Didinger: The Campbell Fans Should Know

It is unfortunate that most Eagles fans only remember Marion Campbell for his three losing seasons as head coach from 1983 through 1985. They associate him with that dreary chapter of Eagles history, but they don't give him enough credit for the role he played in two championship runs.

Campbell, who died last week at age 87, was an All-Pro defensive end on the Eagles' 1960 world championship team and an outstanding defensive coordinator under Dick Vermeil when the Eagles went to their first Super Bowl in the 1980 season. It is fair to say neither of those teams would have played for the championship without him. He was that integral to their success.

Known as the "Swamp Fox," Campbell was a quiet man with a slow Southern drawl who rarely showed emotion but he knew football. He helped build superb defensive lines in Minnesota (the famed Purple People Eaters) and Los Angeles (the Rams Fearsome Foursome) as an assistant coach before joining the Eagles as Vermeil's first lieutenant in 1977. Over the next six seasons, Campbell's defense allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

He wasn't colorful or quotable so he didn't get the credit he deserved for the job he did directing that defense. He installed a 3-4 scheme with the Eagles anchored by linebackers Bill Bergey, Frank LeMaster, John Bunting and Jerry Robinson. The defense was never better than in the drive to Super Bowl XV when it forced eight turnovers in a 31-16 playoff win over Minnesota and shut down the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC title game at a frigid Veterans Stadium.

"Very few times in my career have I felt for sure a team was definitely going to play well, but when we left the locker room for that game against Dallas I knew it was our day," Campbell said.

And he was right.

The Eagles stuffed running back Tony Dorsett and limited the Cowboys to 116 yards passing in a 20-7 victory that wasn't nearly as close as the score suggests. The Eagles forced four turnovers and pounded quarterback Danny White all day. "We could've played 20 more quarters and the Cowboys wouldn't have scored another touchdown," Bergey said. "Marion put together a great game plan and we did the rest."

Campbell rarely talked about himself so many fans were unaware of his stellar playing career. An All-America lineman at the University of Georgia, the 6-3, 245-pound Campbell was originally drafted by San Francisco. He recalled arriving at the 49ers' Training Camp and counting 28 defensive linemen on the roster.

"I thought, 'How am I going to make this team?'" Campbell said. "But one of the coaches asked if I could play some offensive tackle. I said, 'Yeah, I've played over there.' So I made the team as kind of a swing guy. I started on offense in the opener. But pretty soon they moved me back to defense and I stayed there."

The Eagles acquired Campbell in a 1956 trade. He played one season as a nose tackle in a five man defensive line before shifting to left end where he became a two-time Pro Bowl selection. He was considered the strongest man on the team. Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen recalls Campbell "pinching me and (Tom) Brookshier on the wrist and putting us on our knees. We'd be crying, 'Uncle.'"

"Swamp Fox was the guy nobody messed with," said Brookshier, who was a star cornerback. "Big guy, never said a word. You couldn't see his eyeballs. His eyes were just slits. Even Chuck (Bednarik) was careful around him. I remember Chuck saying, 'That's one tough cookie.' And Chuck didn't say that about many people."

Campbell displayed his toughness during the 1960 season. He tore the ligaments in his ankle in the league opener but continued to play. He did not miss a game. He took painkilling shots before every game and again at halftime. By the time the Eagles played Green Bay for the title, his ankle was swollen to the size of a grapefruit. He had taken so many shots the painkiller was no longer effective, so he had to just grit his teeth and keep playing. Yet he played so well he earned first team All-Pro honors.

Campbell retired as a player following the 1961 season. He got his first coaching break in 1964 when his former Eagles teammate Norm Van Brocklin hired him for his staff in Minnesota. From there he went to the Rams and Atlanta Falcons before Vermeil brought him back to Philadelphia. Campbell succeeded Vermeil as head coach in 1983 and compiled a 17-29-1 record in three seasons before he was replaced by Buddy Ryan.

Those lackluster seasons are what most fans remember about Campbell and certainly the Swamp Fox couldn't compete with Ryan in terms of bluster or bravado. But in Campbell's defense, he stepped into a tough situation. He inherited a team that was aging and its cornerstone players - Wilbert Montgomery, Harold Carmichael and others -- were breaking down. Owner Leonard Tose was in financial ruin and discussing the possibility of moving the team to Arizona. When that failed, Tose sold the team to Norman Braman, who had no football background and no willingness to spend money at a time when free agency was reshaping the NFL landscape.

When Campbell was forced out at the end of the 1985 season, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Rich Hofmann asked: "Did Marion Campbell ever really have a chance?" It is a fair question.

Perhaps Campbell was the Wade Phillips of his generation, a very good coordinator who was miscast as a head coach. He had two stints as head coach in Atlanta which didn't go much better than the one in Philadelphia. But it should also be remembered that he was a major contributor to two landmark Eagles teams 20 years apart. It is a fine legacy.

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of Tommy and Me,* a new play about Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald that debuts in South Philadelphia on August 3. Tickets are available now.*

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