As Peter Campbell walks up the court along his Wilfrid Laurier men’s basketball team bench he talks to the referee. His arms folded and left hand resting just under his chin, he’s announcing his displeasure with calls against his team in the game’s first five minutes.
When a foul is called against his starting guard – Laurier’s fourth in three minutes – Campbell’s arms widen out in disbelief, his displeasure grows and he gives the referee an earful earning him a technical as he turns his back waving his hand at the referee’s decision.
After 34 years coaching university basketball, he’d be excused for losing passion with an impending retirement at the end of the season. But after a few minutes, it’s clear no one’s more into the game as him.
With each loose ball in their game bouncing off the rim into the air, his voice can distinctly be heard yelling throughout Western University’s Alumni Hall at his players, “rebound!”. When his team grabs the ball and starts on a fast break, Campbell’s voice breaks the air with “go, go!” signalling the team’s focus on a fast paced style rarely seen now with a greater emphasis in defensive styles. Despite the earlier technical he’s still in the ear every time the referee walks by. He’s not disrespectful, quite the opposite, as he works him for any possible advantage. With as many years in the game as he has, he knows he’s earned a few extra words and is making sure to use every last one.
During each timeout or each substitute heading into the game, he’s still trying to teach his players some little aspect of the game. As the clock nears 12 on his career, Campbell could easily hang up and have one foot out the door, but he still eyes the ball every much as he always has.
There’s few university coaches like the 69-year-old Campbell anymore.
In a time where technology, recruiting, fundraising and selling the program is almost important as drawing up plays and running practices, Campbell won’t be found on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
He’s an old school coach in every sense of the word, one that’s focused on the growth of his players on and off the court. When Laurier’s season ends, more than likely with a 15th straight playoff appearance under Campbell, it’ll be the last time the Woodstock native patrols the sideline on the court.
As a coach, Campbell’s achieved nearly everything and accomplished more than he could’ve guessed when he first became a grade school basketball coach at Oliver Stephens Public School in the 1970s.
He’s won OFSAA silver as an assistant with College Avenue Secondary School in the 1970s, made seven Canadian national university appearances, including two Ontario titles when coaching Laurentian, went to three women’s collegiate finals in the 1980s, won six Ontario coach of the year awards, was a Canadian coach of the year twice and won international medals coaching both men’s and women’s teams. He’s got his own coaching tree, with five head coaches at the CIS level and many more assistants, and is one of only two coaches to win coach of the year at both the Canadian university and college level.
While the longtime coach wants every game to end in a win, he ultimately knows the sport at the Canadian level leaves few players with post-university prospects, further emphasizing the importance of the degree.
“He wants us to be better basketball players when we leave here, but he also wants us to be better people,” fifth-year guard Will Coulthard, whose mom was one of Campbell’s first players on Oliver Stephens grade school team, said. “He likes to recruit good guys since he doesn’t want guy that’ll be problems on the court of the classroom.”
“He recruits more a person than a player. It can bite him in the ass when he gets mad at us for not being loud or tough since we’re all nice to each other,” fourth-year guard Garrison Thomas said as he and Coulthard laugh. “He instills the competitive drive in us, but he knows if we’re willing to learn in the classroom, we’re willing to better ourselves.”
Born in England, Campbell moved to Woodstock at six attending the long since gone Victoria School and going to Woodstock Collegiate Institute for high school. After getting his teacher’s degree in Ottawa, he came back to Woodstock and taught at Oliver Stephens and CASS before becoming a vice principal in Thamesford then Tillsonburg at Elliot Fairbairn Public School.
After more than a decade of teaching and coaching, high school basketball, Fanshawe College’s women’s team and time as an assistant with Western’s men’s team, he planned to return to school for his masters. It wasn’t until friend and Laurentian athletic director Peter Ennis asked Campbell to temporarily take over Laurentian University’s men’s team for the 1985-86 season as they found a permanent head coach.
The one year turned into 15 at the Sudbury school then 16 more with Wilfrid Laurier starting in 2001.
“No chance. No chance I ever thought this was possible. If Peter (Ennis) hadn’t been at Laurentian and we didn’t have a friendship, it would’ve never happened,” Campbell said remembering his start at the university level. My mother just looked at me when I said I was going to coach for a year instead of teach and said, ‘I was so proud of you when you had a job, now what am I going to tell people?’
“I was a principal in Tillsonburg with 120 student and nobody said that guy’s going to coach university basketball, let alone for 30 years,” he added. “I was lucky enough to get in a position thanks to a whole bunch of really good players.
Campbell joined Laurier in 2001 after his Laurentian team won the Ontario championship. An offer of a new challenge, a narrowing of his responsibilities to just basketball rather than all of the school’s athletics and being closer to family brought him to Kitchener-Waterloo.
