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."
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."