To sum up the life of Bill Campbell, who died peacefully in his sleep this week with his family by his side, is a daunting and fundamentally impossible task—Bill’s life and accomplishments were so vast and varied that even those who knew him best were only lucky enough to have witnessed a portion of them. Tributes to his astonishing legacy in Silicon Valley have already been pouring in, and rightly so. It is a legacy that is difficult to fathom. He had a hand in almost every consequential technology company of the past 30 years, either through direct relationship or through his coaching and mentoring of the company’s key players, (and, in the case of Intuit, Claris, and Go, through his own tenure as CEO). From Apple to Google to Amazon to Twitter, from his mentorship of the iconic venture capitalists who helped shape the Valley to his under-the-radar involvement with legions of nerdy and unsexy companies barely known outside the tech community, but whose presences and innovations changed the technology landscape—Bill was always there, all smiles and hugs, his essence embedded in the company’s DNA, pushing everyone involved to be better managers, more creative, and, most importantly, better people, to be the most authentic and truest versions of themselves. He is probably best known for being “the Coach,” a mentor to legends; as the legends themselves would be the first to tell you, he was so much more than the sum of those he advised. He was himself a legend. He was the legend.|
For those who knew Bill, of course, a synopsis of his career in tech only scratches the surface. At Eastman Kodak in the early 80s, before he ever got to Silicon Valley, he was a marketing pioneer whose innovations became best practices across a whole range of businesses. His philanthropy poured millions of dollars into education and youth projects in his hometown of Homestead, PA; into various schools and charitable organizations in the Bay Area; and into his beloved alma mater Columbia University, where he played and coached football, and was ultimately named Chairman of the Board of Trustees, one of the proudest moments of his life. As Columbia’s Chairman he helped shepherd projects that changed the face of an already great university, including its expansion into new neighborhoods and a record-breaking fundraising campaign among many other accomplishments. Amazingly, Columbia wasn’t the only university on which Bill had an outsized impact. He endowed the athletic director position at Boston College, where in the late 60s and early 70s he’d been the football team’s defensive coordinator, and he was integrally involved with Stanford University, consulting on everything from the university’s relationship to Silicon Valley to the management of its hospital and medical school to all aspects of the athletics department, especially the football program. He also donated both time and resources to the United States Naval Academy in memory of his brother Jim, who had been a standout football and lacrosse player at the Academy and later a war hero. He was a longtime National Football Foundation Board Member; the award given annually to the nation’s top football scholar athlete, the so-called “Academic Heisman,” is named the William V. Campbell Trophy. He advised businesses and organizations and people that had nothing to do with tech or sports or education, usually guiding them to successes, but not always. Not every company Bill touched turned to gold; not every business Bill ran turned to gold—he could be animated and even gleeful discussing his (rare) failures because he felt that in those failures were lessons that could and would lead to later triumphs for those he coached. Invariably, of course, he was correct. Any one of these incredibly varied achievements would be enough to overflow multiple obituaries; the fact that they can be attributed to a single person is quasi unbelievable. And even they, in all their listed glory, don’t really come all that close to capturing the heart of who Bill Campbell really was.
He was a man of beautiful and almost impossible contrasts. He was profane in a way that was unacceptable in many barrooms, let alone in church, and a devout Catholic who rarely missed Sunday Mass. A workaholic who pushed himself and those around him beyond their natural and professional limits, and a devoted husband and quite possibly the best father in history, who never, no matter what momentous occasion was on his schedule, missed an important event in his kids’ lives. Famously honest and blunt (and sometimes even harsh), he would never hesitate to let you know when you were “messing up”; but when you were messing up, he’d be the guy who’d answer your call at all hours of the night and, with inspiring patience and empathy, talk you through whatever mistakes you had made and how you were supposed to rectify them. He preached teamwork and compassion and love. In many ways he seemed a throwback to a different era, a manly man, a jock’s jock, gruff, aggressive, macho, old-fashioned, and yet he was comfortable and even thrived around dorks, dweebs, outcasts of all types—a “nerd whisperer,” as one journalist put it. His identity as “the Coach” was derived from both his general football-coaching demeanor and his time as an actual football coach, with all the good and bad that that particular stereotype entails; he was a passionate advocate for the advancement of women in Silicon Valley and for the LGBT community.
