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February 28, 2000

Dave Campo has taken an entertaining ride to Cowboys' job


By Kevin Sherrington
The Dallas Morning News
(KRT)

IRVING, Texas — No one came farther to be head coach of the Dallas Cowboys than Dave Campo.

Tom Landry arrived fresh from an assistant's job with the New York Giants, his only coaching experience. Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer had won national championships in college, and even Chan Gailey took an NCAA Division II title at Troy State.

Dave Campo? Never been a head coach anywhere. He was an assistant everywhere, though, sweeping the country like a fad. Eleven jobs in 18 years, including a stretch right out of the witness-protection program where he made six stops in six years.

This is the profile of a “career assistant,” and Dave Campo wore the tag without any complaint. When Brigham Young's athletic director asked him a few years ago about possibly succeeding LaVell Edwards, Campo said the timing wasn't right to go back to college.

He told his wife, Kay, that he wanted to put in 15 years as an NFL assistant to make sure he would qualify for the pension.

Not exactly the stuff of five-pound biographies. The (ital) pension. (end ital) Even Kay had a hard time with that one.

“He's very practical about these things,” she says, sighing.

You don't usually grow up in anonymous Mystic, Conn., with grandiose visions. But you don't grow up a macho jock, either. At least Dave Campo didn't. He was a member of the glee club, sang in a folk group all over Connecticut, even performed in the musical “South Pacific.”

No one came farther to be head coach of the Cowboys, and none of the rest of them ever sang “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” in a coconut bra, either.
Confronted with this information, Campo is silent five seconds, maybe 10. He is the coach of the Dallas Cowboys now. Looking at another side of a man who clawed his way up the coaching ladder — a man who can tell you the female lead in “Phantom of the Opera” and occasionally sings in weddings — makes the subject nervous.

“Jerry's gonna think he hired an entertainer,” he says, wringing his hands.

Jerry Jones got a football coach, all right. The Cowboys just never had one like this before.

Back in Mystic, Conn., an old whaling village swallowed up by the town of Groton, Dave grew up the only child of Dave and Evelyn Campo. The son would bounce a ball off the chimney until the father came home from his job as a service manager and parts man, and then the two would play catch.
Every day, same thing. When it rained, they threw the ball down in the basement.

“All he thought about was baseball and football,” the father said. “If he wasn't at home, I knew where he was. He'd be at the ball field. I never worried about him.”

The son came by his love of sports naturally. His mother was a New York Yankees fan, sometimes staying up until 3 a.m. to get the results of West Coast games. His father, a 5-5 former weightlifter, played softball until he was 50.

The father has outlived two wives. Even now, at 82, when he's not spending winters in Florida, he walks the three-mile round trip every day down to Beebe's Dairy for a cup of coffee and gossip.

He can't wait to go back to Mystic this spring and talk to the boys at Beebe's about his son.

“Nobody in the whole town would have expected him to be the coach of the Cowboys,” he says.

Who would have thought it? Certainly not the son. Growing up in Mystic, he was a good athlete, maybe even a great one for his size. He played linebacker at 5-7, 150 pounds. “He was a small guy,” says Dan Koerner, a teammate, “but he hit as hard as the big guys.”

He never had little man's disease, friends say. Never went around with a chip on his shoulder. Under his picture in his 1965 senior yearbook, the caption reads, “Stands solidly on his own two feet, bubbles over with enthusiasm and good spirits.”

He was on the yearbook staff and sang in the boys' glee club and was a member of a singing group, mostly girls, called Sounds in Space.
“His main thing,” Koerner says, “was music and sports.”

Campo was so talented that the junior high choir director started a singing group of Campo, Koerner and another football buddy, Gary Poe. They sang “Tom Dooley” at a spring show. The group eventually expanded to six and called itself the Windjammers, after the name of a sailing vessel.

They sang folk music, which was natural. One of the members of the Highwaymen, the folk group that recorded “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore,” was from Mystic. The Windjammers sang sea chanties and music of the Kingston Trio all over New England, at the Newport Folk Festival and on college campuses.

They recorded a ditty for a local political candidate, once performed as a warmup for singer Jimmie Rodgers in New London and on a local children's show, “Salty Brine's.”

Campo sang second tenor and loved it. The Windjammers were profitable enough that he didn't have to work in the summers, and he could play all the baseball he wanted.

But he never thought he could make a living at it. “We never got quite that big,” he says, “and we were at the end of the folk craze.”

