It wasn’t Marion Campbell’s fault that people kept hiring him as a head coach. It was actually a compliment. Trouble was, he was hired — twice — to be the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in those not-exactly-halcyon days when the Smiths were apt to botch anything they tried, and it was the “twice” part that rendered Campbell a local punch line. (You’ve done it once. It didn’t work. And you … do it again?)
What we forget is that, between his two terms as Falcons head coach, the Philadelphia Eagles made him their HC. That didn’t work, either. (He succeeded Dick Vermeil and was replaced on a permanent basis by Buddy Ryan.) But the reason NFL folks — and not just the Smiths — kept kicking Campbell upstairs is because he was one of the finest defensive coordinators of the era.
That’s how he made his coaching reputation — as a DC under Norm Van Brocklin here, as a DC under Vermeil when the Eagles started winning for the first time in nearly two decades, as a DC back in Suwanee in the final days of Dan Henning. When Henning was fired and nobody else — not Vermeil, not Bill Parcells, not Terry Donahue — would take the job, the Smith turned again, as they put it, to “the man down the hall.”
Campbell had a glowing reputation long before he donned a headset. He was a big-time lineman at Georgia under Wally Butts. Per Loran Smith, Campbell’s “Swamp Fox” nickname was bestowed by the Bulldog publicist/tennis coach/legend Dan Magill, who never met a sobriquet he didn’t like. (Francis Marion — the first Swamp Fox — was a Revolutionary War general who, like Campbell, was born in South Carolina.)
Campbell played both ways in the NFL, most notably as an All-Pro defensive end on the Eagles’ 1960 NFL championship team. Van Brocklin was the quarterback, Chuck Bednarik was the two-way star. The 1960 title game marked the first and last postseason loss for Vince Lombardi’s Packers. Seeing as how the Eagles haven’t won a championship since, that game remains a Philly touchstone.
I always wished Campbell’s second stint as Falcons HC had worked out. (I wasn’t here for Take 1.) We media folks liked him a lot. (Not content with Swamp Fox, we shortened his nickname to Swampy.) We forget now, but it was under Campbell that the Falcons drafted and signed — at the last minute, away from the New York Yankees — Deion Sanders.
It was under Campbell that Sanders made his astonishing inaugural punt return against the Rams on Sept. 10, 1989. Being the Falcons, they lost the game. Still, the next week against Dallas saw a major uptick in attendance. I recall talking with Campbell on the field at the old stadium before the game.
“Nice crowd,” I said, meaning it for once.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve just got to find a way to keep them coming back.”
Didn’t happen, alas. The Falcons beat the Cowboys but lost eight of the next 10. Four days after Thanksgiving, Campbell resigned.
Ray Goff would hire him as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. (Goff tells a funny story about their meeting to discuss the job: The two had agreed to rendezvous at the McDonald’s in Hartwell, near Campbell’s home on Lake Oconee. Turned out there were two McDonald’s in Hartwell — Goff went to one, Swampy to the other.) Campbell’s one season at his alma mater was his last act as a coach.
Marion Campbell died at 87 last week in Plano, Texas, and here’s the part we should remember. He was a Bulldog and an Eagle and a Falcon of distinction. He was a good man and a good football man.