During a Detroit Lions road game last month inside the cavernous Caesars Superdome, Fox TV commentators couldn’t help mentioning the huge swaths of Honolulu blue and silver mixed in among the New Orleans Saints’ black and old gold.
The same was true in Tampa Bay, where an estimated 25,000 Lions jammed the lower bowl of Raymond James Stadium, effectively negating any Buccaneer home-field advantage. And in Green Bay. And Baltimore. Soldier Field in Chicago? Overbearing.
It’s Detroit vs. Everybody these days, and Lions fans are traveling en masse because they love what they’re seeing. The most explosive big-play offense in the NFL. Four consecutive wins by two touchdowns or more. Best late-season record since 1962. National TV and radio debates about their position in the playoffs, which would be their first appearance since 2016.
And in the minds of Detroiters, there’s only one person at the center of the renaissance: Lions head coach Dan Campbell.
Known alternately, and affectionately, as “The Dude,” for his uncanny resemblance to Jeff Bridges’ character in the ’98 film classic The Big Lebowski, or “MCDC” for Motor City Dan Campbell, a play on the band AC/DC, referencing his continuing passion for heavy-metal rock at age 47, in just three short years after convincing Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp he was the man to resurrect her moribund franchise, Texas native Daniel Allen Campbell has become nothing short of a Detroit icon.
After a humbling same-old-Lions record of 0-10-1 to begin the 2021 season, the power of his intense personality started to kick in, with the team winning three of its last six games. Football fans around the world were able to get an up-close look at that intensity in the summer of 2022, when the HBO Max preseason series Hard Knocks featured Detroit.
Suddenly, Campbell became a household name and the Lions became the most talked-about team in the league … in a good way.
The Lions stumbled out of the cage again at 1-6 in 2022. But the team managed to turn the tide when they beat Green Bay at Ford Field on Nov. 6 and finished the season with a winning record of 9-8 after beating the Packers, again, on the last day of the season, just missing a playoff spot but also denying the hated Packers a postseason.
Looking back at the roller coaster ride, Campbell sounds almost philosophical. “Everything that happens happens for a reason, and it helps you grow,” he says. “And if it doesn’t, it’s because you don’t know how to grow. We’ve taken our lumps, and we are the better for it.”
In the process, Campbell has galvanized this city’s long-suffering fan base into a frenzy not seen since … its last championship in 1957? That may be stretching it, but for a franchise that boasted one of the NFL’s greatest runners in Barry Sanders and a Hall of Fame wide receiver in Calvin Johnson to have won only one playoff game since 1991 is the height of hopelessness. Hopefully, not anymore. Is a winning culture being established here?
“Look, we’ve been doing this for three years, so I guess at some point you get good at it,” Campbell reflects. Yet when it’s suggested he’s the reason for the Lions’ resurrection, he demurs.
“I think it’s us collectively,” he counters. “What we’re about, our style of play — I think it’s all of us, you know? I mean, certainly, I’m proud of the way our guys practiced and prepared, the coaching staff and everything. I have a hand in it, but so does everybody else.”
Jared Goff, Lions quarterback and the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in 2016, whose career blossomed notably this season, would disagree.
“Obviously, he’s very passionate,” Goff says. “He cares about us, leads by example. He’s the heartbeat, the moral compass of our team. He’s our leader.”
Indeed, watching the burly, bearded 6-foot-5 Campbell during a game, staring at the field dressed in a ball cap and tight T-shirt, you might mistake him for an injured lineman eager to get back in the game. He prowls the sidelines like … well, like a lion. A restless, hungry lion.
That intensity has been on display in Detroit since his now-legendary first press conference after landing the job in January 2021. Campbell pulled absolutely no punches.
“This place has been kicked, it’s been battered, it’s been bruised,” DC said of the MC. “I can sit up here and give you ‘coach-speak’ all day long. I can say, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this many games.’ None of that matters, and you don’t want to hear it anyway. You’ve had enough of that s—, excuse my language.
“Here’s what I do know: This team is going to take on the identity of this city. This city’s been down, and it found a way to get up. So, this team is going to be built on ‘We’re going to kick you in the teeth. And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. When you knock us down, we’re going to get up. And on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.’”
Campbell knew whereof he spoke: Few fans recall that he played tight end for the Lions before turning to coaching. “I remember his last three years as an active player, 2006, ’07, and ’08,” says Mike O’Hara, a former Detroit News sports writer who has covered the Lions for more than four decades.
“He only played one game in ’08. He got hurt opening day, and that effectively ended his career. He was in training camp with somebody in ’09.”
That was the aforementioned New Orleans Saints, where Campbell served as an assistant coach for five seasons, honing the leadership skills he would eventually bring back to Detroit. However, previous to that, as a player, he suffered a serious knee injury in training camp and spent the entire season on injured reserve. The Saints won the Super Bowl that season, but Campbell did not receive a championship ring.
He plans to correct that oversight with the Lions.
Meanwhile, he has become so colorful that USA Today’s For the Win in 2023 ran a feature ranking his 13 best quotes. “You have to give [general manager] Brad Holmes a lot of credit because he’s provided the players,” O’Hara says, “but Dan has provided the coaching, the style, all of that.
“Every coach has his own way. Like Monte Clark [Lions head coach from 1978 to 1984] once told me, ‘Most of these guys, when they become head coach, they get a new hairstyle and their voice goes down two octaves.’ There’s none of that two-octave stuff with Dan. He’s genuine.”
This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.