Coming out of high school, he had to make a decision on sports or music. He chose sports, though it didn't look any more promising.

The Philadelphia Phillies drafted him late as a shortstop, so late that he can't recall what round it was. He wanted to play football, too, though. The problem was that he didn't draw much attention because of his size. He decided to go to prep school for a year, just to see if he would go through one of those growth spurts he always heard about.

One year later, he came out 5-7, 150 pounds. So he ended up at little Central Connecticut State, where he played a terrific shortstop and pretty good cornerback.

He played both ways in football, doubling sometimes as a running back. “Camp wouldn't back down,” says Dave Panciera, a college teammate and one of his best friends. “He was a tough little running back.”

He was competitive, that much is sure. Going into the last game of baseball season, he and another good friend, Mike Ritacco, were going for the team batting title.

On his last at-bat, his team leading by 11 runs, Campo bunted for a base hit and the batting title.

(Ital) Bunted (end ital) with an 11-run lead. Ritacco couldn't believe it.

“It doesn't matter how far you hit the ball,” Campo told him, laughing, when he got back to the dugout, “it's an `H' in the books.”

Campo scrambled for everything, not just hits. His secondary coach in college was Bill Tobin, who would go on to front-office jobs with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts.

“Bill Tobin loved me,” Campo says. “(ital) Loved (end ital) me. And the whole time I was there, he was trying to replace me.”
These are things that give people inferiority complexes. On Dave Campo, it forced him to make his goals — the bull's eye, as he likes to call it — a little more practical, reachable.

He thought he would be a high school head coach. Later, maybe head coach at his alma mater.

His first big break came three years out of college, in 1973, when he went to work at a Division III school in New York, Albany State, for a man named Bob Ford.

Ford, who started the football program in 1970, had one full-time assistant. The rest of his staff was made up of graduate assistants and part-time coaches, men he got by getting them teaching jobs at local high schools and junior highs.

Besides Campo, Ford's staff in 1973 included Tony Wise, who would go on to coach offensive line for the Cowboys, and Charlie Taaffe, now head coach of the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League.

They had to interview to get the jobs. Ford would ask them questions about coaches whom they had played or worked for, what they liked or didn't like.
“If you said there were no weaknesses,” Campo says, “he knew you weren't paying enough attention, or weren't very smart. And if you said too much, he figured you weren't loyal or not very smart, either.”

At Albany State, they were smart and loyal. “Back then,” Ford says, “most graduate assistants at Division I schools were the guys who picked up doughnuts, held up the cards at practice, chased women, drank beer and went on with their lives.”

Ford gave his staff full responsibilities, including recruiting. He liked Campo right away.

“Davey gets up in the morning, and his feet are running when he hits the floor,” Ford says. “He analyzes everything. He'd analyze whether we'd be better off bringing kids in 10 or 11 o'clock. He was constantly coming up with suggestions.
“He just poured himself into the job.”

Campo learned more football in that one year working for Bob Ford than he had in his whole life. He would go on to work for Johnny Majors at Pittsburgh and Jackie Sherrill at Washington State, Dick MacPherson at Syracuse and Jimmy Johnson in Miami and Dallas.

No coach was a bigger influence on him, Campo says, than Bob Ford.

“He basically taught us how to coach,” he says.

But Campo didn't follow Ford's career path. Ford never left the school, now a Division I-AA institution called the University at Albany. He still has a staff full of graduate assistants, still interviews the new ones, still teaches them how to coach.

Ford never left, he says, because he started the program, and it was his baby. He has had offers to go elsewhere, but he says he “wouldn't know what to do with more money,” he likes it in Albany, and he's respected.

His peers recently elected him president of the American Football Coaches Association.

“For a guy to come from the Division III ranks and do something like that,” Ford says, “that's something.”

Dave Campo followed a different path, but the results were similar. He moved up laboriously through the ranks, he and Wise pulling each other across the country. They worked together at Bridgeport, Washington State, Syracuse and Miami.

Campo's first big leap came after he grabbed Pittsburgh coach Johnny Majors at a clinic and told him he would love to work for him. In 1975, Majors remembered and hired him to work on a staff that included Dave Wannstedt.

After that, Campo moved west, to Washington State. But he eventually ended up in Syracuse, trying to get back closer to his children after he and his first wife divorced. Once she remarried, he accepted a job at The Citadel, where he would be defensive coordinator for his old friend, Charlie Taaffe.
He had the job 48 hours. “He kinda flew over Charleston on the way to Miami,” Taaffe says, chuckling.

