family comes first, that playing football isn't everything in life."
After the Eskimos won their fourth straight Grey Cup in 1981, Campbell decided that remaining in Edmonton was a no-win situation—there was nothing left to prove and the only way he could go was down—so he sought a change. He'd been approached by several NFL clubs—St. Louis, for one—but he'd never pursued the offers, because he didn't care for either the location of the team or its ownership. He insisted on staying in the West. "People operate under the assumption that the NFL is the ultimate place to be for a football coach," Campbell says, "but if I'd just wanted to go to the NFL, I've reason to believe that I'd be there now. The appeal of the Los Angeles Express was the opportunity to start an organization from scratch. The key is I'm not trying to get anywhere. I'm going to do it my way, and if that doesn't work I'm going to go somewhere else."
Campbell left Edmonton in style, winning his last 10 games and his fifth Grey Cup on Nov. 28. One week later he was working 14-hour days for the Express. Campbell was given almost total control over the staffing of his new team. He spent December shuttling back and forth between Edmonton and L.A. He hired six assistant coaches, as well as secretaries, trainers, equipment managers and film crews. He even interviewed a couple of chaplains who wanted to give the invocation before games.
More than 300 players tried out for the Express during two sessions in January. The majority had been cut at one time or another from an NFL camp, and about 60 were straight out of college. A few, like Anthony Davis and Chuck Foreman, had been to the top and were looking for a year or two of twilight. Instead, Foreman quickly got his walking papers, and as of last week Davis was listed as the No. 5 running back on the Express depth chart, indicating that the USFL is at least good enough that it need not suffer NFL retreads.
The first tryout, which involved some 100 players, was for California residents; the second, for out-of-staters. Both were rodeos. The overcrowding was exacerbated by a stream of walk-ons who kept asking Campbell to take a look-see. One uninvited hopeful stood around for a whole day, his tennis shoes hanging over his shoulders. That night the coaching staff cut about 30 players, and the next day the same fellow returned. He asked Campbell to time him in the 40, because there weren't as many people left. "I told him that's what we're trying to do, eliminate guys," Campbell remembers. "So he says, 'I can run a 4.4.' 'Are you sure?' I said. 'Not one guy in a hundred can.' So I told him if he could run a 4.4, then he could try out for our football team, but if he couldn't, he'd have to leave then and there. A lot of guys had overheard the conversation, and, by God, when the guy ran one, they all burst out clapping."
That guy was one of 177 who appeared at the final camp, although he was an early cut. The task of getting the Express down to a workable number was further complicated by bad weather, which turned the team's practice field at Aviation High School into a quagmire. (The Express' official practice site, formerly the La Marina Elementary School near Polliwog Park, has been unavailable. It's being resodded and also seems to be under siege by a large flock of sea gulls.) Hughes Aircraft came to the rescue by offering the team its company recreation field, which was designed more for picnics than for football. While L.A. management looked for a more suitable field, Hughes discovered just how distracting 177 men in cleats could be to its workers. The Express then moved on to the Lawn-dale High field, the one in the shadow of the San Diego Freeway.
Campbell's first coup as a negotiator was to sign Quarterback Tom Ramsey, who at UCLA was the NCAA leader in passing efficiency last season (153.5), completing 209 of 336 (.622) for 2,986 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Although the median salary in the USFL is around $40,000, Ramsey's contract is believed to be worth considerably more. Campbell also has control of that end of the operations, working within a budget, and one of his stipulations has been that there be no incentive clauses for extra performance. "Say you get around the five-yard line and you have a quarterback who gets a bonus for touchdown passes and a running back who gets one for touchdown runs—what's going through everyone's mind?" Campbell says. "We had one guy in here who asked for $1,000 if he led the league in interceptions. I said, 'I'll give it to you right now. You don't have to lead the league in anything.'
"People ask if we're going to be any good. Good is relative. To what? I'm working on the theory that it's more important to have good people than to have outstanding individuals. The key ingredient on a team is character and leadership. If you just picked the 40 best players, who's to say which direction the personality of the team will go? What I'm hoping to do is make Eskimos of these guys. I don't know what to call them but Eskimos. Basically what I mean is a group that can come from behind, that can stay ahead, that can play as a team in any sort of circumstances."
And circumstances couldn't be any tougher for Campbell and his new "Eskimos" when they open the season at home this Sunday. The opponent: the New Jersey Generals. And at running back, No. 34, Herschel Walker.
Welcome back to the U.S., Hugh.