Most of all, he was blessed with the gift of humility. He deflected credit and shunned publicity, rarely if ever granting interviews and often refusing to accept awards until he was nagged into submission and then refusing to accept them again. And yet his life was so full and impactful and so well lived that to not have honored him and made public what he might have preferred remain private would have bordered on the criminal. Over the course of his life he received several prestigious awards, including Columbia University’s Alexander Hamilton Medal, whose past recipients include media tycoons, Nobel Laureates, and artistic luminaries, and the National Football Foundation Gold Medal, which has been awarded to multiple U.S. Presidents, Jackie Robinson, and various other heroes and household names. But Bill was never happier than at the annual 8th grade graduation at Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA, when, year after year, a stream of students, boys and girls alike, would offer remembrances and speak movingly of by far their most meaningful experience at the school: getting the chance to play flag football for Coach Campbell, absorbing the lessons he taught them, lessons that were, perhaps not surprisingly, essentially identical to the lessons Coach had imparted to those he’d coached in the adult world. Teamwork. Structure. Integrity. Accountability. Passion. Hard work. Empathy. Love. Coach Campbell hadn’t condescended to these kids. He’d treated them the same as he’d treated famous tech visionaries (colorful language included) and the kids had responded by reaching into themselves and finding effort and fortitude they hadn’t known existed. Bill loved these moments. His humble and often self-deprecating façade would crack a bit and tears would come to his eyes as he recounted with amazement what the kids had said about him. Those who knew him well were always amazed that he was amazed. Of course the kids would feel like that, we’d tell him. It’s what all of us always feel when we’re in your presence.
There were other moments like this, the moments he loved. He’d feel a grudging satisfaction when some lofty publication or organization made note of his various charitable contributions, but what he really loved was traveling back to Homestead, PA, his beloved and often struggling hometown, which he did frequently. With old local buddies and various other friends he’d sit in Duke’s Upper Deck Café, his favorite local bar, throwing back Bud Lights, reminiscing about the trouble they used to get into in high school, laughing and swearing and slapping each other’s backs. And in town he might come across a person he’d never met, a mother who would thank him for funding the school her son attended, a father expressing gratitude for the gym his daughter played basketball in or the after-school program that was helping to keep his son out of trouble. He loved these hidden moments more than anything.
People in Homestead have said, and will probably say forever, that Bill Campbell never once forgot his roots. It’s a refrain you hear often about Bill, from other circles as well. Bill wasn’t always wealthy. Well into his forties he often struggled with money. If anything he gave more money back then as a percentage of income than he did later on—which is saying something—often forgoing personal comfort to donate to causes he cared about. His heart was never far from his teammates from the 1961 Columbia Football team, still the only Columbia team to win the Ivy League Championship. These guys knew him long before he became Bill Campbell—they remember him when he was just some humble kid from a steel town, son of a teacher, coarse and a little naïve. To a man they’ll tell you he never changed in any of the ways that matter. As would his buddies from Old Blue Rugby in New York. As would those who knew him when he was making the difficult transition from coaching into business. To the end he was still just colorful old football coach.” He remained fiercely intelligent and tough-minded, fighting cancer hard to the bitter end. If anything by the end he was even more big-hearted and full of love.
A final refrain about Bill, one that’s been constantly noted in the many moving tributes to his life, one that rings truer than any and is unbearably painful to think about now that he’s gone: Everyone who knew Bill thought of him as their best friend. Bill was a people person. He oozed charisma. He was quick with a witty comment and impossible not to like. When he talked to you he made you feel like you were the only person that mattered. It might be tempting for those who didn’t know Bill that well to conclude that all this was just some act, a skill he’d been born with or acquired with hard work. After all, how could it not be? How could one person be so overflowing with joy, with the amount of joy and love requisite for connection with such a staggering number of people on such a profound level? Obviously it had to be an act. It wasn’t. He really did love people the way they loved him. New friends were made wherever he went. Often they were baristas, waiters, and, let’s face it, bartenders, people who didn’t know initially who he was and in some cases never would. He had friends in high and low places and everywhere in between. It was infectious. He was a uniter, he imparted his worldview onto his friends and mixed his groups of friends together, so that friends in California became close with friends from Homestead and New York and elsewhere; wealthy friends grew to love friends who were less well off and vice versa; tech friends, academic friends, and football friends were molded into one great big Bill Campbell group. Bill Campbell was an amazing personal success story and he certainly believed in competition and advancement, but he never saw wealth or social status or anything artificial when judging the merits of people. He sought in others the same qualities he himself so fully embodied—integrity, honesty, humor, selflessness, toughness and kindness in equal measure, and, above all, the ability to open yourself up and love. Bill’s friends, and there were many, by definition embodied these values; he wouldn’t have been friends with them if they hadn’t. He wouldn’t have loved them with the fierceness that he did. Bill Campbell really did believe that everyone who lived by these values, friend or not, was fundamentally the same, of equal goodness, of equal worth. On this last point, sadly, he was somewhat mistaken. Indeed when you get down to it most people are essentially the same, most of their differences are artificial. But Bill Campbell was better than everyone. And all of his friends are infinitely better off for having known him.
William Vincent Campbell Jr., who was born August 31, 1940 in Homestead, PA and who died April 18, 2016 in Palo Alto, CA, is survived by his wife Eileen Bocci Campbell, his two children Jim and Maggie, and his three step children Kevin, Matthew, and Kate Bocci. A Funeral Mass will be held Monday, April 25th at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, CA at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, the family, per Bill’s wishes, requests that donations be made to the
, or, for the benefit of the community of Homestead, PA, to the Campbell Education and Community Foundation.
Crippen & Flynn Woodside Chapel
Redwood City, CA
Published in The Boston Globe from Apr. 23 to Apr. 25, 2016