Wannstedt got Jimmy Johnson to hire Campo at Miami as secondary coach, where they forged a lasting bond.

Wannstedt and Campo were playing golf together one day when Wannstedt pulled the cart up to the green and got out without setting the parking brake. The cart rolled down into a lake, 15 feet deep.


Besides the golf clubs, the cart was carrying Wannstedt's wallet and his national championship ring from Pittsburgh. Wannstedt had to hire a tow truck at $150 an hour, not to mention a diver to go down and hook up the chain.

All the time this was going on, Campo was going on and on about his clubs, making Wannstedt feel smaller and smaller.

“The cart comes up out of the water,” Wannstedt says, “and his clubs look like something someone gave him when he was 12 years old, like something out of a garage sale.”

Wannstedt became just as attached to Campo as Campo was to his old club. The staff would win a national championship ring in 1987, and Johnson took most of them with him when he left to coach the Cowboys in 1989.

But what about rumors that Wannstedt had to talk Johnson into taking Campo to Dallas?

“Aw, Jimmy didn't like anybody,” says Wannstedt, who recently succeeded Johnson as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. “Jimmy knew Dave did a good job. Dave and I worked great together, and the bottom line with Jimmy is winning games.

“Different guys react to things differently. Dave is very sensitive. Just because Jimmy would walk by him in the hall and not say anything, he shouldn't read too much into that.”

Still, as the Cowboys struggled their first couple of years, Campo became Johnson's whipping boy. Campo says it made him a better coach, but the perception probably hurt his career. First Wannstedt, then Norv Turner and Butch Davis left in successive years for head coaching jobs after working for Johnson as coordinators.

After the Cowboys won the 1996 Super Bowl under Barry Switzer, no one came after Dave Campo, the club's defensive coordinator.
Until then, he hadn't really thought he ever would be anything more than a member of someone else's staff. He told his old friends from high school, Poe and Koerner, that he didn't want all the distractions that go with it.

Maybe it was just his mindset. “You've maybe resigned yourself to the fact that you're going to be a career assistant coach,” Taaffe says.

Campo was happy enough as an assistant. Life was good. He had six kids, two by his first wife, two that were his second wife's, and two more that he and Kay had together. Kay, whom he married in 1979, is a Mormon, and he converted in 1987.


He never caroused much anyway. Friends say he's no different from the bubbly boy they knew in high school, the one that signed a female friend's yearbook, “You're the tops. Be good.”

“He's probably the most unassuming guy I've ever known,” says Panciera, now an insurance agent in Hartford, Conn. “He's won three Super Bowl rings and a national championship, and he's still just so down-to-Earth.

“It's all pure.”

And maybe that hurt his chances of being a head coach, too. NFL coaches don't sing in weddings, don't go to musicals on road exhibition games, aren't described much as “bubbly.”

“They also think he doesn't have the charisma,” says his father. “He looks more like a high school teacher.”

He says he didn't feel like a head coach, either, until 1995, when the Cowboys won a Super Bowl with him as defensive coordinator.

“I probably did not think I wanted to be a head coach for a long time until then,” he says. “It probably just became more realistic then. I thought, `Hey, I can do this.'”

Wannstedt, Wise and Taaffe say he deserves the opportunity. So did Troy Aikman and Darren Woodson. Chad Hennings says Campo's style will make it exciting for the players, who have always responded well to his enthusiasm.

Greg Ellis — referring to him as “Camps” — started a news conference by saying that “despite what any critics say” he thinks Campo will do a good job as head coach.

He'll work hard at it, no one doubts that. You don't come all the way from Mystic, Conn., up from Central Connecticut State and Albany State to the most high-profile football job in America and think you've made it.

You don't come that far and change now. His tenor isn't as good as it was, rubbed raw now by all these years yelling at players. But, at a reunion in 1996, he got together with the rest of the Windjammers to perform and record a CD, and he's singing at his daughter's wedding this summer.
He has done all that before, only this time it's as head coach of the Cowboys at 52. He says he is confident he can do the job.

“My dad said from Day One, `Do anything you want to do,'” he says.
Sometimes, when you come from as far back as Dave Campo did, it's hard to see what you want.

(c) 2000, The Dallas Morning News.
Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


All content copyright 2000, AP, KRT, The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine

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