“We wanted to remake our program and when we got Peter it was a clear sign we were serious,” Laurier director of athletics Peter Baxter said in a phone interview. “He’d come from successful Laurentian teams that were some of the best in the country and he turned our reputation around quickly.
“We hadn’t been a strong program in men’s basketball for almost 30 years and he managed to put Laurier basketball back on the map while never losing focus on developing the student-athlete academically and athletically,” Baxter added.
For Campbell, his ability to pump out quality teams is almost as noted as his personality.
Spectators rarely forget witnessing a Campbell coached game. Canadian Interuniversity Sports might not keep track of who holds the record for most technical fouls, but if they did Campbell’s name would likely be at the top.
“He’s a great coach and a great character,” University of Guelph men’s coach and Tillsonburg born Chris O’Rourke, who’s known Campbell for 30 years, said. “We’d have league coaching meetings, and he never held back.
“On the court, it was the same. He was always one play away from getting a technical but that’s what we wanted,” O’Rourke said smiling. “When you coached against him, you had to be on your toes.”
Few people in a gym could miss when Campbell’s booming voice showed signs of displeasure at either a referee or one of his players. He rarely held back, his face growing more red and exasperated, but players knew where he stood at all times.
“I was a freshman with him at Laurentian and we thought he was crazy,” Shawn Swords, who played for Campbell and is now Laurentian’s longtime women’s head coach, said laughing. “We’d be looking around wondering what we got ourselves into and the veteran guys would tell us we hadn’t seen anything.
“I remember going to a tournament at Concordia in Montreal and he took two technicals in the first few minutes, which meant he was gone. He just turned around and said, ‘we’re out of here,’. We told him it was just him who had to leave and he took us all to the locker room,” Swords said laughing. “The refs and tournament head had to come down and work a deal where he could watch from the stands but he couldn’t coach. Of course, once play starts he’s coaching us from the fifth row on the opposite side of the gym and giving it to the refs.”
In Canadian university basketball circles, it seems everyone has a Campbell story. Most of them revolve around referees with the majority ending in a technical. For his part, Campbell takes it in stride, smiling when asked of the Concordia tournament in Montreal.
“People still tell stories of what a rotten guy I was, but it’s fun,” he said. “I never try to take myself too seriously. I build relationships with the kids and they’ve kept me going all these years.”
When Campbell leaves the sidelines for the final time, it’ll mark a change in Ontario university basketball.
As the past generation of coaches leave the court, a more cutthroat style is taking over with it turning into a more results orientated business.
For Campbell though, he’s leaving on his terms. In a perfect world, he says he would’ve simply told everyone at the end of his final game to avoid a retirement tour as he passes through each school one last time. It was only when friend and Laurier athletic head Peter Baxter asked him to announce it to drum up more attention for the available job that Campbell conceded.
The angry coach may only show his side when he’s at practice or in game situations, but outside of that time a patience and interest in people is seen.
Following an interview with a reporter, two people are patiently waiting for a few minutes of his time. As he walks down from the stands to his team’s dressing room, every other person seems to know who he is and wishes him luck. It’s an away game at Western, but past players more than a decade removed still turn out at nearly every road game to say one last goodbye.
“It happens a lot, having an old school coach. I call him a guru because everyone knows him or has come across him,” Laurier guard Garrison Thomas said. “He’s affected a lot of people. He’s made me a better person. You have to grow up quickly on his team’s… He’s taught us a lot of how to be better people.”
“Well, yeah. If you can be yelled at as much as he yells at us you can put up with anything in the work place,” Laurier guard Will Coulthard says, following up on Thomas’ answer.
As Coulthard and Thomas laugh, Campbell’s voice can be heard down the hallway as he yells over to Thomas and Coulthard.
“Uh, oh. Here I am. Now you’ve got to say something nice about me, Garrison,” Campbell says with a smile.
“Don’t worry. I’ll post it on Twitter for you to see later,” Thomas tells Campbell, who sighs and tells Thomas he’ll remember that once they start practice in two days.
He’s won championships, led two programs and coached generations of families. But still, it’s the off court accomplishments he readily lists off when asked of his top coaching memories.
“When I came into the CIS, schooling was the most important thing. It’s nice to win, but you get the same accomplishment when a guy becomes an accountant or a lawyer or anything else,” Campbell said. “At the end of the day, basketball’s a sport. When your guys go on to do something with their lives and they’re happy doing it, I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.”
When Campbell leaves the Laurier court one last time, another piece of Canadian basketball will exit with him. As the second longest tenured coach – next to St. Fx’s Steve Konchalski in his 41st year – a piece of the OUA will go with him.
Call it a misty eyed look at another part of our present being moved into the past, but when Campbell finishes his career the wood floors and opposing benches in gyms across Ontario universities won’t be the same.