Campbell wasted no time building winner in Ottawa
Redblacks head coach hired good people and created championship atmosphere
Given that Rick Campbell was hired first as an assistant coach by the late Don Matthews and last by John Hufnagel — Hall of Fame bookends, Campbell called them — there was bound to be a ton of learning in between.
All he had to do was keep his eyes and ears open; and he has always been committed to that process. “I think the big thing is to never stop learning,” said Campbell, who graduated from the ranks of Canadian Football League assistant five years ago to become the head coach of Ottawa Redblacks, a franchise that continues to amaze.
“You can learn something from everybody. Even if you don’t agree exactly with someone, there is still something you could always take from people. There are always ways to evolve and I think that’s part of the key in football, to evolve with the game and evolve with the times.
“I was fortunate enough to be around some pretty big, legendary guys. Don Matthews was the first guy I coached with here. I don’t want to leave people out, but the first guy was Don, the last guy I was with was Huf and those bookends would be two pretty good examples of Hall of Fame-type guys who endured in football for a long time.”
Matthews, who died in 2017, won five Grey Cups as a head coach, while Hufnagel coached the Stampeders to a pair of championships and is now Calgary’s GM. Campbell was also fortunate to have learned about the CFL from another hall of famer, his father Hugh, who played receiver for Saskatchewan, coached the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight Grey Cup wins in a six-year stretch in the late 1970s and early 1980s and went on to become Edmonton’s GM.
Rick was born in Spokane, Wash., but grew up in Edmonton, played football at Harry Ainlay High School and hung out in the Eskimos’ locker-room. There is CFL in his DNA and all over his resume; 15 years in the game as an assistant coach during two stops each in Edmonton and Calgary and one season with Winnipeg. Through that decade and a half he worked for seven head coaches and with more than 50 other assistants.
One of them sat across from him on Wednesday, as Grey Cup week kicked off with the coaches’ news conference. Campbell and Stamps head coach Dave Dickenson worked on Hufnagel’s staff together in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
“Knowing Rick personally, I knew when he got his job over there (in Ottawa) he would do everything in his power to do it the right way,” said Dickenson. “Build from inside, hire some good people. I think he’s a winner. I certainly respect the job he does and I’m not surprised he’s had the success he’s had.”
Campbell left a perennial winner in Calgary to join a startup in Ottawa. He wanted the chance to work with GM Marcel Desjardins because their philosophies align.
“It’s really all about winning football and surrounding yourself with good people,” said Campbell.
“Talented people with character, who can ride out the tough times and are interested in being part of a team. Making it not about themselves but making it about the Redblacks.”
Campbell reached back into his past to assemble his first coaching staff; Mike Gibson and Don Yanowsky from his days in Calgary, Marcus Crandell from Edmonton, Mark Nelson from both Winnipeg and Edmonton. There have been additions and deletions since then, and there has been an incredible run of success. It stems in part from Campbell’s commitment to the crushing workload, his eye for detail and the respectful way he has of treating the people he works with.
But for crying out loud, he and they started from scratch.
The Redblacks were 2-16 under Campbell in 2014, strung together nine straight losses, and were beaten by as much as 38 points in the waning days of the season. They beat Toronto by a singleton and hammered Winnipeg 42-20. They allowed 465 points total and scored just 278.
To turn that moribund ship around in one season and sail it into a Grey Cup game against the Eskimos in 2015 is nothing short of miraculous. Then they went one better by beating Dickenson and the Stampeders in the 2016 Grey Cup tilt. And here they are again; the franchise’s third Grey Cup appearance in just five years. People always talk about Hugh’s influence on his son, which is both significant and hard for anyone to measure accurately or succinctly. But with every Grey Cup appearance, every lesson learned on the biggest stage this league offers, the son steers the conversation in another direction, and they become more like peers.