Detroit Lions Head Coaching Candidate: Matt Campbell

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Iowa State’s head coach Matt Campbell is a hot name in NFL coaching circles, Will the Lions take a look?


Taking a college coach up to the pro ranks is always risky. The game is so different, the players so much more sure of themselves and influential within their relationships with the coaching staff. It is difficult to project which coaches will make the jump flawlessly. College coaches are used to being the kings in their courts. They have almost complete autonomy over their programs, and their word is the law. That just does not work at the NFL level. Even Bill Belichick delegates everything he can to qualified subordinates. NFL front office executives tend to have much longer stays with single franchises than a failed coach does. An NCAA coach who wants to make the jump needs to be a collaborator that develops talent around and underneath themselves, or they’re making a mistake moving up. It is a massive part of why the coaches who are consistently at the top of the College polls never really consider doing it.

There have been reports that Iowa State coach Matt Campbell is being courted around the league. Now Campbell isn’t talking about it, and teams are not leaking that they’ve spoken to Campbell, but that does not mean it’s not happening. The second a report hits that a college coach is looking for an NFL job, seriously looking not just that he took a phone call, that coach is in a position where every recruit he’s spoken to will feel like they’ve been lied to. That isn’t necessarily the case. People’s views on such things change. One year the teams who reach out might not be very appealing, and the next, they might. The perception is, however, that kids have been lied to, and they’ll suddenly find other schools to go to. Campbell is not going to publicize his interest in an NFL job, and he would likely frown upon any team mentioning him as a part of their search. He is under contract at Iowa State until 2024.

I wrote yesterday that interviewing Marvin Lewis likely meant that the Lions are considering some alternative power structures to the standard. Normally the GM sits atop the football side of the franchise, ruling with an iron fist. In some places, like Washington, Carolina, Seattle, Kansas City, and New England, the coach actually has roster control. The GM does all of the grunt work for them. A college coach who is considering the jump would likely be far more interested in that kind of arrangement because it is what they are used to. So one year, they may only receive offers to go to places with powerful entrenched GMs looking for a coach in a tenuous position, a coach who can be dominated within the power structure. The next year they might run smack dab into the Detroit Lions, who are looking for someone to help them finally bring an aura of positive energy to a long-suffering organization constantly clouded in negative press and hard feelings.

That’s why Campbell might consider the Lions. They are more likely to give him something similar to what Carolina gave Matt Rhule to get him out of Baylor. The Lions hired Chris Spielman, who could use his contacts from two decades as a broadcaster to bridge communication gaps for Campbell with other teams. They’ve considered GM candidates like Scott Pioli, Louis Riddick, and John Schneider. Those candidates have worked in or would be willing to work within that sort of arrangement. Campbell could walk into a spot where he has someone with pro personnel experience handing him reports about NFL free agent’s capabilities. He can rely on his own in-depth knowledge of current NCAA players to guide the team’s drafting.

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Who is Matt Campbell?

“Culture change” are magic words in the NFL. Every team that fires a GM or coach uses them as a cornerstone of their marketing campaign to keep fans watching bad teams. Matt Millen was going to change the Lions culture with black jerseys. Martin Mayhew was going to change the culture by hiring better coaches. Bob Quinn was going to change the culture by upgrading the facilities where players spent their time beyond what looked like 1980s gym equipment. Matt Campbell can coach. He’s been the Big 12 coach of the year in three of the last four seasons. That is three out of the five seasons he has been in the big 12. He was the MAC coach of the year in Toledo for 2015, the year before he made the jump to the Big 12. But what he has done at Iowa State is legitimately change the culture. 

Campbell became the Toledo rockets’ head coach between the end of the 2011 season and their Bowl game. Hew was a 32-year-old, and his head coach took another job. He was offered a job on Ohio State’s staff, but he chose to stay in Toledo as their new HC. Campbell went 35-15 in his time at Toledo and had two nine-win seasons and a ten-win season in four years. The Rockets had not won nine games since 2004. Toledo offered him a deal that would have made him the highest-paid coach in the MAC, but Campbell wanted to move up in competition, not just salary. This is another reason that Campbell may consider a move to the NFL.

Iowa State had gone 8-28 in the three seasons prior to Campbell taking over in 2016. The School had a history of finishing at the bottom of the Big 12. This year they made the first New Years Day Bowl Game appearance in team history, winning the Fiesta bowl over Oregon. They were as high as number 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings. They were at the top of the Big 12 regular season for the first time in school history. Their nine-win 2020 season is the third in school history, first in two decades, and second after 1906. It is effortless to draw parallels between what Matt Campbell was walking into when he went to Iowa State and what he would be walking into with the Lions. 

The way that Campbell changed the culture? Packers receiver Allen Lazar told ESPN it was new standards of behavior and higher levels of accountability. Campbell himself attributes it to a concept he calls “winning in the margins.” Matt Patricia was late for every press conference in his first year as a head coach. Campbell holds players who can’t be bothered to show up on time out of practice. If you want to get reps in a Matt Campbell practice, you have to make the most of the initial reps. Campbell believes that if you take care of the fundamental little things that other people are not taking care of, the big things have a tendency to take care of themselves. 

Also unlike Patricia, Campbell is less reliant on his scheme than his players’ abilities. In 2018 they changed their entire defensive scheme midseason because their defense was not working. They did not just keep trotting out the same tired defense that was getting torched every week. They did not assume that how correct they were in their theoretical solutions would overcome the players’ inability to do what was being asked. 

Campbell is also a collaborator, a massive difference between him and someone like Chip Kelly, who failed as an NFL coach mainly because his “My Way or the Highway” approach led many players to choose the highway. Campbell and his staff formulate gameplans with players rather than preparing them and then passing them on to players as Matt Patricia did. Anyone who has ever studied personnel management or teaching will tell you that Campbell’s methodology is much more sound than Patricia’s. This is particularly true with entrenched and elite employees like veteran NFL players with long term contracts. 

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So should the Lions go after Matt Campbell?

According to reports, six NFL teams reached out to Campbell during the 2019 hiring cycle. There were eight openings. Campbell has options, but he will not go to a team just because they want him. Whether you want the Lions to pursue Campbell or not basically comes down to whether you believe a coach can make the jump from college to the NFL without previous NFL experience. Campbell has all of the earmarks of a coach who can make the jump. Still, he has only four seasons of Power 5 NCAA level competition upon which to judge him. Matt Campbell’s stated goal in year one was for Iowa State to not be the laughing stock of college football. Wouldn’t it be nice for the Detroit Lions not to be the laughing stock of the NFL?

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About the Author

Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He enjoys maple syrup and tacos, but never at the same time.