VANCOUVER — Rick Campbell helped turn the Ottawa Redblacks from a struggling CFL expansion team into a Grey Cup champion. The B.C. Lions are hoping he can do the same thing in Vancouver.
The Lions introduced Campbell as the 27th coach in club history on Monday at a press conference at BC Place. He will be tasked with turning around a team that finished 5-13 last season under DeVone Claybrooks, who was fired in early November after just one year at the helm.
“The CFL’s a league where you make one or two tweaks to things, you add a player or two or a coach or two, and all of a sudden you find a way to win those close games and things can go in the right direction,” Campbell said. “I know how hard it is to win in this league. You have to do things right and surround yourself with good people and I think the sky’s the limit around here.
“Nowhere to go but up.”
Campbell is coming off six mostly successful seasons as the head coach in Ottawa, which included the Redblacks’ dramatic turnaround from a struggling 2-16 expansion team to a club that advanced to three Grey Cup games in four years, winning it all in 2016 with a 39-33 overtime victory over the favoured Calgary Stampeders.
But he parted ways with Ottawa after a 2019 season that saw the Redblacks lose several key players to free agency, then finish with a league-worst 3-15 record.
“My best way to phrase it is I didn’t think the status quo was best for the Redblacks going forward, and decisions were made from there,” Campbell said at the time of his departure.
Unlike in Ottawa, Campbell won’t be starting from scratch in B.C. The team has a top quarterback in Mike Reilly, who heads an offence including a pair of 2019 all-stars in receiver Bryan Burnham and kicker Sergio Castillo.
Yet despite adding Reilly as a high-profile free agent last season, the Lions struggled mightily under Claybrooks, a former star defensive co-ordinator with the Stampeders.
The Lions were 1-10 before winning four straight — mostly against East Division lightweights, including back-to-back wins against Campbell’s Redblacks — to make their record more respectable. All of the Lions’ five wins came against the East, and only one came against an opponent with a winning record, a 25-23 squeaker over visiting Montreal on Sept. 28.
Working with Reilly, a fellow native of Washington State, was a draw for Campbell. The Redblacks lost starting quarterback Trevor Harris as a free agent to Edmonton before the 2019 season, and Campbell was saddled with a dire situation under centre that saw unproven William Arndt take over late in the campaign from the ineffective duo of Dominique Davis and Jonathon Jennings.
“I know (Reilly is) all in on the B.C. thing,” Campbell said. “I know he had to make a move here too and I know he’s in it for the long haul. He’s in it for something big and something special, and that’s my philosophy too.”
B.C. general manager Ed Hervey is on his third head coach in as many seasons, after Lions icon Wally Buono retired after the 2018 season and Claybrooks’ recent dismissal. He said Monday he has a level of trust with Campbell, who was a defensive co-ordinator and special-teams co-ordinator in Edmonton while Hervey was a receiver with the Eskimos.
“A Rick Campbell doesn’t come around too often,” Hervey said. “Winning is important to us both, and staying consistent with doing the things we say we’re going to do. I know that’s going to be the case with Rick. I know I don’t have to worry about whether Rick’s going to tell me A is going to happen, and I look up and D is happening.”
The Lions are coming off a third straight season without a winning record, and have won just one playoff game since their 2011 Grey Cup champion season. They also have a tenuous ownership situation with longtime owner David Braley trying to sell the club, and they have had difficulty drawing fans to BC Place.
Campbell said he plans to live in Vancouver full-time and engage with the community in an effort to promote the Lions.
“I’m a CFL lifer,” said Campbell, whose father Hugh coached the Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup titles from 1978-82. “So I get the big picture that we all need to be in on doing whatever we can to help the team.”