There's something going on in Detroit.
It's no secret anymore. Even non-football fans have picked up on the unmistakable drumbeat emanating from the Motor City over the past few months.
The Detroit Lions are in the process of breaking their own records of futility. This weekend, they roar into San Francisco to take on the one-seeded 49ers with a chance to get their ticket punched for the Super Bowl.
Did anyone predict this? Really?
Thanks to a determined coach (more on him later), most observers knew this team would be better, more competitive, with a chance to win their division. But the Super Bowl in 2024? Being kind, a longshot?
But the signs have been there all along since Dan Campbell took over as head coach in 2022. His “acceptance speech” is now legendary. “Biting kneecaps” has become part of Campbell's narrative. It's funny, too, unless you're facing the Lions.
I have been saying this to anyone who has asked me once the Lions made their way into the playoffs – the last team any of the others wants to play is these guys. Their spirit, their fire, their focus, their determination.
That's the word. It's become part of the Detroit mantra, symbolizing an attitude loaded with heart, resilience, and yeah, a bit of a shoulder chip. Those “Detroit vs. Everybody” shirts speak volumes (yes, Omaha, San Diego, Orlando – they started here) about this town, its history, and its ability to get back on its feet.
Dan Campbell realized all that when he took the always-thankless job of leading a team famous for its futility, and the occasional superstar who either left or retired early often out of frustration.
As Free Press writer Jeff Seidel explained it last week, “Grit is the DNA of this team.” While “grit” is a great slogan, descriptor, keyword, it explains how the Lions have been propelled all season long by a coach on a mission.
Never have I seen a head coach or program director for that matter so define a team (or staff). It is a reminder for those of us in hiring situations that while the resumé of an applicant matters, it is her heart that matters more.
No other team was looking for Dan Campbell when the Lions brought him in to try to turn this thing around. But in another off season where teams are already firing head coaches and interviewing replacements, they should be looking for a leader who exudes these hard-won qualities.
What is grit? Here's Dan Campbell's explanation:
“It's what we're about, and it's what we'll always be about above everything else. If you don't have that and you don't have intestinal fortitude or mental toughness, resiliency about you, then it's – you're not going to be able to play here.”
So you bring in players and staff who have it – or at least signs of it – and you build your team from there.
If you're good – and a little lucky – you start to rack up wins. And then the contagious component of grit kicks in. When fans figure it out, the lift is incredible. I don't know whether this map of the U.S. Lori Lewis sent me yesterday is accurate. I'm sure it doesn't have a margin of error or sample size attached to it.
But anybody even remotely following this team who's tuned into its coach smiles and nods their head when they see it:
A map of who America is rooting for in the NFC Championship: pic.twitter.com/ltXuEhmszH
— 𝘾𝙤𝙬𝙗𝙤𝙮𝙨 𝘿𝙪𝙗𝙨 (@CowboysDubs) January 22, 2024
“America's Team?” That used to be the Cowboys. This year, it's the Lions. Not SOL (same old Lions), but the team with grit.
I've had the pleasure of working with a handful of PDs (I can count 'em on one hand) cut from the same cloth as Dan Campbell. Don't be confused by the guys who stand on desks and yell – they're not even close.
It's the leaders with a vision, with heart, who don't ask their staffers to do anything they wouldn't do that stand out. They don't always schedule the best music logs or write the best memos to corporate. But they're attuned to what it takes to win, what it means to have a vision, how you motivate talent to walk through walls.
You don't develop grit from a research study, and you don't manufacture it by putting it up on billboards. It is organic, authentic, and real. And that's why it's such a rarity whether you own an NFL team or a radio station.
When you've got it in your leader, you need to support her with every resource you can muster because even in these tough times where nothing comes easy, your manager with grit needs the support of the organization.
Dan Campbell credits his bosses, his staff, and the team for his success. You may not know who Brad, Sheila, Rod, Chris and the other people are – no matter. It's about the organization – the GM, the owner, the assistants – and how they support the mission, the mothership. It's not false modesty. It's the truth:
Of course, there are rock n' roll roots to Campbell's ascension, his attitude, and what matters to him. Metallica is the band that symbolizes grit, resilience, and of course, standing the test of time. It's the way we image great radio stations like WRIF, WMMR, KISW, KLOS, KUPD that are a rare fraternity of radio survivors who have found a way to win – over decades – no matter the odds or the circumstance.
Rock n' roll is often the soundtrack heard on athletic fields, courts, and diamonds for all the right reasons. It embodies grit, whether it's blue collar factory workers stamping out F-150 trucks or radio professionals connecting with their market.
— 101 WRIF Detroit (@101wrif) January 21, 2024
Make no mistake about it – Campbell's accomplishments with the Lions – no matter what happens this weekend at Levi's Stadium – has been to connect his team with the local community. That's right – the Lions aren't just live, they're local, and that's a big reason why people who don't know the difference between the red zone and a red tag sale or think that an audible is a talking book service will be pulling for the Honolulu blue & silver on Sunday.
What's going on in Detroit this year? Well, it's frigid, but that's January. There's no sense in complaining. As my brother Paul reminds me often, “That's why we live here.”
North of 50,000 have bought a ticket and will jam into Ford Field in downtown Detroit this Sunday even though the team is on the road. They plan to watch the game on the big screen TVs at the stadium rather than sit in their living rooms and dens. They want to feel the force and spirit of this community.
What's going on is what those of us who live here know so well. This place is all about taking a shot – even a cheap one – and getting back up. It's about the people around you, your fans, your audience, your city, your region. It is about having each other's backs (and not just saying you do).
It's about heart, it's about soul. It's about having a shared mission, a goal that everyone in the organization understands whether it's the morning show, the traffic manager, or the receptionist.
But ultimately, it's about that leader at the top of the organizational heap, his or her vision, and plan for how it's going to get done. No excuses, no finger pointing, no blaming the officials, the economy, the weather, the gods.