After weeks of navigating around construction at Ottawa’s TD Place, Rick Campbell won’t have any trouble Friday night making that turn from 112 Avenue NW onto Stadium Road NW and then into Commonwealth Stadium.
It’s a route the rookie head coach of the Ottawa REDBLACKS has often traveled, first as a kid in the stands and for many years as a CFL assistant, both in Edmonton and elsewhere. And as much as Campbell has tried to downplay the significance of his return to Edmonton, it really is special.
“When it came to Ottawa he did ask me at one time what I thought about it. I told him he needed to go to the best place where he thought he had the best chance in terms of it being all about people. I told him ‘You want to go to where you are going to be the most comfortable with the people you are going to work with and for.’ And that’s all I said.”
– Hugh Campbell
That’s why Campbell has spent most of the week fielding questions, both in Ottawa and Edmonton, about what it will really be like on the sidelines at Commonwealth, in a stadium he spent many a game watching his legendary dad Hugh coaching the last real CFL dynasty.
But instead of looking back, Campbell’s primary focus is on getting his first win as a head coach. And when that first one comes along, he will stand just 69 CFL coaching wins behind his father.
Realistically, some day he may even challenge his father’s wins total. But one standard out of reach is Hugh Campbell’s all-time best .755 win-percentage over six seasons. That mark should be safe forever.
“I don’t look at it any differently,” Campbell was telling reporters in Ottawa as part of a hectic week. The REDBLACKS hosted their season ticket holders in the new stadium at TD Place Wednesday night before catching an early morning flight Thursday to Edmonton, in search of the franchise’s first ever win.
“I’m very fond of Edmonton. Edmonton has given me a lot in my life,” Campbell continued. “But I’ve been there so many times now as not an Eskimo, I’ve just kind of gotten past that, I guess.”
Still, anytime the REDBLACKS play a road game in their first go around the league, he’s still the son of Hugh Campbell, at least among the over 50 set, and that’s never more prevalent than in Edmonton.
A young Campbell was still trying to decide if he was a hockey player or a football player when his father was leading one of the CFL’s all-time greatest teams.
“I was very young then, we’re talking elementary school age, but I remember that stuff,” Campbell was saying. “I have many fond memories of Edmonton and still have good friends there, people that I know that work with the team.
“It’s always exciting to go back there. It’s a great stadium and a great place to play.”
And there would be no greater place to get that first win than on a field his father seldom lost on.
The coaching exploits of Campbell, the elder, in Edmonton, are what put him in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
As if his playing career with Saskatchewan wasn’t enough, Campbell replaced Ray Jauch, a coaching legend in his own right, after the 1976 season. During Jauch’s final season the Eskimos went 9-6-1 but fell in the Western Final, which in that era of Edmonton football, constituted a poor season.
The next year Campbell’s Eskimos went right to work and reeled of six consecutive Western Football Conference championships and after losing in the ’77 Grey Cup (blown out 41-4 to be exact), then reeled off five consecutive Grey Cup championships, a feat that will never be repeated.
As Hugh Campbell’s coaching career moved south to Los Angeles in the USFL, and Houston in the NFL, so went the family.
Years later Rick Campbell had to work his way up the coaching ranks and it’s not like his famous father did him any favours. Hugh Campbell even nixed his son’s first chance at being a CFL assistant by telling then Eskimos head coach Kay Stephenson not to hire him.
It wasn’t until another CFL coaching legend Don Matthews became the Eskimos Head Coach and did an end run on GM Campbell. Matthews issued an ultimatum that he wanted the young coach on his staff.
That was back in 1999 and Rick Campbell has been paying his dues as an assistant ever since, until the REDBLACKS came calling.
“And I never made a call to help him get a job,” Hugh Campbell told the Edmonton Sun’s legendary columnist Terry Jones.
“When it came to Ottawa he did ask me at one time what I thought about it. I told him he needed to go to the best place where he thought he had the best chance in terms of it being all about people. I told him ‘You want to go to where you are going to be the most comfortable with the people you are going to work with and for.’ And that’s all I said.
“Rick had his reasons. And he didn’t need to and hasn’t necessarily gone through all of them with me. But he did make it real clear that he liked the whole idea of Ottawa.
“He liked the idea of being there to help shape it be the way he wanted it to be from the beginning. He liked the idea of not having old problems hanging around.
“He really liked the people he talked to, the owner and general manager. And I know that he would have been very, very happy staying in Calgary with John Hufnagel. He thinks Hufnagel is the end all to head coaches.”
And who knows? With the Campbell coaching DNA, some day other coaches might be comparing Rick Campbell with Hufnagel and his famous father.