Chances are your lingering memory of Dave Campo is:
A) Inexplicably going for one point, instead of two, on Thanksgiving Day 2001.
B) Karaoke singing "I've got sunshine...on a cloudy day" during HBO's 2002 Hard Knocks.
C) 5-11. 5-11. 5-11.
D) All of the above.
Ready or not, the worst head coach in the history of the Dallas Cowboys—at least the only one without a playoff berth, winning season or three-game winning streak—is back, this time as the team's secondary coach.
You know the really weird part? It's a good thing.
His failed head gig notwithstanding, Campo is one of the best assistants in franchise history. He won three Super Bowl rings. Under his tutelage Larry Brown grew from 12th-round afterthought to Super Bowl XXX MVP, James Washington should've won MVP of XXVIII and Darren Woodson blossomed into a Ring of Honor no-brainer. Campo knows how to rekindle dwindling safety Roy Williams.
And, in retrospect, there were mitigating circumstances sabotaging his three-year tenure from 2000-'02.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm a great coach, but I can hold my own," Campo says. "With three 5-11s, I can't grade myself much higher than a C. But one thing I've learned in this league: You can't win without a quarterback. I was really handcuffed in that area."
On a March afternoon, Campo appears rested, relaxed, rejuvenated and, well, right at home. Dressed in jeans, a blue polo and white sneakers, the 60-year-old with only slightly graying temples and no more use for those glasses (thanks to laser surgery) settles in around the marble table inside Valley Ranch's media library.
For an hour he talks passionately, fondly. About the chance to live close to his seven grandkids. About his disappointing reign. About coming home.
"It's like I never left this building," Campo says. "The window treatments have been upgraded, but it's the same house. It took me about 30 seconds to get re-acclimated."
Campo's re-entry has included a couple of missteps into his old office, the one he first occupied as the assistant secondary coach under Jimmy Johnson in 1989 that these days is home to assistant linebackers coach Dat Nguyen. Campo's other old office—the big one down the hall—is also taken.
"It's a real plum for us to get Dave," says current head coach Wade Phillips.
Campo's 37-year coaching career made its first stop in Dallas after a National Championship with Johnson at the University of Miami. He rose to defensive coordinator in '95, leading the Cowboys' defense to a Top 10 ranking in four of his five years.
"Everyone remembers those teams for The Triplets (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin)," Campo says. "But we had some pretty darn good defenses too."
In 2000 Campo replaced head coach Chan Gailey. Which, afforded hindsight, was like being awarded captaincy of the Titanic in conjunction with a subtle "vibration." Dallas' talent would rapidly erode beyond his control.
In Campo's debut, the Philadelphia Eagles opened with an onside kick en route to a 41-14 shellacking in which star receiver Joey Galloway suffered a season-ending knee injury.
"Yeah, and that's the guy we traded two first-round picks for," says Campo, who deservedly gets the blame for having Galloway on the field with two minutes remaining. "He was our bell cow. Not having him on the field was certainly a factor."
Having lost Aikman to a career-ending concussion late in '00, Campo was saddled with forgettable quarterbacks such as Randall Cunningham, Ryan Leaf, Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Clint Stoerner and Anthony Wright. He knows the drill: Bill Belichick flops and gets fired in Cleveland, lands Tom Brady in New England and suddenly becomes a genius. Campo loses Aikman, and he's branded a loser.
"Boy," says Campo, reciting his former quarterback problems, "that's tough right there."
But in '01 he made things tougher on himself with a controversial call that some believe doomed and eventually framed his career. Trailing the Denver Broncos on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys scored a touchdown to pull within 26-16 in the fourth quarter. Clearly consternated by whether to go for one point or two, Campo called a timeout, only to incorrectly kick the extra point. Dallas scored again late but wound up losing, 26-24.
We burned the coach at the stake.
"I remember it," Campo says, "but I must not stress on it too much, because I don't recall the details."
In '02 Campo was thrust into the vortex of America's Team when HBO invaded the team's training camp in San Antonio. Surely you remember the six-episode summer soap opera?
Assistants Mike Zimmer and Bill Bates debating the speed of a grouse at Campo's house...Being tantalized by the promise of Ken-Yon Rambo, Duane Goodrich, Woody Danzler and Bruce Coslet...Hearing owner Jerry Jones say of Carter and Hutchinson: "We have a chance to come out of this thing with two Pro Bowl quarterbacks"...Campo belting karaoke, making his players punch a time clock, proclaiming "we'll be able to run the ball on anybody once we get Kelvin Garmon healthy" and getting shoved from the spotlight by venomous cheerleader choreographer Judy Trammell.
"I pop in the tape every once a while," Campo admits.
That season's 5-11 began horribly, with a humiliating loss to the expansion Houston Texans.
"That one," Campo says, "still stings."
Fired by Jones but not stripped of his acumen, Campo caught on with former coaching buddy Butch Davis in Cleveland for two years and three more with former pupil Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. And now, the most awkward homecoming since Gabe Kaplan's return to Buchanan High.
"A little strange, sure. In my wildest dreams I never thought I'd be back," Campo says. "But I was here 14 years. I'll always be a Cowboy."
Back where it all began, he's in charge of a secondary that lost Jacques Reeves and Keith Davis in free agency. That may or may not include Pacman Jones. That, if the season started today, would include on depth chart guys such as Alan Ball and Evan Oglesby. That desperately needs Williams to again be an elite, impact player.
"Hopefully I'll be the old tutor that reminds him of the glory days," says Campo, who drafted Williams eighth overall in '02. "I think he'll respect what I have to say."
Campo wants another sip of success. It's why he gave up Ponte Vedra, Florida (where he lived on TPC Sawgrass next to pro golfers Frank Lickliter and Len Mattice), for cookie-cutter Coppell.
"Coming back has been like a shot of B-12 because this is where the good times happened," Campo says. "You get your butt kicked so often that, at some point, you start to question what you know. But as good as I feel now I could do this another 10 years."
Maybe—who knows?—even again someday as a head coach.
"I guess you never want to close that door," says Campo, squirming in his seat. "It's an ego thing, I admit it. In the back of my mind I'll always know that I didn't get it done the first time. I'd like another chance."
Considering Jason Garrett's apparent apprenticeship and Campo's dubious distinctions, it's unlikely.
But, then again, we never thought Dave Campo would be back in Dallas.
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