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Dan Campbell moves past a battered legacy as USA Boxing coach

He presided over the worst showing by a U.S. Olympic team, a solitary bronze medal at the Beijing Games, but remains interested in the program and chooses to not really swing back at critics.

May 02, 2012|By Kevin Baxter

Many days, Dan Campbell can be found standing, arms folded, in the center of the noisy boxing gym at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. The smack of leather gloves against raw flesh has been the soundtrack of his career, so even though Campbell retired nearly four years ago, he still shows up to watch the fighters train.

"It took me awhile to stop missing the gym," Campbell, who turns 69 this month, said by phone. "Unless the girls and guys come and ask something, I don't give any kind of advice."

Those questions don't come as often as he would like since Campbell, a former director of coaching for USA Boxing, presided over the worst performance by a U.S. boxing team in Olympic history at the 2008 Beijing Games. Expected to compete for as many as five medals in China, the Americans got only one, a bronze by heavyweight Deontay Wilder.

Bantamweight Gary Russell Jr., a medal hopeful, never got into the ring after failing to make weight. Light-welterweight Javier Molina did fight, although he probably shouldn't have after doctors found a small hole in his right lung. Unable to breathe, he was predictably routed.

But the low point may have come before Luis Yanez's second-round bout when the light-flyweight held one gloved hand over his ear in what the boxer said was an obscene gesture directed at Campbell.

"It was a disaster," middleweight Shawn Estrada said.

And it was Campbell, who had been given the task of remaking U.S. boxing, who took the fall for it.

"There's some things I would have done differently," he said. "It goes along with the territory. When I signed on to do those things, I understood that anything that went wrong was going to be blamed on me. I was the national team coach."

There are plenty of people who still fault Campbell. They blame him for a lack of discipline that even Campbell concedes led to "altercations" away from the ring. They blame him for a one-size-fits-all training regimen that had heavyweights and flyweights working out the same way. And they especially blame him for a yearlong residency program that sequestered the boxers in Colorado Springs, away from family, friends and the personal coaches who were instrumental in helping them make the Olympic team in the first place.

All of that led to the brief Boxer Rebellion, in which Yanez and Molina went AWOL shortly before the Games. Others who stayed in camp quietly supported the walkout.

"All of the fighters, at one time or another, got into arguments with trainers," said Robert Luna, who coached Molina from second grade to the Olympic team and was especially critical of the USA Boxing staff.

"You've got one guy that should never have been in that position, who got his friends involved," he said of Campbell. "A guy that doesn't really have any type of real experience coaching at that elite level but now all of a sudden he's in charge of an Olympic team.

"And he just couldn't handle it."

Campbell, who defended the residency program then, says it wasn't his idea. He says he wanted the Olympians to stay with their personal coaches while using the residency program to prepare up-and-coming fighters for future international competitions.

But he accepted his orders unquestioningly, the same way he accepted orders while on active duty in the Vietnam War.

"When I signed on, that was part of the job description. That I would implement and run a residency program," said Campbell, who resurrected an idea that had been dormant for more than two decades. "So that's what I did. That whole thing all of a sudden became my idea. And it was not my idea."

What is not in dispute, however, is that Campbell was probably doomed for failure no matter what he did. Five years before he was appointed the Olympic coach, the United States Olympic Committee had put the boxing program on probation because of problems related to the organization's managerial capability and governance structure, a probation that wasn't lifted until after the Beijing Games. By then, USA Boxing was on its seventh chief executive in six years and was well on its way toward a record debt that topped $1.7 million by the end of 2009.

The challenge of turning that around has fallen to Anthony Bartkowski, an enthusiastic career administrator who took over as the organization's executive president 15 months ago, promising to return the U.S. to the top of the boxing medal table by 2020.

To do that, he says, he'll need to do more than just break from the past. He'll have to learn from it as well.

"You have to look at the past to understand what to do correctly moving into the future," said Bartkowski, who has cut the program's deficit by nearly 80%. "What did go wrong? How can we avoid that from happening again?"

For starters, personal coaches have been welcomed back to the team's training camps, the most recent of which concluded last week in Carson ahead of Friday's final Olympic qualifying event in Brazil.

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